The Ones
Left Behind

As a junction for businesses from around the globe, Johannesburg is the heart of the South African economy. But along with shiny buildings and a dazzling wealth, there are still hundreds of thousands of people in constant struggle for the most basic: shelter, water, electricity.

By Byron Mutingwende, Gaius Kowene, Linda Mujuru, Nobesuthu Beya, Paulo Mendes and Ramatamo Sehoai

It is around midday at Reyashuma Village, a slum located in Marlboro industrial area in Johannesburg. Hundreds of shacks erected side-by-side, small cubicles made from corrugated iron and equipped with provisional roofs. Inside, it is sweltering hot. For Agnes Mathapo, this place means home. 

A cupboard, an ancient tube television and some buckets and bowls are squeezed into her private space: 18 square meters. "I'm going to write a book about it," the young lady and mother of one says ironically. Her story about seeking a place to live for herself and her family is a long one.

In May 2014, a group of residents from the district of Alexandra – Agnes is amongst them – decided to overtake flats that had been vacant for over a year. Their fortune only lasted for about six months. Then, the group was evicted by the police and brought to a recreational center where they had to sleep in the hallways. Little later, authorities decided to provide the people with what they call “alternative accommodation” at Reyashuma Village until proper public housing could be arranged. Mathapo and her family have stayed here ever since, sharing a handful of toilets with 130 other families. “It's against human nature, the way they brought and simply dumped us here,“ Mathapo resignedly reflects.

Just before their eviction, Agnes and her fellows sought legal assistance. Luckily, they found a woman who literally embodies the fight for housing rights in Johannesburg: Shereza Sibanda. Politically socialized within the 1976 Soweto protests, she’s been on the streets ever since, accusing public institutions and iterating politicians to forget the provision of basic services. Now in her fifties, she’s established her own organization, the Inner-City Resource Centre (ICRC), so as to create a working link between city authorities, property owners and residents. With rising rents on the private market and a lack of public housing programs, most of her clients have never had a chance to find a proper home.

Shereza Sibanda, the Founder and Director of the Inner-City Resource Centre (ICRC)

“People are tired,” Shereza sums up the situation. “When you realize that there is not a single affordable building around, then you understand that our voices are not properly heard.” She has recognized that the only way to force the government to relent is to create public attention.

In some places in the Inner City of Johannesburg, things even get worse. Patience Segami sits on a rickety chair in front of her shack, just next to the Sandringham and Sandhurst Courts in Berea. She is 55 but looks much older. Her friendly smile does not hide her frustration about this unfavorable place.

One of the dilapidated buildings in Berea called Sandhurst court, Inner City of Johannesburg.
People from different nationalities occupy this building.

In fact, just a stone’s throw away, raw sewage is flowing along the drains. Some women are cooking using makeshift stoves made out of tins. “Look how dirty is this place,” Patience says. “Our children are always sick because of the sewage stench. There is no tolerance amongst us. If we were united, you wouldn't be seeing all this,” she adds.

High criminality rates further aggravate the situation. “Every night, on weekends, we hear gunshots,”, Patience explains. But still, there seems to be no way around it. “We call this place our home because we don't have anywhere to go.”

“We call this place our home because we don't have anywhere to go.”

Shereza Sibanda, the Founder and Director of the Inner-City Resource Centre (ICRC)

The residents of the Sandringham and Sandhurst Courts and many others with them are confronted with a dilemma: Whenever they tried to engage with the city, they get told that, from a legal perspective, the City is not allowed to negotiate with illegal occupants. The reason for that goes back more than two decades: After the fall of the Apartheid regime in 1994, vast areas of Johannesburg’s Inner City had been abandoned by their owners, lacking official representatives ever since. With the City of Johannesburg not willing to give services to people illegally occupying buildings, the situation has little chance to improve.

If one is willing to believe a current marketing campaign by the City officials, Johannesburg is a “world-class African city”. Satellite areas such as Sandton with their international enterprises or so-called “development projects” as trendy Maboneng Precinct might merit this award. But in most parts of the Inner City, the slogan seems cynical. “The government should finally provide affordable housing,” Shereza, the leader of the ICRC, demands. “They should provide people with water, electricity, rubbish removals. This is what we’re trying to advocate.”

In the meanwhile, it seems crucial to ndf that the communities find a way to organize themselves and take their lives back into their own hands. Josana Court in Berea epitomizes such a story of positive change. Not long ago, the flats leaked during the rainy season. The windows were broken, there was garbage all around the place. But then, the residents decided to save money whenever they could afford it, and repaired the windows and the roof. Today, Josana Court is a neat and welcoming place. On the rooftop, the clean laundry is flapping in the wind. People are sitting on plastic chairs and chatting about current affairs. Since 2005, there’s been no running water, no electricity, no sanitation. But still, the residents made the best of it. Maybe sometimes, there is a right life in the wrong one.

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