The Tembisan: A look at the Vusimuzi reblocking process

The Tembisan

Vusimuzi informal settlement was founded in 1995 and it has been seriously neglected by the government for years

A car drives past a reblocked street which is smaller than promised.

What started as a promise to deliver Vusimuzi shack dwellers from hardship, soon escalated into modern-day apartheid forced-removal tactics. In 2017, the City of Ekurhuleni came up with the reblocking programme, which came with the promise of a better life and development for residents living in informal settlements, such as Vusimuzi and Emandleni, located on the boarder of Wattville and Actonville in Germiston. 

Even though the city has now and again retaliated, the fact that reblocking is a programme aimed at ensuring all informal settlement residents enjoy dignified habitation with decent sanitation, clean running water, better roads and electricity supply, residents are singing a different tune and are accusing the city of forcing the reblocking programme on them.

This programme has caused so much commotion and conflict between the residents of Vusimuzi and has led to people’s houses being demolished, apparently without their consent. To find out what is causing the commotion, we spent a day in Vusimuzi to get first-hand information and experience.

The background

Vusimuzi informal settlement was founded in 1995 and it has been seriously neglected by the government for years. For more than 20 years, local residents have been living without basic services. There have been no electricity supply, clean running water or a sewer system. The settlement consists of more than 1 000 shacks, with more than five people living in each shack.

Behind the reblocking process

What many people and the rest of the world don’t know is that reblocking actually means demolishing. This is how Beauty Malebe summed it up when asked about this programme: “This thing is a serious problem. Those in higher places have called on the metro police and Red Ants to come and forcefully demolish our houses.

“What hurts us the most is that some of the residents have, over the years, built their own decent houses, but when authorities come, they just demolish those structures without thinking twice. After demolishing our houses, authorities don’t even bother to come back and see the mess and situation we are left in. And after everything, there is no compensation for our demolished houses and belongings damaged during this process.”

She said reblocking involved remeasuring of people’s stands from 15m x 15m into 9m x 10m. We visited a demolished four-roomed house belonging to Magdeline Tembe, a mother of eight children. Here, The Tembisan was met by rubble and many sad faces trying to pick up the pieces.

“As you can see, this was a four-roomed house and even though it wasn’t big enough, it accommodated me and my children. But now that it has been demolished and we are left with one room, it simply means I have to share this room with all these children. I have to bath in front of my boys and use this space as a bathroom and kitchen. This is honestly insane,” she commented.

Just a stone’s throw away from this house is another demolished house belonging to Nokwazi Mbatha, whose bedroom wall, which was demolished, exposes her and her family to the cold.

In trying to fix this, Mbatha used her old corrugated iron to set up a temporary wall. We also visited a number of already reblocked households; residents complained of space and privacy. Instead of clean running water, we were met with dirty and reeking water running in between reblocked houses, small streets that are closer to the yards.

“Since we were reblocked and our stands cut in half to accommodate three more stands, our children are subjected to hearing what the neighbours are doing. I will put it plainly, when our neighbours are having sex, our children hear everything because our shacks are so close to each other. It is really embarrassing to have to explain to your little children what is happening,” said Sphiwe Ndzimande.

Sphiwe Ndzimande and Melita Ngcobo show the space between the reblocked stands.

Death threats

Ma Hlatshwayo is one of many residents who have since come forward with allegations of death threats, intimidation and assault for speaking out against reblocking.

“All those who are against this process are intimidated and threatened. I am one of those who have received death threats just because I am against reblocking. Sadly, we can’t go to the police because every time we went there, we were turned away without any assistance. We are speaking to the media. Should anything happen to us, the world would know the truth: that the police failed to protect us,” she said.

Another resident, Jeckina Lamola, told this paper that she used to serve in the reblocking committee until she realised that this programme actually meant suppressing people and driving them back into slavery.

“I became part of the residents advocating against this programme, and for this I have been threatened. People have actually come forward and advised us to lie low because we are wanted for speaking out against reblocking. But we can never keep quiet when we are treated like animals,” she said.

Nelly Orapeleng also claimed to have received death threats for fighting against the reblocking process.

“We have been labelled as instigators of protests and leaders against reblocking. I am happy that the media has captured these allegations so that there is proof should something happen to us,” said Orapeleng.

The spaces between the houses and stands.

The promise of a better life

Initially, Vusimuzi residents agreed to reblocking because they were sold castles in the sky. They were made to believe that their lives and living conditions would be much better than now. The residents claimed that they were called to a meeting on November 8, 2017, where they were promised serviced stands with title deeds, flushing toilets, electricity and better roads, but only if they agreed to the city’s reblocking programme.

“At first we agreed to this programme because we believed it brought change and development, until we learnt that through this programme the city actually intended to demolish our houses and cut our stands into smaller stands,” mentioned Khabonina Msithini. She further stated that they were promised that some of the residents would be relocated to much safer and habitable areas.

“But again, this proved to be a big fat lie as we were later told that there’s no longer land available for relocation,” she said.

The protest

In retaliation of the city’s continual reblocking programme, angry residents and sympathisers of affected stand owners took to the streets on July 1, where they barricaded all major main roads linking the area of Vusimuzi with other sections of the township.

This protest followed shortly after the city made known its intention to appeal the High Court’s ruling, stopping it from continuing with its reblocking programme in Vusimuzi. A number of protestors were attacked and badly assaulted by a group of people allegedly aligned with the ward councillor. Some of those who participated in this protest and those who are against the reblocking programme exclusively told us that they are receiving death threats.

“I just want to bring it to your attention, as the media, and make it known that our lives are under threat. And we want to make it known that we know the people behind these threats and should anything happen to us, at least the media has evidence of this,” said Veronica Mkhize.

During this protest, a man believed to be in his late 30s was stabbed in the mouth and another was said to have been hospitalised after he was allegedly assaulted and stabbed by a small group of people in favour of reblocking.

Magdelene Tembe in front of her demolished house.

The court order

On June 28, residents took their fight to the South Gauteng High Court, represented by the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI). The High Court ruled that the application and counter-application are postponed to the urgent court on July 16. It also ruled that the respondents are interdicted and restrained from demolishing any dwellings and/or carrying out any work whatsoever in terms of the reblocking policy of the respondents in the Vusimuzi informal settlement.

The revenge

The residents have vowed to target the ANC-led government where it hurts the most, the local government elections.

“We are now convinced that the ANC-led government is our modern-day oppressors, and there is only one way to deal with oppressors: through the ballot paper. If the city, which is led by the very same ANC that we voted into power, continues to demolish our houses, we will have no choice but to convince every citizen to consider voting for the opposition in the upcoming local government elections. It is possible, look at the City of Johannesburg, it’s gone and it is led by the opposition now,” threatened Enoch Sakala.

Water running in the reblocked street.

He said he was happy that the city is rolling out the reblocking programme in other areas such as Emandleni and argued that this will work in their favour to vote against the ANC government.

“This gives us an advantage to convince all Ekurhuleni communities to vote against the ANC and its modern-day apartheid tactics,” he went on.

The local government elections will take place in 2021.

Abahlali baseMjondolo’s Melita Ngcobo argued that the ruling party doesn’t care about the people’s needs.

“They are playing with us because they know we are poor and cannot afford to expose them or take them to court. They don’t care about the people, all they care about is money. But their time is coming,” said Ngcobo.