Mercury: Unsettling homes in city graveyard

People live in shacks in graveyards with the aim of painting a negative picture of the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Housing…..

Desperate community’s strange tales
Unsettling homes in city graveyard

July 18, 2008 Edition 1


Graveyards are universally regarded as sacred sites and, once a funeral is over, people only return if there is a grave of a loved one to be visited.

However, hundreds of homeless people have set up shacks in the Sea View cemetery in Coedmore Road, Durban.

They only have one tap for the entire community and, apart from unemployment and hunger, stories of witchcraft and ghosts abound.

At first glance, the Coedmore informal settlement looks like any other shack settlement – then you see that what seem to be steps in front of the homes are actually gravestones.

When Ma Lorraine Conway opens her door, she looks straight on to an inscription of a tombstone which says: “My dear wife, Lutchmee, May 1935.”

Long-time resident Mandla Nhlangulela said people started settling there in 1981 and, although the municipality moved some of them to Welbedacht near Chatsworth, at least 350 of them were still waiting to be relocated.

Many of the residents said that, at the time the housing arrangements were made, people were given numbers which indicated their place in the queue, but money changed hands and those numbers were “stolen”.

Despite three spaza shops in the settlement, selling bread, vegetables, sweets and beer, most people were unemployed and struggling to eke out a living.

Nhlangulela said that last year, the municipality promised they would be relocated soon, but that a year later, they were still waiting.

Thandi Mkhize, 40, who lives in a one-room shack with her partner and a 28-year-old brother, said: “We do not have enough space in this house, but we stay together. There is nothing we can do about it. We are asking the government to take us out of this place and provide us with better houses.”

According to eThekwini housing chairman, Nigel Gumede, the department is aware that people live there.

“In fact, the first people to settle at the graveyards of Coedmore were taken to the government’s formal houses in Welbedacht,” he said. “The people who are living in that place now are new. However, we’ll send people for inspection in that area,” Gumede promised.

He claimed that some of the people chose to live there to obtain immediate attention and to paint a negative picture about the Department of Housing.

Nhlangulela said that, generally, people felt down-and-out, a few had died of Aids-related diseases and there was an air of suspicion between members of the community, who suspected each other of practising witchcraft.

“Sometimes, people used to dig until they got to the bones when they wanted to build a new shack, and afterwards some of them died,” he said.

Some people said that, after 8pm, they could not walk around because of strange noises and strong winds that were, strangely, only in certain areas.

They told of babies who cried continuously, small children who spoke of strange people that only they could see, and a large number of cats that usually appeared after dark.

Nhlangulela said burning charcoal could be seen on one of the gravesites and that the area around it became very hot, although none of them dared to go close to it.

Apparently the last time the cemetery was used was about five decades ago.

Zulu culture expert Nomagugu Ngobese, said: “It is disrespectful to build houses and stay in the cemetery. This will prevent these people progressing in life. They must be cleansed in a traditional way, by a traditional doctor, to eliminate the misfortunes.”