The Weekender: Still Waiting for Shelter (Symphony Way)

“Perfect rhythm”….for crying in the proverbial bucket….And as for the headline….Please see the comment on this article at the AEC site here.

Still waiting for shelter
Homeless people who have not been accommodated in Cape Town’s N2 Gateway housing project party while their children fear eviction, writes JEANNE HROMNIK

AT SYMPHONY Way in Delft, squatters have built shacks on either side of the road alongside the N2 Gateway Project houses they occupied illegally and were evicted from in February last year. Now they are fighting the prospect of eviction from their shacks.

They say if that happens they will set up camp elsewhere and wait for another eviction.

They have already survived the torrential rain of the past winter.

They have vowed never to move to the temporary relocation areas that the government built outside Delft, about 40km from Cape Town. The temporary relocation areas are grim and hazardous places and already accommodate thousands of people with little hope of moving out.

Symphony Way — the newly constructed extension between the N2 highway and the Stellenbosch arterial route — had its grand opening last year, a few months before the pavement dwellers were brutally evicted and left without shelter. Their unwelcome presence on the road forced the city to block off the section of Symphony Way between Silversands and Hindle Road.

Recently 12 of us — an odd group of friends, united by a common interest in getting to know each other — came to Symphony Way for a party.

It’s the South African way of dealing with problems. Toyi- toyiing and singing.

We brought with us two drums. The supply of drummers seemed endless. From almost the moment of our arrival the drums went into action. They continued into the evening, through the red sunset and into the dark night, lit by the fire we built with dead wood from the nearby strandveld.

We also brought 5kg of meat, 10kg of potatoes, 10kg of onions, five large loaves of home-baked Italian bread, four rolls of heavy-duty tin foil, ginger, peppercorns, nutmeg, cinnamon, two packets of coffee, red and green peppers, mushrooms, styrofoam cups and 2l of milk.

We forgot the salt.

The tea was brewed in Aunty Jane’s shack, which serves as a communal kitchen, an office, her bedroom and living space.

The shack is spacious and well constructed, with wooden beams across the ceiling, and plywood and fabric walls.

The fragrance of the tea floated into the open doorways of the pavement dwellers, through the windows of the Gateway houses, past the piles of tyres and the concrete barricades, down Symphony Way.

Aunty Jane is a member of the Symphony Way pavement dwellers committee, which makes communal decisions with the full participation of the newly emergent pavement community.

There are 139 families living on either side of the road adjacent to the Gateway houses, from which they are now separated by razor wire. There are concrete barriers at opposite ends of this stretch of road.

The Symphony squatters are former backyard dwellers from Delft. They say they moved into the New Gateway houses at the instigation of a well-meaning Democratic Alliance city councillor to prevent the houses being given to shack dwellers from the Joe Slovo informal settlement in Langa, 4500 of whom had already been accommodated in Tsunami and Thubelisha, the temporary relocation areas at Delft.

The Joe Slovo people are being removed from their 25000-strong informal settlement at Langa to make way for the N2 Gateway Project. They didn’t want to move to Delft. They prefer to be nearer to employment opportunities in the city and to remain in their longstanding communities.

They barricaded the N2 highway in September last year in protest, and took their case against eviction all the way to the Constitutional Court (accompanied on the train journey to Johannesburg by 30 Symphony Way residents). They had even devised a plan for higher-density housing that could help to keep them in Langa.

They received little response from the authorities. The government, it seems, is not as keen on participatory democracy as the shack dwellers it aims to assist. And it has its sights firmly fixed on presenting a good view of the city to the many visitors who will be driving on the N2 from Cape Town International Airport in 2010.

Florrie Langenhoven was the only visibly drunk person on the night of the party. She captured young men and placed her hips seductively against theirs while moving to the sound of the drums with perfect rhythm.

She led me to her shack , where she took out a photo album from a drawer under her bed and told me the story of her life.

Her shack was spotless, with cheerful red checked curtains keeping her kitchen utensils out of sight. Her bed is positioned over a set of drawers in which she keeps her cigarettes, her divorce decree, her clothing and other possessions. Despite the lock on the door, someone had come in and stolen her cigarettes.

Langenhoven told me about her five children, the youngest still at school and living with her sister in Mitchells Plain.

She told me about her grandchild, a tik baby born with her intestines hanging loose within her distended abdominal cavity. She’s okay now.

They seemed like a happy family, although separated by life and circumstance. Langenhoven had come to Symphony Way drawn by the lure of a house.

She interrupted her story to pee gracefully and efficiently into a plastic basin. She said she avoided the mobile toilets provided for fear of infection .

Back at the party, the meat, potatoes and onions had been put in packets made of foil and placed among the red-hot coals in the fireplace. A pile of sausages was grilling on an aged black braai grid. It was still light enough to read the texts the squatter’s children had written to accompany photographs they had taken of themselves and the other Symphony pavement dwellers.

The photographs and stories were pinned to the razor-wire fencing that separates the Gateway housing and the Symphony dwellers.

“Dear who it may concern. How I feel toward Symphony Way. The first time I come to Symphony it was nice. But there were ups and downs, happiness and sad time. I do remember the day. Months went past and we as symphony have to be patents cause if we not there is no hope for us to get houses. From Wagheeda.”

“My first day in Symphony was like going to Hell…. And the reporters came every morning to see where we sleep. And we were in the ‘spotlight’. People felt heartbroken for us and gave us donations. We were the headlines of all the newspapers … the only thing that was good was meeting new people and making new friends. Felicia Wentzel/Fatiema.”

“My first day on symphony was so sad. I cried and (was) very very scared of the dark and we did not know where we are going to get food to eat.”

Several stories were written about the day of the eviction, February 19, “The day Uncle Ashraf had tears in his eyes”.

A child was shot three times with rubber bullets that day and 20 people were so seriously injured they had to be admitted to hospital.

Ashraf Cassiem, the chairman of the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign, was not at our party but he had been there when it counted.

The children’s stories often ended with a brief statement of the number of years their families had been on the waiting lists for houses: seven, 16, 19, 20 years.

There are other texts to be read on Symphony Way.

“No land, no house, no vote”. That is what the red T-shirts say. They are worn by committee members, several of whom sit down to eat at the table in Aunty Jane’s shack.

There is not enough food for all who gather around. The loaves and sausage have to be divided into very small pieces, but the children queue patiently.

As darkness descends I sit on the kerb by the fire, sheltered by the bodies of children standing around me and larger bodies next to them.

There is comfort in the proximity of these bodies and a kind of determination in those who continue to gyrate to the rhythm of the drums.

“The children’s stories often ended with a brief statement of the number of years their families had been on the waiting lists for houses: seven, 16, 19, 20 years ”