Battle for a high-rise slum

2011-09-24 21:02

It was the children that most concerned North Gauteng High Court judge Bill Prinsloo.

The court, he said late on Thursday night, could not allow families to return to the high-rise slum of Schubart Park in central Pretoria and their possible deaths.

The evacuation of the complex, albeit one that had required rubber bullets and teargas to enforce, would stand.

Better that than have people burnt alive or tumble down the stairs in the dark.

So for much of Friday mothers with babies joined the throngs in the still-dark stairwells, trudging up and down as many as 21 storeys to retrieve their most valuable belongings.

Children held candles for their parents as they were jostled by others carrying fridges, stoves and boxes.

The City of Tshwane, so concerned with the safety of the residents in court the night before, had not seen fit to rig up emergency lighting.

But accidents were prevented by sheer dint of numbers; it’s hard to fall down a flight of stairs, even if strewn with garbage, when that stairwell is swollen with 30-strong people. The evacuees came in all shapes and sizes. Matthew, a burly Nigerian man, broke down in tears as he explained how he had tried and failed to persuade the police to ­return his passport after his arrest on Wednesday.

Gawie, a diminutive middle-aged Afrikaner, had sworn terrible vengeance on the police on ­Thursday if they broke down his door and allowed his two cats to wander off. And the children. How old is old enough to remember the experience of running across an open expanse of concrete as a dozen police fire rubber bullets over your head and bottles rain down around you?

Whatever their age, many will be traumatised by the events of Wednesday night.On the top floor of one block, 25 private security guards were called together. Some of them had disappointed their supervisor by helping residents remove their furniture. They had, he said, failed to be tough enough.

“We only talk once, then they move,” the guards were told. “If they resist, we use maximum force. We beat them to hell. We break them.”

But I never saw any of the guards lift a hand against a resident or even threaten violence. Later one surreptitiously offered an old woman an arm to lean on.

By one interpretation, the City of Tshwane had saved the lives of the residents of Schubart Park by forcing them out of the buildings.

That is what the court found ­after an urgent five-hour session on Thursday in which experts told of the many dangers and swore the situation could not be rectified while the complex was occupied.

And indeed, Schubart Park has not been fit for human habitation for some time. The complex consists of four buildings, one of which is already a shell. In the three lived-in buildings, one of the two pitch-dark stairwells is impassable thanks to huge piles of rubbish with broken televisions and mattresses peeking out from among plastic bags.

Each building has been extensively vandalised, and not just with graffiti. Fire alarms are gone, as are entire sections of electrical wiring and plumbing. Raw sewage pools in the basement.

It wasn’t always like this. When Schubart Park was built in 1977 it was a desirable place to live, with its own swimming pool and tennis courts surrounded by grass.

It is from those former lawns that residents hurled half-bricks and bottles at police on Wednesday, finally at the end of their tether because they had had neither electricity nor water for a week.Tshwane would like to restore Schubart Park to its former glory, but evicting people is difficult these days.

Once the tyres started burning in the streets on Wednesday, though, and the firefighters had to be escorted up to a smouldering flat by armed police, emptying the buildings became an evacuation rather than an eviction – a crucial legal difference and an opportunity the city was not slow to grasp. It may also amount to a perverse incentive for other building owners who, in theory, could just allow properties to deteriorate until they are uninhabitable rather than bother with the niceties.

After a day of fighting the police and two nights of sleeping rough, the people of Schubart Park had little fight left in them. They went. And they went meekly.

But they still dare to dream that the Constitutional Court will intervene and allow them to return to their dreadful home. Some have lived in Schubart for so long they can’t imagine anything better.

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