Downtown turns to grease bay

2014-02-20 00:00

STREET mechanics have colonised the lower end of Hoosen Haffajee (Berg) Street from James to Masukwana (East) Street, turning the area into one big grease bay.

Residents and businesses in the area are finally putting their foot down as they and their customers can no longer navigate their way on the street.

The grease-blackened pavement has become slippery and hazardous. Even if they are nimble-footed and manage to stay upright, they complain that if they don’t slip on the grease, they could slip on the discarded ball-bearings and bolts that have been flung around.

The busy area is also a traffic disaster. There is nowhere for people to park and sometimes the road is completely blocked with vehicles waiting to be serviced, the overflow of minibus taxis from the busy Masukwana taxi ranks and trucks off-loading goods that stand in the middle of the road, because the parking bays are occupied.

Businesses in the area complain that there has been a complete breakdown in law and order, and they are speaking up now because there are indications that the entire street is being colonised. It seems that the upper end of Hoosen Haffajee Street is being taken over by street panel beaters. None of the residents or businesses wanted to go on record. They say their complaints to the municipality have fallen on deaf ears.

They have been accused of being spoilers and wanting to deprive the street mechanics of an honest living. The complainants deny this and say all they want is for the municipality to do its job and exercise control. They have been calling on the municipality to find a place off the road for the street mechanics to carry out their trade.

A resident who has lived in the area for over 30 years said that even the municipal street-cleaners have abandoned lower Hoosen Haffajee Street.

He pointed to cardboard used by the mechanics to protect their backs when they go under the cars. “As soon as these tear or get blackened, they are just discarded in the gutter and can lie there for weeks. When it rains they become sodden, gradually disintegrate and go down the stormwater drains. All the drains are blocked here, when it rains, this becomes a disaster area,” he said.

Some of the residents said they tried cleaning up, but they claim the mechanics discard their dirt with impunity. “We can’t even say that they treat this street as their own backyards, because their backyards must be cleaner than this,” one of the complainants said.

Msunduzi Municipality was questioned on the situation. Spokesperson Brian Zuma responded, saying they were fully aware of the situation and that the local economic development section was working on the matter. “A site visit has been done and the mechanics have been engaged. The plan is first of all to train the street mechanics so that they get certification.

“The process of appointing a service provider for training them is already under way. They will then be registered as co-operatives and/or individual businesses. During that whole process, the identification of a work site will have commenced where they will then be moved to do their work,” Zuma said.

He added that the short-term continued engagement with the mechanics will also address the issue of cleaning up the area. The spread of street mechanics and street panel-beaters to the rest of Hoosen Haffajee and other parts of the city is to be addressed by the municipality’s urban renewal programme. “The programme at this stage was focusing on the CBD, but will in the future be rolled out to the entire city.”

• Following an appeal by Witness Wheels to help clean up the oil, Osman Tayob co-opted the Rose Foundation to supply stumpies for the mechanics to drain the oil in as well as supply a six-foot container to safely store the oil for collection. Govender’s Garage manager Haseen Mayet said while the mechanics who fix cars on the sidewalk outside their gates are proof that his parts prices were the lowest in town, their dumping of oil into the gutter was a major problem. Mayet said previous efforts to get the informal mechanics to collect their oil in a drum had been short-lived. Tayob said he will use Nora-SA’s proven incentives to buy oil from the mechanics to ensure this project continues. The Witness will keep driving the initiative to help limit the pollution in the city.

Street mechanics appear to be running a business

THE Witness visited the area on a weekday and again on a Saturday morning. There is no doubt that the street mechanics are running a bustling business. On a Saturday there are up to 15 vehicles being fixed at any one time and several others lining up. There’s a major production line. As one vehicle leaves the parking bay, there is another ready to take its place. The cars being fixed are not old jalopies or iskorokoros, but a whole range of vehicles, including some top of the range models.

The mechanics are fascinating to watch. They are an enterprising bunch, they hardly talk and it seems that a competition is on in terms of the speed in which a tyre can be changed or a fault can be fixed. According to people in the area, any job can be done on the street, including engines being overhauled. They are also a rough bunch, too busy to talk and they were not going to waste their time on a reporter who was not there to have a car fixed. “If you have got work talk to me otherwise don’t waste my time,” was the response of one of the mechanics.

However, turn your eyes away from the hive of activity to the surrounding area and the resident’s description of the place being one big grease bay, hits you. The street is truly black with grease and walking on it even in the flattest shoes, is scary as with each step you can feel yourself slipping. The discarded nuts and bolts are strewn all over and cardboard in various stages of disintegration line the gutter.

Yesterday, Witness reporter Thobani Ngqulunga visited the area to speak to mechanics who were hard at work repairing cars outside Govender’s Garage. They said there were about 25 informal mechanics operating there.

Bonginkosi Khumalo, a veteran mechanic in his 50s, commands respect from the other younger men who work with him. He said he had been doing this job for 26 years. He spoke while working on a cylinder head, sweating in the scorching heat. “I am from Trustfeeds and have been working on this spot for the past 18 years,” said Khumalo.

He said like many others that The Witness spoke to that this was the only skill they had and they used to support their families. “We are not stealing but doing an honest day’s job to earn a living,” he said.

Khumalo said they would be pleased if the municipality offered them training and a decent place to work. He said he supported eight children from the mechanical work he does. “I worked for two workshops where I gained experience and have never been employed but this sort of work is enough to pay the bills,” Khumalo said.

He said they had only seen municipal officials visiting the site early last year but had never received feedback from the municipality.

“Our presence here does help support local businesses because while our clients wait for their cars they buy other things from the local businesses,” said Khumalo.

Another younger mechanic who learned his trade from Khumalo, Collen Memela from Peacevalley, has been a mechanic since 2010. “Baba Khumalo helped me learn a valuable skill to help put food on the table and we are now free from a life of crime because we have skills,” said Memela.

He said they helped Govender’s customers a great deal by operating there and they refer them to Govender. “We have people who have been here since 1989 and they have tons of experience,” said Memela.

The mechanics welcomed the idea of being established in a proper workshop where they said they could even help fix the government fleet. They said they would also like to work in a decent environment.

“All we need is proper support to create sustainable jobs for a number of people who have the skill but do not have places to work,” said Bongani Duma of Sobantu, who has been a mechanic there for 10 years. He said they also created jobs by getting people to clean after them every working day.

Some areas where street mechanics have been problematic

CITY of uMhlatuze — The municipality targeted the street mechanics in the Empangeni area where tools were removed and fines issued. However, residents said that despite this the mechanics continued to operate.

Dundee — The local community newspaper complained that businesses were up in arms over the antics of the street mechanics. A business owner said, “Oil is dumped on the road along with other solvents which impacts on the environment with total disregard for neighbouring businesses.” According to residents, traffic officers issued fines, but the street mechanics continued because they were not regularly monitored.

Nelspruit — Newspaper, The Lowvelder reported: “War is looming in the city centre as business owners prepare to take up arms against illegal street mechanics who rob them of potential income.”

New York — Street mechanics are not just a South African phenomenon. The New York Daily News reported a clampdown “on rogue car mechanics who have turned a strip of Atlantic Avenue in Fort Greene into an illegal sidewalk repair venue”. It seemed regular businesses who had to comply with stringent licensing regulations were questioning why the same did not apply to the street mechanics.

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