Unhappy valley

2013-07-14 14:00

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Heavy rain hit Cape Town six weeks ago, turning the Cape Flats into a rubbish-strewn swamp.

Ernestien Hardenberg is seven years old and lives in a floating shack.

Her legless, faded doll bobs up and down in the water next to the door of her family’s home, perched on a rubbish-strewn swamp on the Cape Flats.

“One day my doll fell into the water. I just left her there because everything is wet in any case,” said Ernestien shyly.

Her eight-year-old brother, Deniro, likes to race around their home on a raft made of foam.

Their four-year-old sister Annelien’s tiny boots are soaked through, and probably have been for a while.

“Will our house ever be dry again?” the little girl asked.

The Hardenberg family’s shack was flooded after heavyrain hit CapeTown six weeks ago.

They have since mounted the rickety structure on floating tyres, planks and stacked crates, with a floating gangway about 5m long linking it to dry land.

They live on the corner of Wimbledon and School streets in Happy Valley, an ironically named township adjacent to industrial Blackheath near CapeTown International Airport.

Happy Valley is just south of the railway line leading from Bellville to Somerset West.

It is literally on the wrong side of the tracks – on the Cape Flats side, characterised by inhospitable sandy stretches, economic hardship, drugs and crime.

On the other side of the line, the Cape Winelands roll up to the horizon, luxurious in comparison, with fertile green hills and tall mountains.

Ernest Hardenberg (39), an unemployed painter, shares the waterlogged shack with his wife and their four children.

The dark, stuffy interior reeks of dirt and old food, the kind of stench that haunts your nostrils hours later.

It sways gently like a houseboat. “When the wind starts howling, the cold from the water cuts right through us,” says Ernest.

There is mucus on the children’s upper lips from their perpetually runny noses, and their clothes are threadbare.

“They’ve all had TB, you know,” said neighbour Laetitia Beukes. Their mother Lydia had gone out to attend a funeral.

Beukes (35), lives next door to the Hardenbergs at the water’s edge. She carefully removes a document from a weathered briefcase stored under a bed.

“Look. This is our application form. We applied for a proper house years ago. I don’t understand why we don’t get it.”

Happy Valley has been dubbed “UnhappyValley” because of its seasonal flooding as well as its strife-ridden R185?million housing project.

Residents have beaten each other with sticks, and burnt tyres and temporary toilets to show their discontent.

CapeTown Mayor Patricia de Lille is well aware of the problem.

This week, her office told City Press that 881 RDP houses have been built there.

They hope to increase that number to 1?452 by September.

There were tears of joy when De Lille visited the site to personally hand over keys to completed homes in January.

But frustration is rife as some families still wait for their turn.

De Lille’s spokesperson, Solly Malatsi, said provision was made to move flooded shacks at the city’s expense.

He showed City Press a letter to Hardenberg, saying the council would send trucks to move his shack to a serviced site on June 27.

“As a caring city, we offered the affected residents alternative accommodation on the nearby Baredale project in Mfuleni so they’re not inconvenienced by the flooding while they wait for their houses,” he said.

“Mr Ernest Hardenberg was one of the residents who rejected the offer.”

At least 15 families moved their shacks after floods hit Happy Valley six weeks ago. Two accepted the city’s offer of help.

Hardenberg didn’t want to go, saying he was unable to afford additional material required to build a new shack.

He is tired of waiting and of rebuilding his shack time and again. He just wants his RDP house.

The Hardenbergs’ floating shack exemplifies the wretched poverty that breeds in urban areas unable to provide infrastructure and opportunities for booming populations.

Ernest Sonnenberg, a mayoral committee member for human settlements in CapeTown, refers to the challenge of “ever-increasing urbanisation” in the foreword of their Integrated Human Settlements Five-Year Strategic Plan.

“One of the key challenges we face is the current population growth, which shows no sign of slowing down,” he said.

Last month, axed Human Settlements Minister Tokyo Sexwale estimated the country’s housing backlog at 2.1?million homes.

While politicians crunch numbers, Deniro Hardenberg and his friends race each other on foam rafts, dodging debris next to the forlornly bobbing doll.

At night, the four Hardenberg children lie shivering, listening to waves lapping at the bottom of their floating home.

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