Hard-knock life in an inner-city slum

2014-03-22 00:00

DURBAN’s urban slums are at the centre of a new drive to rid the city of crime and grime but the likelihood is that the poor will bear the brunt of it.

On Wednesday evening, city officials and the SAPS raided buildings throughout the central business district as part of an on-going programme to eradicate unsafe buildings and put pressure on profiteering landlords disregarding the city bylaws.

The project is being steered by the Inner eThekwini Regeneration and Urban Management Programme (I-Trump).

The city has acknowledged the illegal and slum building letting trade is valued at tens of millions of rands per year.

All the buildings are unsafe, susceptible to fire, communicable disease, drugs and prostitution. They have illegal or unsafe water and electricity connections while the paying tenants have no rights.

But people are prepared to live in these horrific conditions in order to be close to work, save money and be closer to work opportunities if they are unemployed.

Patience Ndlovu struck a lone figure in a desolate building on Carlisle Street. The collapsing structure offered accommodation — for free — to anyone who walked in and could handle the smell of urine and damp. She was lucky. Next door, Zimbab­wean men slept stacked in shipping containers. But the Venda-born Ndlovu — who once sold car accessories — said she was not afraid and chose to live like this.

Not far from her was a man doubling over coughing and rolling on the floor. SAPS Warrant officer Collen Shunmgam called an ambulance. “This man is seriously ill,” he said. “We need to get a medic here as soon as possible.”

Ndlovu said he had been lying there for several days.

“I help him when I can. I hear him coughing all the time,” she said.

One building raided on Maud Mfusi (St George’s) Street, which has allegedly been hijacked, was home to street children and poor families. Outside hung a sign reading “Welcome to Sisco”. The smell of sewage permeated the air.

As armed policemen raided the building, arresting illegal immigrants, a church cell group continued singing gospel songs from the first floor that had been converted into a youth centre. The centre, with educational posters on the walls, had a table tennis table and a solitary 12 volt light on a study desk. The power was illegally connected.

“We all live around here but we don’t feel threatened or in danger,” said one student.

Nomnikelo Gaushe, who worked at 152 Bertha Mkhize Street (Victoria Street) was one of several dozen women working in small stuffy cubicles on the second floor sewing clothes for the market the next day.

“I work through most of the night getting up at 3.30 am to go to the market. We feel safe working here as there is security. I work like this because I can’t find work elsewhere,” said Gaushe.

According to enforcement officials, 152 Bertha Mkhize Street housed “sweatshop-type” conditions and was a massive safety concern. “This building has people crammed in every section and all the fire escapes are locked. If it catches fire we could easily see in excess of 150 people being killed. It is a nightmare inside,” said the official.

Another building just down the road was home to a Zimbabwean IT specialist. Only going by the name Tafadzwa, he lived in a room no more than two metres by two metres with his wife and child. There was no ventilation or natural light. They cook in the room and use communal ablutions. Tafadzwa pays just over R1 000 a month in rent.

“It is tough living like this but the people here are okay,” he said. “The police are not here regularly but when they do come, they check for permits.”

Zimbabwean Langton Kadumba, who makes slingshots using Zimbab­wean indigenous wood, lives in an equally cramped space. But unlike Tafadzwa’s, his room consists of just four plywood walls and no ceiling. His room is one of 88 such compartments on the floor. There are 88 more similar compartments on the floor above. They each rent out for R1 200 per month.

“Things are tight back in Zimbab­we and there is work here,” Kadumba said. “I send money back home to my wife as regularly as possible.”

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