Living between unused train tracks: 'I will make this shack my home and beautify it with a plastic flower'

2019-01-24 07:47
Sonwabo Simayile erects his shack. (Tammy Petersen, News24)

Sonwabo Simayile erects his shack. (Tammy Petersen, News24)

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Sonwabo Simayile laughed out loud when one of his new neighbours living between the train tracks at Philippi train station quipped that they were so poor, they were going off the rails.

"It was funny. I was happy to hear a joke, because I am so tired of being desperate and sad," the single father of two said while taking a breather from building his new home.

Around him, men carried spades and women balanced buckets of stones on their heads as they worked against the clock, hoping to complete their new homes by month end so that they don't have to pay their landlords up to R1000 to rent backyards.

The desperate shackdwellers from overcrowded Samora Machel have found a new home – on the train lines at the adjacent old Prasa depot. A number of shacks have already been erected, while many locals have come to "view the vacancy".

Simayile started construction on his 3mx2m structure on Monday and hopes to be done before the end of the week.

"I can't live like that – I have children"

His solid shack is taking shape – he is in the process of levelling the ground so that he can lay a carpet to keep his new home somewhat warm, he explains.

He will scrape together a few hundred rand for a solid door to keep "bad people" out and then start turning his shack into a home with "nice things" like a plastic flower or two.

"I had no choice but to come here. I have to pay R500 to live in someone's yard in Samora Machel, and at least R200 every month for electricity. If that is done, I am disconnected and sit in the dark. I can't live like that – I have children," Simayile lamented.

Born in the old Transkei, as he calls it, Simayile moved to Malmesbury as a teenager where he worked on a dairy farm, milking cows.

After many years of service, he left the town and moved to Cape Town with his family, hoping to find better work.

"I walk every day to various industrial areas, looking for anything I can to earn a few rands. Some days I get a day job, others I don't. I can't survive like that, knowing I have to pay over R700 a month for a roof and light. I could use that money for food and clothes for my children."

On Wednesday, a number of locals flocked to the old depot to "view the vacancy" as one backyarder and single mother put it.

"I wanted to come see if there's a place for me"

"I heard people started moving in earlier in the month. I wanted to come see if there's a place for me," the bakery assistant said.

"It looks like I have to move here soon. There probably won't be space left for much longer."

Five shacks are in the process of being built. Its owners patiently sit between the train lines and collect the grey stones to be used to create a somewhat level foundation. 

One elderly woman wearing a long skirt and flip flops wiped sweat from her forehead as she lugged around a bucket of dirt after cleaning her "plot". She told her new neighbours she didn't "need no man or politician to build me a house".

Govt failed to build houses

"I have waited long enough on the waiting list. The government didn't do what it promised. So I will do it myself."

Metrorail Western Cape spokesperson Riana Scott said illegal informal ingress in the rail reserve was a "long-standing concern".

"This particular site is earmarked for modernisation. Prasa has previously successfully relocated households elsewhere in Khayelitsha. Experience has shown that such relocation is a multi-functional and protracted process," Scott said.

"It is reliant on engagement with community leaders and the provision of alternative serviced land. To that end the ingress has been raised and discussed in various structures within the City."

Philippi,Samora Machel,Prasa,railwayline, shacks

The old Prasa depot, which had been earmarked for modernisation. (Tammy Petersen, News24)

Scott said Prasa was mindful that people who erect structures are desperate and destitute.

"Land invasion is not confined to Prasa only - it is a broader issue endemic in areas where supply and demand of housing is misaligned and the prevailing economy unsupportive," she said.

"From previous experience we know that the protracted process of relocation has to include involvement of community structures, the assurance of serviced alternative land and follow the correct legal route.

"We will engage the relevant role players to find a sustainable solution without risking backlash," said Scott.

The City of Cape Town's mayoral committee member for human settlements Malusi Booi on Wednesday said local government had offered to assist with the dismantling and removal of the unoccupied structures due to immediate health and safety concerns.

Protecting the Prasa-land

"It is therefore imperative that immediate steps are taken to protect this Prasa-land from illegal occupation," Booi said in a statement.

"Although we absolutely understand the acute need for housing opportunities amid great demand and space constraints that we are faced with due to Cape Town's terrain and geographical position as a peninsula, we must also consider the health and safety aspects that could affect our residents.

"Housing delivery must also continue to happen in a fair and structured way to ensure that there is no queue jumping."

He said the 2017/18 annual report showed 97.3% of Cape Town households have access to electricity, 98.4% have access to refuse removal and 94.3% have access to sanitation.

Land invasions place the City's programmes at risk, Booi said.

"Nobody is allowed to occupy or invade land without the consent of the owner. Every city in South Africa acts to protect land from invasion. It is a constitutional duty, but the obligation to protect land from invasion is also the result of practical considerations."

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