'It’s hell to live like this' - life in Mitchells Plain, where residents fill potholes themselves

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A dumping site further down Oranjekloof Road in Tafelsig. A local says he can't remember the last time the dirt there has been collected. (Photo: Tammy Petersen)
A dumping site further down Oranjekloof Road in Tafelsig. A local says he can't remember the last time the dirt there has been collected. (Photo: Tammy Petersen)
  • Mitchells Plain, at over 40km2, is one of Cape Town’s biggest neighbourhoods.
  • Established in the 1970s, the vibrant, predominantly coloured area is widely known as a hotspot for gangsterism, crime and, social ills.
  • Residents spoke to News24 about their reality and municipal issues in the run-up to the municipal elections on 1 November.

One of the few small joys dying Martha Ficks has is a small cup of tea three times a day. Her sister Philida Cloete carries it to her slowly, careful not to spill it – every drop of water is used sparingly and she doesn't want to use the ration they have for the day on making another mug or mopping up a mess.

The family lives in a council house in Rocklands, Mitchells Plain. The sprawling neighbourhood over 20km outside the Cape Town city centre was established under the Group Areas Act in the 1970s as a dumping ground for mostly coloured people removed from the classified "white" suburbs.

Gang violence, substance abuse and poverty are rife in the Cape Flats community.

To the sisters, Mitchells Plain is simply home.

But home isn't the haven they would like it to be as they live in abject poverty, with limited access to water while desperately trying to keep clean and dignified.

They owe the municipality over R100 000. Their household has been on a trickle system for the past four years - water dribbles from an outside tap into a 20-litre bucket, which each of the four sisters and their relatives who live there get a turn to use.

In Mitchells Plain, this is not at all uncommon.

Activist Brenda King, who lobbies for and assists people with exorbitant municipal bills, is aware of thousands of people in crippling debt.

"Every second house [here] is in arrears," she estimates.

"It is depressing. People don't know what to do anymore. They don't know where to turn to. When they go to the municipal offices, they want money. One woman sent me a bill for R67 000. If you want to make arrangements, you need to have 10%. You're not working – where are you going to get it?"

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Philida uses her water ration to first ensure that cancer-stricken Martha is washed four times a day. She is terminally ill and spends her days in bed listening to the radio from a cheap cellphone, her Bible on the pillow above her head.

"I don't mind looking after her. I just want her to be clean and comfortable. We don’t know how long she has left – doctors just told us to prepare ourselves. So I do, every day. I don't want her to die dirty or undignified."

She transfers the water from the bucket to a kettle to boil before gently washing her older sister while they chat.

Even heating the water is considered a luxury as their municipal arrears are deducted from their electricity meter, meaning that 31% of the money spent on units is subtracted towards the amount they owe the council.

Claudine Felix pours water into the sink to wash t
Claudine Felix pours water into the sink to wash the dishes. (Photo: Tammy Petersen)

Their younger sister Claudine Felix said she had been "up and down" to the local council offices since the beginning of last year, requesting assistance to have their water reconnected and to reach a payment plan.

"But paperwork is getting in the way. My brother is the legal tenant and has Alzheimer's as well as a head injury he suffered in a car accident. So I am the one who has to get together all the documents they need to help. It's been a mission – a very frustrating one. But what can we do?"

Felix said she informed the officials she has dealt with of Martha's incurable condition and their willingness to contribute to the arrears, despite only one of the four sisters being employed and the rest depending on State pension.

She points at the outstanding amount on one of the utility bills received in recent months – R156 043.45.

"I don't know how we'll pay it, but we will try. We need water. It's hell to live like this," Claudine said, checking if the bucket has run full yet for Martha's afternoon bath and cup of tea.

Ian Neilson, the City of Cape Town's mayoral committee member for finance, said an interest write off of R99 936,67 was given for the specified property in June this year as part of its debt incentive project.

READ | From basic services to potholes - how your vote impacts municipal matters

The property owner qualifies for a further write off of R106 537,48 - as the debt has been outstanding since prior to June 2018 - if he or someone acting as his proxy enters into a formal arrangement with the council, Neilson said.

He urged them to apply for indigent relief.

"They could possibly qualify for a once off write-off if they meet the criteria to clear the rest of the debt."

To have their water reconnected, an upfront payment of the current account and an agreed amount towards paying off the arrears is required, although the payer's personal circumstances is always considered, he said.

When asked if it makes exceptions on humanitarian grounds, Neilson said each case is considered "on individual merit".

The public open space in Johannes Meintjies Road,
The public open space in Johannes Meintjies Road, New Woodlands. According to a resident, only one light on the vast stretch works. (Photo: Tammy Petersen)

In a public open space off Johannes Meintjies Road in New Woodlands, a group of men loiter in broad daylight, watching the comings and goings.

"They're selling drugs," a resident who lives opposite the park says.

"But that's nothing. You should see how it goes here after dark."

There are numerous lights in the stretch which leads from the open space to a makeshift, sandy soccer pitch, where a wall is painted with gang graffiti. A play park is further down the walkway – despite it being a balmy afternoon, only a handful of children are enjoying the amenity.

Only one of the lights in this "hotspot" works, the woman explains. She has reported it to the City, she says; while it's sometimes repaired, those wanting to do their dastardly deeds ensure that it's out again as soon as possible.

She added:

You can barely see anything at night. But you can hear them – the robbers as they attack people, the gangsters as they shoot at each other. This stretch isn't an attraction, it's a danger.

She said she had suggested that a high mast light be installed, but nothing has come of the request.

A mother who walks her young child to school early in the morning on her way to work says in winter, it is especially dangerous as people with ill intentions hang around in the veil of darkness, looking for easy targets.

"I clutch my child's hand and hurry through this shortcut as fast as I can. I put on my angry face so that no one tries anything with me. You must always be on your guard. In the dark, strange things happen."

Colin de Hart is acutely familiar with the problems caused by poor lighting – he walks the streets and sees the criminal elements that thrive in the dark.

The deputy chairperson of the Mitchells Plain community policing forum has been a crime-fighting volunteer for the past 15 years as a member of the Beacon Valley neighbourhood watch, which he now heads.

He is able to name umpteen fields and open spaces which have become crime hotspots because of insufficient or vandalised lighting which are hotspots for gang violence, recruitments, petty crime, and drug peddling.

De Hart patrols the streets, making sure that people are safe and addressing those who are involved in infringement as minor as dumping, which he said lends itself to becoming hiding places for dealers looking to conceal their contraband.

'I see a lot of things because I live here. I walk over the dark fields to go to meetings, see what is happening in those parts where people know they cannot be watched," he said.

READ | Promises, promises: More than 50 parties scrambling for a seat in the City of Cape Town

The frustrated retiree said reporting issues like broken lights are encouraged, but repairs can take forever to materialise.

"Recently while [on patrol] I noticed that the lights on AZ Berman Drive were out. I reported it – it took officials six weeks to come and fix it," he said.

"It upsets me, because in areas like Rondebosch it's likely to be seen to the same day. I am also a ratepayer, as are my neighbours. Why do we get treated differently?"

He, too, believes that high mast lighting is the answer to the darkness of crime over Mitchells Plain.

"It was proposed a few years back. It was on the table, but nothing came of it."

Some of the potholes in Oranjekloof Road, Tafelsig
Some of the potholes in Oranjekloof Road, Tafelsig. Locals sometimes fill these themselves. (Photo: Tammy Petersen

Five kilometres away, a car speeds down Oranjekloof Road in Tafelsig. It swerves as it spots three potholes across the road, dodging the craters as Isgaak Galant shakes her head in frustration.

"Our neighbours here filled that ourselves because it takes forever for the City to come out and fix it. And when they do come, they do such a shoddy job that it washes away when the rain comes," he says, exasperated.

Stones shoot from the covered potholes against his windows as cars drive past. Those which ricochet when a vehicle speeds past sounds like a grenade, Galant said.

"And our road isn’t even the worst," he insisted, listing street names to avoid if you "have any respect for your vehicle".

He added:

Don’t even get me started on the speedbumps we have been asking for for years. This is a bus and taxi route and the way they shoot down here is alarming. But those requests fall on deaf ears. It has been since forever.

Galant was a familiar face at local ward committee meetings, where he is not shy to have his say over municipal issues.

“Look, I am not scared of calling things as I see them. We are ratepayers. We don’t get these services for free. Yet we are the ones who have to live in these conditions. No. I won’t accept that,” he said.

“When the sewerage system overflows and we have to sit with that disgusting sight and smell for days, where is the service then? Now the politicians want to walk around in our streets and parade like coons, looking past the potholes, overgrown fields and neglected parks, asking for support. They expect me to vote for them? No ways.”

A dumping site further down Oranjekloof Road in Ta
A dumping site further down Oranjekloof Road in Tafelsig. A local says he can't remember the last time the dirt there has been collected. (Photo: Tammy Petersen)

Mitchells Plain is one of the highest contributors of rates to the city, Norman Jantjies charges.

“Yet when it comes to service delivery, it appears that the affluent areas are better cared for,” he says.

In some areas, locals fed-up with waiting for speedbumps to be built by the City simply do it themselves with whatever material they can find. Others, he says, dig a thin trench in the road in a bid to force racing vehicles to slow down.

Jantjies is the chairperson of the Mitchells Plain United Residents’ Association and has seen the township grow “three times its size” since he moved there in the 1980s.

And while the Cape Town city centre is picturesque and welcoming, one of its biggest residential areas is anything but that.

It is still very much a “dormitory town” where people leave in the morning to work and study, he says.

According to him, not a lot has changed in terms of development since being established about five decades ago.

Jantjies was one of the first democratically elected councillors in Mitchells Plain, winning his ward as an independent candidate in 1996.

Much of the issues that abound in those early years of democracy persists today, he insists.

Rampant crime, gangsterism – which he says evolved from street groupings to more organised gangs – as well as substance abuse, a severe lack of housing and poverty so severe people can’t afford to keep their taps running and lights on are among the main challenges Jantjies lists.

But one of the biggest injustices is the lack of facilities available to the community, he maintains.

And land is available, he points out – the City of Cape Town recently opened the public participation process to “rationalise” 121 unused open spaces in Mitchells Plain which it said were vacant and hotspots for criminality and anti-social behaviour.

It is envisaged that these can be made available for private development.

READ | Adriaan Basson: Will De Lille give the DA a GOOD run for its money in Cape Town?

“We actually want a moratorium on the disposal of land so that we can come up with one plan in terms of how we see Mitchells Plain in five, ten or 20 years… so that when you dispose of, utilise or zone land you will keep in mind that this or that is what the community needs,” Jantjies says.

Some of the best creatives could come out of these streets, he says, but they don’t have access to a theatre or facility which promotes the arts. Similarly, sports development is minimal as young people don’t have the amenities to hone their talents as even school sport has become all but non-existent.

Programmes being run from council facilities such as community halls and libraries have died out, Jantjies laments. Even arranging a community meeting is an uphill battle as organisations like his are referred to the local ward councillor who would allow politics to become involved in whether permission is granted or not, he charges.

Jantjies urges locals to elect councillors who would put their progress and development above all else and not protect the interests of a political party.

“When you become a councillor, you must act as a community activist. You are supposed to know what the people need and their most urgent requirements. If you understand your constituents, you are better equipped to serve them.

“We need counsellors who are accountable, who report back to the people, not career politicians or those parachuted in from the outside. Forget the party. This is local government elections. Choose someone who will work with and for you.”

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