FEATURE

We’re like cockroaches to the City, say Johannesburg residents

Building in Johannesburg inner city. Photo by Sarita Pillay.
Sarita Pillay    

The corridors are long and institution-like, lined by doors. Light peeks in through the staircase windows, but the corridors are dark, despite it being 10AM on a bright Johannesburg day.

“Many of the lights aren’t working,” says Isaiah Mahlobo resignedly, pointing to the ceiling. At this time of day, the imposing five-floor building is quiet. Most of the building’s 300 or so residents are not home.

We walk past what is meant to be the communal laundry room, where the taps along the wall are bound closed by black bin bags. They can’t be used. Stepping carefully around a puddle of water, we walk into the large kitchen. A tap is dripping incessantly. Here too, the lights aren’t working. There is a lingering smell of sewerage in some of the corridors. It could be the broken pipes spilling into the central courtyard, or the recurring blocked toilets.

The building is MBV (Phase 1) in Joubert Park, on the edge of Braamfontein and close to the Johannesburg CBD. This project once represented a success story for poor inner-city dwellers.

Mahlobo says proudly, “Our case paved the way for others. It was a huge victory. It had an impact not only on our lives, but on the lives of others.”

In 2007, the Constitutional Court ruled that the City of Johannesburg “meaningfully engage” with several hundred residents of two Johannesburg inner-city buildings. The onset of the Inner City Rejuvenation Strategy had seen a recurring trend of derelict buildings targeted for redevelopment, and their residents often forcibly evicted. The poor were seemingly an inconvenience to rejuvenation plans, and accommodating them was not a concern.

As targets of eviction, the residents of 51 Olivia Road and 197 Main Street challenged the City in court. The case eventually landed in the highest court in the land. After two months of negotiation, overseen by the Constitutional Court, a historic agreement was reached between the City and the residents.

“We used to see people thrown in the street … but we emerged victorious, with the City unable to do that to us,” Mahlobo says. Instead, residents agreed to relocation by the City to alternate accommodation, the City-owned buildings of “Old Perm” and a section of the renovated hospital, MBV.

This was on condition that the accommodation was to be of a particular standard, and affordable. According to the settlement agreement:

“The accommodation to be provided shall consist of at least the following elements: security against eviction; access to sanitation; access to potable water; access to electricity for heating, lighting.”

Residents moved in 2008. Initially, for those moved to MBV, things appeared to be going according to plan. They were able to negotiate with the City for an affordable flat rate for rent, and the City Manager at the time took a direct interest in the building and its residents.

“We felt that it was meaningful engagement,” says Mahlobo.

Today, however, MBV Phase 1 and its residents appear to be forgotten, if not ignored. As owner of the building, and responsible for managing the building, the City of Johannesburg, in particular the Region F Housing Department, has not responded to residents’ pleas to fix leaking and broken pipes, toilets that do not function, numerous electrical faults, and a broken gate at the entrance to the building. There is no building manager to oversee the building. The current housing officer, whose job it is to report maintenance issues, follows protocol of relaying residents’ concerns, but these reports are met with promises, but no action by City management. This is in spite of the pressing health and safety risks at hand.

Residents have taken on ad hoc responsibility for repairs when they can. As a plumber, Mahlobo has done a fair deal of work himself. “We close the pipes that are leaking. We fix the lights that aren’t working”. But the repairs needed are substantial and beyond their means. Everyday, residents, particularly women, take responsibility for cleaning parts of the building. As we walk outside, a woman uses a hosepipe to wash away the effluent and water in the courtyard, spewing from a broken pipe. A child stands nearby, watching.

The current security company contracted by the City is not fulfilling its duties or enforcing the house rules – sometimes flouting the rules itself. Security guards are not regularly present, access to the building is not controlled or monitored, and many residents fear for their safety. However, without the oversight and interest of the City, there is no way to hold the company accountable.

Yet moving out is not an option. MBV provides a rare opportunity for these residents: formal accommodation in the heart of the city – something that is often denied to South Africa’s urban poor. Khombisile Khumalo has been living in the building since 2008. “I like living here,” she says gesturing to her small, furnished room, “because I make cushions, and I can sell them nearby”. Living in the city center means that she is a near many shops and potential customers. However, she is unhappy with the state of the building and the poor security, “I am scared. I feel unsafe here …when we go in the passages we meet up with strangers.” An unknown man recently confronted her young daughter while she was washing her clothes. The man escaped the building, as residents attempted to chase him down.

Partnering with residents, The Socio-Economic Rights Institute (SERI) has attempted to engage with the City and hold it accountable to its legal obligations and enforcing of house rules. In the midst of Johannesburg’s winter this year, the building was without electricity for two weeks. Residents turned to SERI for help. When contacting the maintenance managers, they were told that due to a change in contractors, it was uncertain when electricity would be restored. Cold and dark, the situation in MBV was desperate. Eventually SERI footed the bill for a contractor. If it were not for the assistance that they have received from SERI, residents are uncertain what would happen.

GroundUp has been trying to contact the City of Johannesburg’s Region F housing officials since Tuesday. We’ve received no response.

“…To them [the City] we are just like cockroaches. We are not humans. They don’t care,” says Nelson Khethani, head of the residents’ committee. Yet they know they are not the only ones frustrated. “It is not only us. There are also others who have [these] problems,” says Mahlobo.

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