26 July 2018
“We are not asking for a luxury place. Just a place that will make it easier for us to make a living. Not Wolwerivier,” said Blessing Mahlangu.
She is one of several hundred people occupying the abandoned Helen Bowden Nurses Home directly opposite Cape Town’s Waterfront, and neighbouring Somerset Hospital. This large four-storey building with sprawling grounds must be worth tens if not hundreds of millions of rand. It has been unlawfully occupied by people working or studying nearby for over a year.
Mahlangu, 52, lives on the first floor. Her small room contains a bucket full of cooldrinks with ice, another with vegetables, and a table with chips, sweets, cigarettes and candles. She sits on top of her bed waiting for customers. She makes most of her money selling candles.
Mahlangu has been living here since November. Originally from Soshanguve in Pretoria she arrived in Cape Town in 2010 in search of “greener pastures”.
She worked as caregiver looking after a pensioner in Sea Point. At that time she rented a one-room apartment for R1,500 per month, but she lost her job and was evicted.
“The place that I was staying in was sold, and the person that had bought it just came and I was told I needed to be out without any notice. I didn’t know where to go. I have no family in Cape Town,” Mahlangu explained. “I started to speak to anyone who would listen about my situation because I was desperate and needed a place to stay. That is how I heard about this place, but when I came there were no more rooms.”
In March 2017, an activist group called Reclaim the City organised the occupation of both Helen Bowden and the old Woodstock Hospital. Both properties are owned by the provincial government, which has condemned the occupation, but not yet taken steps to remove the occupiers. Reclaim the City is campaigning for affordable housing nearer Cape Town’s city centre.
Helen Bowden, which the occupiers have renamed Ahmed Kathrada House, is dilapidated. In some places, the ceiling is falling in. The passages are dark because there is no electricity. GroundUp saw a woman carrying bottles of water which she had just filled at an outside tap, the only one on the property. Six caged security dogs barked at people hanging their washing; they ignored them. Six security guards sat at each of the two entrances. Other security guards sat at various points on the property. It’s far more security than is needed, and the guards sit around with nothing to do. Children play up and down the dark stairs.
Because all the rooms were occupied relative newcomers like Mahlangu have used ceiling boards to divide up rooms. Each of the floors has toilets but occupiers have to get a bucket of water to flush.
Siseko Guza lives in room 225 on the third floor. He has a beautiful view of the Waterfront. The 27-year-old has been living in Helen Bowden for a little more than a year. He stayed in Mfuleni before.
“I was working in a hotel here in Sea Point at the time on a contract at the front desk welcoming guests, and it was expensive for me to get to work. I was spending about R50 a day. The R4,500 that I got had to be spent to support my child, pay rent and food and also support my family members. I was left with nothing,” said Guza
“We do not have electricity or toilets that fully flush but here I can walk to look for a job. I do not have to worry about taxi fare. Everything is at my disposal. If I am sick the hospital is here.”
His aunt, who works as a domestic worker in Sea Point, told him about the building. A few days later after meeting with the leaders he had moved in.
Helen Bowden’s leaders, chosen after the occupation took place, decide who moves in and ensure the place is orderly. The large building with hundreds of residents, mostly poor and desperate with little formal education, appears to function well. This is quite an achievement when one considers how many body corporates in wealthy areas are fraught with conflict. Of course, it has problems: earlier this year one of the residents was stabbed to death, allegedly by a security guard. Nevertheless, residents told us they feel safe. GroundUp reporters have visited Helen Bowden several times and not felt threatened.
Residents don’t pay rent but sometimes they pool resources. For example, the rubbish does not get collected, so they hired a bakkie to take away the garbage and keep the place clean.
“And yes, we are scared because we know that this is an illegal occupation. We know that one day we might come back and find all our belongings outside but we are here because for us this is a chance of a better life,” said Guza.
A few doors away in number 230 lives 21-year-old student Yolanda Dyani. She has been living here since April this year after moving away from a family home in Lower Crossroads. She moved so she could relieve her grandmother of the responsibility of paying for her taxi fares.
“My grandmother was the only one getting a social grant and six of us depended on her,” said Dyani. Her room has a bed, a table with a few pots and dishes, a wardrobe and a washing bucket.
“I like it here. Not only do I get a sense of independence, but I can study in peace and get to school on time. In Lower Crossroads I had to leave home at 4:30am to make it in time for school. And I feel safe.”
“We help each other here, if I need something in town I can ask anyone to get it for me. We are like a family and we all know each other,” said Mahlangu.