Cassiem Johnson is epileptic, asthmatic and lives on a patch of grass in Mowbray.
Johnson, 47, his wife, Norma van Tonder, 46, and Moreen Isaacs, 69, are among Cape Town’s more than 7,000 homeless residents. They have been living together on the site for the last five years.
They subsist on donations of food, money and broken appliances that Johnson repairs and sells. Johnson says that he has been fixing home appliances for ten years after picking up the skill from a man he met on the streets.
He and Van Tonder left Bonteheuwel five years ago to live on the streets after a dispute with Johnson’s family, and out of fear of violent crime in the area. Sleeping outside is better than risking being shot, says Van Tonder.
Isaacs’s family was evicted from District Six under the Group Areas Act of 1950. She says she became homeless when her parents, with whom she lived in Maitland Garden Village, died. She met Johnson and Van Tonder on the streets and has lived with them ever since.
Johnson described being assaulted while asleep on the pavement, the event which possibly triggered his first seizure. While recovering from the head injury in Groote Schuur Hospital, he says, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and dissociative amnesia, as well as epilepsy, an illness that two of of his immediate family members also had. Johnson says he also has asthma.
Even with the free medication that they get from Groote Schuur, van Tonder says, it is very difficult to manage her husband’s epilepsy because their circumstances expose him to many possible seizure triggers. Any perceived danger or stress “takes him back” to the assault and may trigger a seizure, followed by temporary amnesia, which often interferes with doctors’ efforts to help him. She says he can’t even apply for a disability grant because walking to the Wynberg Home Affairs office to collect his ID document in his condition would be too great a risk.
“Any time he can fall over and get the fits,” she said.
Van Tonder says she won’t go live with her mother because she is the only one taking care of Johnson. Johnson has brothers with enough money to support him, she says. But, says van Tonder, “I’m the one that must run around when he gets sick.” Johnson has been estranged from his brothers ever since his father’s death when an argument about ownership of the family’s home in Bonteheuwel forced him to leave.
They have good relations with the area’s other residents according to Van Tonder, some of whom she says regularly drop off food and clothes for them. Despite this, she says, that she has become suspicious of people who approach them. She says they were approached in the past by people who published photographs of them without their consent after giving them food. “We’re standing with the food… like they’re helping us,” she says. “We never saw them again”.
The three of them say all they want is a house - but not in Blikkiesdorp. Isaacs, who lived in Blikkiesdorp for five months before returning to Mowbray, says it is a hotbed of crime.
Van Tonder says they know several people who went to live in Blikkiesdorp, one of whom was stabbed to death. As a result, they say, they have refused a relocation offer from the City of Cape Town.
“Not Blikkiesdorp. That’s kill-me-quick town.”
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