Sewage leaks from Langa’s apartment blocks

Hundreds of people are living in abject conditions in City-maintained flats

| Text by Naib Mian. Photos by Masixole Feni.
Photo of sewage leaking out of block of flats
Sewage leaks out of the pipes of Old Flats in Langa.

Surrounded by shacks and containers of smoking rubbish, the Old Flats apartment blocks in Langa are decaying. Constructed in 1944 as workers’ hostels, they are now inhabited by families.

Water and the occasional faeces pour out of pipes on the side of the building. Dry sewage forms cakes on the cracking walls. Dust flows in through broken windows. Rooms, no more than three metres long, line dark damp hallways.

Langa has several of these old hostels, multi-storey blocks crammed with small apartments. They are the responsibility of the City of Cape Town. The City’s Hostel Transformation Programme aims to move families from these hostels into newer blocks of flats. The City built 463 apartments last year. It aims to build 1,300.

The City allocates people to newer flats in consultation with community-appointed committees based on the length of their stay in the old hostels, the size of their families, their ages and whether they have paid their accounts. However, the several blocks comprising Old Flats are not part of this programme, and the people staying in these derelict buildings will not be moved. About a hundred people live in each block.

Nokwembesa Mqushulu lives in Old Flats, sharing one of the small rooms with her husband and three children.

She said a few years ago, two families would have occupied this flat even though it was designed for two men. Mqushulu used to live in a shack in Khayelitsha but moved to Langa eight years ago to find a more convenient location with access to the hospital and clinic where she regularly takes her middle child, who is disabled.

Nokwembesa Mqushulu’s family of five live in this tiny room.

She no longer feels the place is suitable to raise her nine-year-old disabled son, who once injured himself accidentally rolling down the staircase in his wheelchair. Mqushulu said her doctor wrote a letter to the provincial government two years ago, requesting a new house that would be safer for her child but she says she received no response.

It’s becoming increasingly difficult for her child, as the building faces neglect. About 40 men, women and children share one communal bathroom. Her son’s disability means he must use a bucket in their room, which they then pour into a toilet in the communal bathroom. Water covers the bathroom floors, sometimes with sewage in it, and the toilets lack flushes. Mqushulu said the sewage flooding has been ongoing for a year. The toilets haven’t had flush handles for two years, and residents pour a bucket of water over any waste.

A municipality contractor is supposed to do maintenance and clean Mondays through Fridays, Mqushulu said, but they usually only come once a week.

With a focus on new construction, interim maintenance of the old hostels is slipping through the cracks. “The City has stopped sending rent collection letters,” Mqushulu said. She thinks the lack of any improvement to the building is because of the absence of rent collection.

Photo of toilet
Water sprays from a pipe next to an overflowing toilet.

Councillor Benedicta van Minnen, the City’s Mayoral Committee Member for Human Settlements, said, however, that the City does collect a rent of R20 per bed per month.

As the building falls apart and sewage flows out the pipes, Mqushulu said the residents have had to take responsibility. “We normally would complain to the municipality, but they don’t come.” So the residents have pooled money to paint a bathroom. Sometimes everyone contributes two rand to hire someone to fix things around the building.

Van Minnen said the the City’s Housing Maintenance Department responds to all notifications and service requests on a day-to-day basis and looks to improve the state of the flats.

Newly constructed housing has garnered attention in Langa, but conditions in the older flats continue to worsen as residents like Mqushulu don’t see any hope of being relocated to a newer facility. “After building the new flats, the government never came here.”

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TOPICS:  Government Housing Human Rights Sanitation

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