Liv­ing on the edge in a Sophi­a­town slum

Home­own­ers are flout­ing by-laws or aban­don­ing their prop­er­ties

The Star Early Edition - - NEWS - LINDILE SIFILE @lindile­si­file

ABUCKET filled with heaps of hu­man waste stands in the dark and filthy cor­ri­dor as the un­pleas­ant smell chokes the lit­tle oxy­gen left in the con­gested build­ing.

Tiny and dim rooms with chained doors line the dingy cor­ri­dors, the walls of which have long been de­faced by a va­ri­ety of of­fen­sive graf­fiti. Down­stairs, stinky wa­ter ooz­ing from burst sewer pipes cov­ers most of the yard, in­clud­ing the ad­ja­cent room that had been turned into an il­le­gal rub­bish pit.

“Wel­come to our home, baba (my friend). We call it home be­cause it pro­vides shel­ter, but it’s so filthy that we are ashamed and scared to even bring our girl­friends here,” says Tha­bang Ncube as he shows us into the sin­gle room he shares with a friend.

Ncube’s “home” is a name­less di­lap­i­dated build­ing on Sec­ond Av­enue in West­dene near Sophi­a­town, west of Jo­han­nes­burg. It has been his home for al­most a year.

Their dou­ble bed has swal­lowed up the space in their room, which they also use for cook­ing and bathing. The build­ing has 86 rooms and more than 200 oc­cu­pants. The last time there was elec­tric­ity was eight months ago. The taps have been dry since March last year.

Res­i­dents use nearby petrol sta­tions and un­oc­cu­pied rooms to re­lieve them­selves as the toi­lets have been de­stroyed by van­dals. The build­ing has no fire es­cape routes and some of its rooms are used for pros­ti­tu­tion and as drug dens.

“We come from all walks of life to look for em­ploy­ment here in Jo­han­nes­burg. As much as this place is filthy and a health haz­ard for peo­ple to live in, it is our only home. We don’t pay rent be­cause the owner aban­doned this place a long time ago,” said Ncube.

West­dene and Sophi­a­town were hip sub­urbs prior the forced re­movals of the apartheid Group Ar­eas Act in the 1950s. They some­what re­claimed that ti­tle af­ter the dawn of democ­racy in the 1990s as new stand­alone homes mush­roomed.

How­ever, the area has once more lost its glowing spark as a re­sult of ur­ban­i­sa­tion and ac­com­mo­da­tion de­mands by stu­dents and job seek­ers who come from within the coun­try and be­yond. To­day, West­dene and Sophi­a­town and parts of Melville re­sem­ble slum ar­eas as many old build­ings have been aban­doned by their own­ers and taken over by des­per­ate peo­ple look­ing for work.

On the other hand, cash-hun­gry home­own­ers are flaunt­ing mu­nic­i­pal zon­ing by-laws by il­le­gally trans­form­ing their homes into com­mu­nal ac­com­mo­da­tion for needy stu­dents.

Ac­cord­ing to the City of Joburg’s De­vel­op­ment Plan­ning progress re­port of Septem­ber 2017, 271 prop­er­ties in West­dene were in­ves­ti­gated for con­tra­ven­ing build­ing and con­struc­tion by­laws. At least 80 of th­ese were found guilty of il­le­gal con­struc­tion and for us­ing coun­cil land un­law­fully. Most of th­ese struc­tures were lo­cated in Aberdeen, Perth and Ararat streets and Sec­ond Av­enue.

This num­ber could rise as mu­nic­i­pal in­spec­tors could not gain ac­cess to more than 100 prop­er­ties as gates were ei­ther locked or oc­cu­pants were un­avail­able.

On the cor­ner of Third Av­enue and Thorn­ton, a newly built stu­dent ac­com­mo­da­tion has been so poorly con­structed its walls en­croach the edge of the road and its gut­ter hangs di­rectly above the pave­ment. Res­i­dents ac­cused the owner of steal­ing a me­tre of coun­cil land on the bound­ary to make his 14-room build­ing big­ger.

In Fifth Av­enue, three houses were aban­doned by their owner years ago and have since been oc­cu­pied by home­less peo­ple.

Siphokazi, who lives there with her daugh­ter and grand­child, places her hopes on find­ing a job so she and her fam­ily can get a con­ducive place to call home.

“I’m only here be­cause I don’t have an op­tion. I’ve lived here for years and I still can’t get used to this en­vi­ron­ment. There are too many drugs and al­co­hol,” said Siphokazi, who did not want to give her full name.

While Dauw Steyn, chair­man of the Sophi­a­town Neigh­bour­hood Watch, blames home­own­ers for be­ing greedy and tak­ing ad­van­tage of des­per­ate shel­ter-seek­ers, he also ac­cuses the coun­cil of charg­ing ex­or­bi­tant fees to peo­ple who want to con­vert their homes for busi­ness. He also says the re­view of res­i­den­tial re­zon­ing ap­pli­ca­tions and the man­ner of in­spect­ing prop­er­ties are un­sat­is­fac­tory.

“Coun­cil work­ers just ap­prove with­out do­ing their checks. They don’t care be­cause they don’t live here. Univer­sity of Jo­han­nes­burg ac­cred­ited stu­dent ac­com­mo­da­tion does ex­ist but it costs a lot of money to go through the le­gal route. If it wasn’t this ex­pen­sive, peo­ple would reg­is­ter their busi­nesses,” says Steyn.

Rosa Vuce­vic, vice chair­per­son of West­dene-Sophi­a­town Res­i­dents As­so­ci­a­tion, says the area was pleas­ant un­til 2013 when there was a big de­mand for ac­com­mo­da­tion and re­li­able pub­lic trans­port.

“The in­tro­duc­tion of Rea Vaya caused a big boom. It was a great con­cept but gov­ern­ment never thought of up­grad­ing the sewer sys­tem and elec­tric­ity sup­ply for this com­mu­nity de­spite its in­creased pop­u­la­tion. Every now and then our pipes pack up,” says Vuce­vic.

De­spite the tag “World Class City” that the pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tors gave to the City of Joburg, mayor Her­man Mashaba said re­cently that this con­cept was mis­lead­ing as cru­cial in­fra­struc­ture had long reached its life­span.

“We have one elec­tric­ity sub­sta­tion that sup­plies the en­tire in­ner city of Jo­han­nes­burg. It is 75 years old, 30 years past its use­ful life­span… No ser­vice parts are avail­able for this sub­sta­tion any longer – they stopped mak­ing those parts 20 years ago,” he said, adding that the city had an in­fra­struc­ture back­log of R170 bil­lion.

But this is of lit­tle con­cern for Ncube. “My liv­ing con­di­tions don’t re­ally mat­ter. This location gives me an up­per hand be­cause it’s close to work op­por­tu­ni­ties,” he says.

SHOCK­ING SLUM: This un­ac­cred­ited stu­dent ac­com­mo­da­tion on Sec­ond Av­enue in Sophi­a­town is a di­lap­i­dated build­ing with no elec­tric­ity or proper san­i­ta­tion.

UNHAPPY: Sophi­a­town rep­re­sen­ta­tive Dauw Steyn is con­cerned about un­ac­cred­ited stu­dent hous­ing in the sub­urb.

IG­NOR­ING BY-LAWS: Gut­ters on this build­ing, which houses stu­dents, hang over the pave­ments on Third Av­enue.

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