Cape Argus

How we swopped shacks for homes

If you are poor and liv­ing in a shack, get or­gan­ised and help your­selves – it re­ally works, writes Le­sar Rule


T HERE is sel­dom good news pub­lished about land and hous­ing for poor peo­ple. Most of it is about pol­i­tics, cor­rup­tion and protests, but this story is good news. This is the story of my com­mu­nity, Free­dom Park, and how we have man­aged to se­cure land and build our own houses over the last 13 years.

In 1998, a group of us who were back­yard dwellers liv­ing in over­crowded con­di­tions in Mitchells Plain chose to take con­trol of our hous­ing needs.

We iden­ti­fied a field next to where we were liv­ing. It was owned by the City of Cape Town and zoned for a school, but the school had never been built and the field had be­come a hotspot for crime.

We de­cided to oc­cupy the land and build new shacks there on Free­dom Day – hence the Cape Ar­gus named our set­tle­ment “Free­dom Park”.

As soon as we came up with the plan, word spread through Mitchells Plain. You could hear peo­ple all over talk­ing about it – on taxis, on buses, at the shop – and 800 fam­i­lies came and set­tled on the field on that first week­end.

It was the first time peo­ple from our com­mu­nity had oc­cu­pied land – we learnt from neigh­bour­ing com­mu­ni­ties who had been very suc­cess­ful over the years – and we thought it would help speed up the de­liv­ery of houses.

Ini­tially, it was very suc­cess­ful and there was a lot of ex­cite­ment. As a com­mu­nity, we had made our­selves seen and heard – peo­ple were start­ing to take no­tice of Free­dom Park.

There were no ser­vices on the land, so or­di­nary peo­ple from all over were sup­port­ing our com­mu­nity – wel­fare or­gan­i­sa­tions, Mus­lim ra­dio sta­tions and churches all brought us pots of food or wa­ter.

The City of Cape Town, how­ever, con­demned our in­va­sion, and asked the courts to grant an evic­tion or­der. I was work­ing as a taxi guard at the time, so I asked the taxi as­so­ci­a­tion to help us close off the roads. When the bull­doz­ers came, all the res­i­dents of Free­dom Park, and many sup­port­ers of Free­dom Park, came to­gether and made a hu­man chain around our houses. We were able to pre­vent the de­mo­li­tion of our new homes.

The Le­gal Re­sources Cen­tre (LRC) took up our case and the mat­ter was re­ferred to me­di­a­tion. The me­di­a­tor, Mary Si­mons from the Uni­ver­sity of Cape Town, was very good. She came to see how we were liv­ing. The me­di­a­tion dragged on for al­most five years, dur­ing which time con­di­tions in Free­dom Park grew worse.

Af­ter the ini­tial ex­cite­ment wore off, we were faced with the day-to­day re­al­ity of liv­ing without ser­vices. We dug holes for our toi­lets and it wasn’t long be­fore we had used all the avail­able land. So then we be­gan dig­ging in places that had al­ready been used, and this caused a sig­nif­i­cant health and safety prob­lem for our peo­ple, who were suf­fer­ing (and even dy­ing) from di­ar­rhoea.

The LRC and Si­mons rec­om­mended we con­tact the De­vel­op­ment Action Group (Dag) and ask for sup­port in our fight for land and hous­ing. When the Dag came on board, it was a big mo­ment for us, and a key part­ner­ship de­vel­oped. The Dag helped us or­gan­ise the com­mu­nity to hold a big gen­eral meet­ing, demo­crat­i­cally elect leaders and reg­is­ter as a non-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion. There were 10 women and two men on the com­mit­tee, and we at­tended lots of work­shops. We were given so much in­for­ma­tion about hu­man rights, words were com­ing out of my ears.

Ini­tially, we didn’t know how to stand up for our­selves in our meet­ings with the City of Cape Town. They were mostly men and had all the power. Can you imag­ine 10 poor women walk­ing into their offices? They made the rules and we women wanted to break their rules, but we didn’t have proper ed­u­ca­tion and didn’t know how. If they said “no”, we ac­cepted it, but af­ter at­tend­ing all th­ese work­shops with the Dag, we grew strong and learnt how to be­come part­ners with the mu­nic­i­pal­ity. We taught them how to work with the poor, and they taught us how to work with the gov­ern­ment.

From that point on, things started to open up. We found a way for both the gov­ern­ment and the poor to ben­e­fit: we agreed with the mu­nic­i­pal­ity to al­low fam­i­lies from their wait­ing list to join our com­mu­nity, and in ex­change we got ten­ure rights to the land.

Then we heard of the Niall Mel­lon Town­ship Ini­tia­tive (NMTI), which was build­ing houses in an­other poor com­mu­nity, Ne­treg. We wanted to meet this Ir­ish­man.

Mel­lon sent his right-hand man, Hugh Bren­nen, to meet with us. He was quite taken with our story, our strug­gle and our com­mu­nity, and the next day he phoned to say the project had been ap­proved and the NMTI would help us build our houses.

When this third party came in – in ad­di­tion to the LRC and the Dag – we be­came even stronger. We were quite fa­mous. Every­one was tak­ing no­tice of us. We never stopped work­ing. When we hit an ob­sta­cle, we tried new routes, new an­gles.

I was elected to be the com­mu­nity li­ai­son of­fi­cer (CLO) for in­fra­struc­ture on the project. This was quite some­thing for a dis­abled woman. I knew noth­ing about in­fra- struc­ture. I thought a road was just a road, and if I opened the tap, I didn’t know where the wa­ter came from. But I learnt ev­ery­thing through that process – how to lay pipes, build roads, take care of sewage.

When peo­ple started get­ting their keys, that’s when our work re­ally be­gan.

Peo­ple don’t re­alise what it is like to live in a house for the first time. Peo­ple think they can rely on the con­trac­tor and the sub­sidy to fix all their prob­lems. If you have four or five chil­dren and you all use the toi- let, the chain will break. For a while, fam­i­lies think they can ask the leaders or the con­trac­tor to fix it. Per­haps I’m be­ing a lit­tle un­fair here, but it’s dif­fi­cult to learn to take care of a for­mal house when you’ve come out of a sit­u­a­tion of poverty. It’s not go­ing to hap­pen in a few days – it’s a big ad­just­ment.

Within the com­mu­nity, there were al­ways fights and strug­gles. Peo­ple didn’t trust the com­mit­tee. We would go off to meet­ings with the gov­ern­ment and re­port back, but they didn’t know if we were telling the truth. They got tired of wait­ing and feel­ing like noth­ing was hap­pen­ing. They con­stantly put pres­sure on the leaders, and they re­lied on us to be the po­lice, to set­tle dis­putes, to ad­vo­cate for them. They re­ally pushed us to be­come what we are to­day. They changed our lives without us know­ing.

The whole com­mu­nity changed. When we were liv­ing in shacks, we would hear peo­ple say, “You are dirty” or “You bring flies and bugs.” We felt in­fe­rior. But now, we have what every­one else has: houses.

And with those houses, we got our con­fi­dence back. We have planted trees – and you know what? They’re grow­ing. That means peo­ple are tak­ing care of them.

The ad­vice I would give to other com­mu­ni­ties in need of hous­ing is this: get prop­erly or­gan­ised; elect your leaders demo­crat­i­cally; don’t be afraid to ne­go­ti­ate with the mu­nic­i­pal­ity; make part­ner­ships that can sus­tain you; and don’t give up. There are other ways be­sides toyi-toyi and vi­o­lence.

Also, I would say to the gov­ern­ment that the Dag should be funded by the city. They are act­ing as the go­b­e­tween, do­ing the nitty-gritty work the mu­nic­i­pal­ity doesn’t do. Why should their fund­ing come from over­seas – we, as South Africans, have the ca­pac­ity to solve our hous­ing prob­lems lo­cally.

Yes­ter­day, Mayor Dan Plato joined us to cel­e­brate the com­ple­tion of our project. What a long road we have walked. We have learnt a lot on this jour­ney. It is a jour­ney that con­tin­ues. We have lots to be grate­ful for, and lots to be proud of.

Free­dom Park can def­i­nitely say: “We achieved some­thing won­der­ful!”

But we will also use this op­por­tu­nity to ne­go­ti­ate for some of the things we still lack: street lights; fenc­ing; plants for our open spa­ces.

This is a great mo­ment for every­one who has been a part of this project over the last 13 years – to see what a suc­cess we have made. We didn’t just sit and wait. We stepped up and took what was re­ally ours.

Le­sar Rule is a res­i­dent of Free­dom Park, and the elected com­mu­nity li­ai­son of­fi­cer.

 ?? PICTUREMXO­LISIMADELA ?? HOME TALK: The Niall Mel­lon Town­ship Trust busy at work build­ing houses at Free­dom Park in Mitchells Plain. The Ir­ish group be­came in­volved af­ter the de­ter­mined com­mu­nity had oc­cu­pied va­cant land, started ne­go­ti­at­ing with the city – and took charge of...
PICTUREMXO­LISIMADELA HOME TALK: The Niall Mel­lon Town­ship Trust busy at work build­ing houses at Free­dom Park in Mitchells Plain. The Ir­ish group be­came in­volved af­ter the de­ter­mined com­mu­nity had oc­cu­pied va­cant land, started ne­go­ti­at­ing with the city – and took charge of...

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