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.