The Protea South community in Soweto is having serious headaches regarding basic service delivery. But with the elections this close by, politicians were never further than a stone’s throw away. BHEKI SIMELANE took a closer look.
It all began several years ago. Social problems in the Protea South community have accumulated and stacked up like a giant Tetris game.
The lack of provision of amenities like electricity has, over the years, resulted in a string of terrible accidents. Young and old alike have died in tragedies relating to illegally connected electricity cables. Others have died inside burning shacks, from electrical fires. Last year, nine-year-old Zanele Mdaka was killed by a live wire when she was on her way to see her father after school. And patients at the local clinic have suffered because residents have illegally tapped into the clinic’s main electricity supply, causing a series of blackouts.
The clinic provides a range of services including ARV and TB treatment, but it had to close down because it became impossible for staff to work without electricity. It now opens only for patients receiving ARVs, or TB and other medications. The other 5,400 families – of which 1,200 were relocated to other areas – now have to make use of the Lenasia or Chiawelo community clinics, which are further away and harder to access for ill people without transport.
The issue of service delivery – or lack thereof – is multi-faceted, and the DA has called several meetings to try to address it. The local ANC councillor, not to be left behind, has also been searching for solutions, achieving a fair amount in terms of planning but less in terms of implementation. Meanwhile, the community continues to suffer, their frustrations coming to a head in violent protests on 8 and 9 August last year, when extensive damage was caused to infrastructure including roads, electricity boxes and traffic lights. The damage was estimated to be worth millions.
The protest did, however, catch the attention of local government officials. Employees from the City of Johannesburg summoned the community to tell them that if Eskom was to make an electricity connection in the area, shacks would need to be re-arranged. (This has since been done, and was to be managed under the Department of Housing, although Protea South was not budgeted for at the time.)
On 30 September 2013, in an all-stakeholders’ meeting called by local government, plans to carry on with the alignment of shacks in the informal settlement were advanced. At the time, however, there was growing concern in the community over the timing, the legitimacy of the exercise and the effects it would have on the community. Nonetheless, the alignment/relocation of shacks began at the end of 2013 and has since gained momentum.
There has been room for political manoeuvre amongst the controversy, however. Not everyone is happy with the manner in which the project is being carried out, and the DA leadership has been more than happy to listen to those residents who are displeased. The DA’s involvement became noticeable last year when they first approached the court through lawyer Murray Hawthorn, for an interdict preventing the demolition and subsequent realignment of shacks. The applicants’ request was granted, and Hawthorn currently represents 1,500 members of the community.
The Johannesburg High Court granted the application and called on the respondent (City of Johannesburg) to – within 10 days – come up with a conclusive plan regarding how they would carry out the realignment exercise to the satisfaction of the court, but they failed to do so.
Meanwhile, local ANC councillor Mapule Khumalo summoned the community to a meeting in which she told residents of the high court’s decision, but added that the exercise would still be carried out despite the court’s order. The applicants, Maureen Mnisi (DA PR Councillor in Protea South) and others, returned to court on 31 March 2014, however, and again the applicants triumphed.
Judge Wright, in case 2008/17819, ordered as follows:
1. The respondent is interdicted from undertaking any demolition of residential structures at the Protea South Informal settlement of the applicants and joinder applicants from their homes in the Protea South Informal Settlement pending finalisation of the main issues in case 2008/17819.
2. Respondent is interdicted from evicting any of the applicants and joinder applicants from their homes in Protea South Informal Settlement pending finalisation of the main issues in case number 2008/17819.
3. Respondent is constitutionally and statutory to provide the following interim basic services in the Protea South Informal Settlement-communal water taps located within 200 metres of each household, chemical toilets of one per household and high mast lighting. ‘All of which have not been implemented.’
4. Respondent to compile and file its report thereon under oath, within four weeks of the date of this order.
DA PR councillor Mnisi was at pains to describe the misery this alignment exercise had brought on the community, especially after continuing despite the court’s order. “Why is the court ruling not being implemented? It’s not like it favours the DA. No. The call was for the City of Johannesburg to provide the court with a plan for how the exercise would be carried out, something which the City failed to do. What example is this leadership setting to this country’s poor, that it’s okay to defy the Rule of Law?”
Mnisi added that the need for electricity and other basic services in the community did not arise from the protests that occurred in August last year, as the local ANC had led people to believe. Mnisi said the local ANC councillor would want people to believe that she was under extreme pressure from the resultant protests to justify her defiance of the court order.
Several complaints from residents have surfaced since the beginning of the alignment/demolition/relocation exercise. According to residents, several footpaths that made it easy for locals to get around have been removed with no consideration at all for the people who use these paths on a regular basis. According to residents in other areas, the situation created by the relocations is so bad that even when an ambulance or even the police were to be called in an emergency it would be impossible for them to get to the exact scene.
When confronted by Protea South residents whose relocation seemed imminent at the weekend, as other people were being moved around, the Protea North Township Manager wouldn’t budge, telling concerned residents that he was acting on the instruction of his seniors.
Relocating a shack is not as easy as it might seem. When a shack is taken apart and then assembled again, it can retain its shape, but will be smaller in size than it was at its previous position, which can be disastrous for larger families. Residents need extra materials to maintain the sizes of their shacks.
Community member David Matsolo (45) who is originally from Tzaneen in Limpopo, said he returned home to find that a new shack had been erected in front of his. Matsolo said he had learnt that a second shack was also to be built. The 45-year-old labourer said no effort had been made to contact him to notify him of the changes. “They built this shack directly in front of mine. How can you suffocate somebody’s surroundings like that? What if a family member were to die, where will some of us erect tents and where will mourners stay?” asked Matsolo.
However, local ANC Councillor Mapule Khumalo said the exercise was going on smoothly. Asked if there was any resistance from other residents, Khumalo said some residents refused to be relocated/realigned. She said they simply left such people alone and moved along with those who wanted change.
There is no doubt that many residents of Protea South will turn up in their numbers during the election on Wednesday, but who gets their vote is hanging in the balance. Protea South and other poor communities across South Africa may just be in a unique position to finally use their X power to bring about change. Will they use it? We will find out soon enough. DM
Photo: Protea South protests, 9 August 2014 (Greg Nicolson)
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