Come and try to ‘save lives’ in this home of 47, pleads Mitchells Plain family 

Come and try to ‘save lives’ in this home of 47, pleads Mitchells Plain family 
Members of the May family stand between two of the wendy houses. When the property flooded in June 2020, all the rooms and outside spaces were under water. (Photo: Roshana Fataar)

The queries of five of the adult siblings about their place on the City of Cape Town’s housing list, and why they haven’t received a house, have gone unanswered for years. Covid-19 has given their plea more urgency.

Pastor Dean Ramjoomia (far right) has been assisting Fataar, May and Claasen to access water, food and housing since 2020. He has applauded their resilience and determination to provide for their family. (Photo: Christi Nortier)

The May family has lived in Mitchells Plain for decades. Charles May sold up in Eastridge, one of 13 areas that make up Mitchells Plain, because of gangsterism and moved his family to neighbouring Beacon Valley, he says. Their house had always been crowded – there were eight children after all. 

As the children grew and married, they moved in with their in-laws in Mitchells Plain. But those houses became crowded and, they say, they had no choice but to move back to their parents’ home. “You know, when you stay with other people it’s not the same as when you stay with your own people,” reflects Roshana Fataar, one of May’s six daughters.

Now, there are 47 people living on the property, with a baby on the way. They share a small house and three wendy houses on one plot. There is only one bathroom and toilet. The sleeping space overflows from bedrooms into communal areas. Fataar shares a bedroom with her husband and four children, while May sleeps in the lounge with two of his daughters and grandchildren.  

A front view of one of the May’s three wendy houses. Each wendy house accommodates one of the May siblings, their spouse and their children. (Photo: Roshana Fataar)

A roof over our heads’

Fataar and her sister, Lorna Claasen, say they have always longed for their own homes, as do their siblings – a “roof over our heads”. Five of them have applied for housing and were approved to be placed on the City of Cape Town’s list. But Fataar, who has been on the list for almost 18 years, has given up on her annual trip to the Wale Street housing office because it has never resulted in answers.

“I ask them every year when I go there: why is it always the same story? People are getting houses already, why am I still stuck? The people who applied with me in 2003 and who live in Eastridge, they have houses already. They tell me I should have been at a meeting in 1995. But how can you be at a meeting in 1995 if you only applied in 2003?”

Fataar says the office repeats the same requests for the same documents each year. All she wants to know is why she hasn’t received a house yet. She provides the documents but is met with silence.

In 2020 she escalated her questions to Michael Pietersen, the councillor for Ward 116 and Subcouncil 9, and Solomon Philander, the councillor for Ward 79 and chairperson of Subcouncil 12.

Philander arranged for staff from social development to do an assessment with the family in the first half of 2020, says Fataar. He says staff from his office helped the family to complete job seeker forms. Philander then contacted Fataar in June 2020 and said she was on the waiting list for the Beacon Valley Housing Project.

This project is being built on vacant municipal land and about 1,800 people from Mitchells Plain are expected to receive houses there. It has been in the pipeline since 2017. 

Those on the waiting list the longest will be given houses first, according to Philander. He says beneficiaries will be contacted directly by the city once they have been selected. This was confirmed by Malusi Booi, the mayoral committee member for human settlements.

Booi estimates that service construction will take another 14 months to complete. Only then can the houses be built and they are expected to be completed in June 2023 “if all goes according to plan”. While construction went ahead the city would complete the process of ensuring all potential beneficiaries were placed on the housing register.

When the water stops at 10AM, the bathroom is unusable. The May family replaced their bath with a shower to save water and make their allocation go further. (Photo: Roshana Fataar)

Fataar lost her phone but managed to contact Philander again months later. She was dismayed when he didn’t know who she was. “I explained who I am. Then he asked for all the identity documents again. He had no clue who I am.”

She asked when she would know what would happen next and if he needed more documents. She says she is yet to receive a response. 

“If you speak to them they will stand in front of you and listen. When they leave your house they don’t come back to you. You have to press them every day and ask what’s going to happen, because they have the power to put us in houses. They do have the power. So why don’t they do it? They don’t give reasons why nothing is happening,” says Fataar.

The threat of Covid-19: “There is nothing we can do”

The Covid-19 pandemic has given the family a renewed sense of urgency. “Because of our circumstances, if one person gets Covid-19 in the house then the whole house will get it,” says Fataar. “That was our main concern when we heard about Covid-19. Everybody, including the children, will have it. 

“There’s nothing we can do about it. We can’t go to other people’s houses and stay there to make this house less crowded because the virus is everywhere. We have to deal with it by wearing our masks and sanitising or washing our hands. So, we do that the whole day. We make bottles of water so we can wash our hands after the water turns off. That’s how we actually survive.”

Otherwise, all they can do is pray every day, says Claasen. She says they believe this is why no one in the house has contracted Covid-19 almost a year into the pandemic.

Since lockdown began in 2020 all but two members of the household have lost their jobs. They rely on child grants, one full-time salary and a part-time salary to provide for 47 people.

It’s difficult to have more than 30 children at home all day during lockdown, says Fataar. “You have to run after them all day. You have to watch that they don’t leave the taps open, because there’s already a shortage of water, because they like to play around and mess. You have to run after them all day. We give them toys to play with, books to write in, or send them across the road to play in the park. They go there every day for fresh air because we’re so crowded in the house.”

Meanwhile, school goes on and they try to keep up, Claasen adds. “Where must they sit with their books and learn? The one steps on the other’s book and then they get mad.”

Beacon Valley in Mitchells Plain is about 2 km squared and has a population of 28,884, according to the 2011 South African census. (Source: Google Maps)

Pandemic exacerbates food and water woes

Besides housing, water and food are critical issues for the family. They have submitted requests for more than the 350 litres a day the water-management device installed on their meter allows. 

They are simply not getting by – if three children shower the entire family goes without water for the day, says Fataar. In addition, it shuts off at 10am. They understand they will have to pay for the extra water and appeal for the exemption on humanitarian grounds.

Water is May’s main worry. “Sometimes I want to cry when I see my grandchildren open the taps and nothing runs out. Then I can cry for my children. And I must go to my neighbour and ask for a bit of water for them. I can’t do it every day because people get tired of it.”

Philander confirmed that Pietersen’s office was assisting with this request. He said that even before Covid-19 applications for such exemptions were allowed. 

However, the city’s water and sanitation department “does not have a record of any applications to increase water supply to the property”. The city said it will investigate whether an increased allocation is possible. It has not made a blanket concession to allow residents to increase their allowance during Covid-19, but has suspended water debt-management actions. It provides 40% of households with free water “as part of its social package”.

In June 2020, Claasen reached out to Souper Troopers for food for the children. The non-profit organisation helps the homeless but started a hunger relief fund during lockdown to support feeding schemes run by organisations such as the Nehemiah Call Initiative. Nehemiah head, Pastor Dean Ramjoomia, visited them: 

“At the time, they reached out for food support. But when I visited them I realised that what we’re dealing with is over and above just food. We realised the extent of the issue – our organisations don’t have the financial resources or food support to sustain them. Their issues are far wider and bigger than just food security… we decided to deal with this in a holistic way and not just saying we’re going to give you a couple of parcels of food and move on. From there we committed to flagging these issues.”

Help from the city

The City of Cape Town says it has rolled out a number of initiatives to “save lives” during the pandemic, such as awareness campaigns and spending R200-million on delivering water to “vulnerable residents”. It has delivered food parcels and care packs and supported 200 soup kitchens through Mayor Dan Plato’s office, and provided R3.3-billion in “indigent support”.

Plato’s office referred all questions to the Western Cape Department of Social Development and the city’s human settlements directorate.Pietersen failed to respond to questions by the deadline.

In Subcouncil 12 and Ward 79 a community-based team has been formed to help with awareness and prevention of spreading Covid-19, says Philander. In addition, “we tap into our networks” and “we have teams working at hotspots to assist with social distancing”.

With Ramjoomia’s help the family has raised the issues of water and housing with the city – from the ward councillor to the mayor – and flagged them as emergencies because of Covid-19. 

So far they have received a food parcel from Philander on behalf of his office. He said that with the help of the Gift of the Givers disaster relief group he personally ensured it reached the family. He said the South African Social Security Agency is the only government agency that can provide social relief in distress and that ward councillors “unfortunately do not have a social relief fund. We depend on networks to assist where we possibly can.”

The family has been promised a visit from Plato on Friday, 29 January, according to Ramjoomia, who put in a request the week before for the mayor to go to the house and “see what you would want done if it was your circumstances”. He said it would be a “sad embarrassment” if it was necessary for the mayor to intervene because his councillors failed to provide enough help.

Fataar believes the next step is to contact President Cyril Ramaphosa. “I think the president will enter the gate at the house and run back when he sees all the faces. He’ll think that he’ll get Covid there.” 

Local government had failed them and their only hope was the man at the top.

They challenged the government at every level to visit their home if it means some change will happen. Ramjoomia says: “When you see this reality then talk to us about the Covid regulations and how you want to ‘save lives’. It sounds very believable that you want to ‘save lives’. So, come and tell me here how you want to ‘save lives’. Come and tell me, because afterwards you will send condolences and mourn.” DM/MC

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"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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