Tembisa: the informal settlers whose homes have been occupied by strangers

For the past 15 years, residents at Winnie Mandela Park informal settlement in Tembisa township have received municipal bills for services they can’t access. The bills come from homes they have been allocated, homes occupied by strangers in an alleged state housing blunder. Their hopes for a house and basic services now rest on a court case against the Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality. RA’EESA PATHER reports.

Sixty-five year old Johanna Thubakgale lives in a two-room shack with her husband and their 11 children. Like many parents, she considers her children to be blessings, but because she is an elderly woman living without clean water, her children are also the preservers of her dignity.

“If I don’t have my children to get fresh water for me then I would be a laughing stock of the people where I stay,” says Thubakgale.

To cook meals for her family, Thubakgale is forced to use a paraffin stove and, when night falls, her only source of light is from the candles she burns. For the past three years, she has been in and out of hospital for lung problems, which stem from paraffin use.

Yet, since 2000, Thubakgale has been receiving electricity and water bills for a house that she does not live in. Instead, the stand in Tembisa that was allocated to her fifteen years ago is occupied by strangers.

Housing applications from the Winnie Mandela residents were lodged from 1996 to 1998, and after decades of waiting, the stand has now become an eyesore: sitting just a few metres away from her shack, where she sees it every day without being able take possession of it.

“My heart is very sore every time I see that place and somebody moving in. I feel that I can collapse,” she says.

According to Thubakgale, the people living on the stand say that the municipality put them there. Her husband’s name is now on a court application filed against the Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality last week, demanding that the municipality give them title to the land on which they live and upgrade their residences, or allocate them houses in development projects close to Winnie Mandela Park.

The Socio-Economic Rights Institute (Seri) is taking charge of the case, representing 133 residents who are facing the same situation as the Thubakgales. The litigation organisation is working with the Ekurhuleni Concerned Residents Association (Ecra) to find a solution.

“They’ve knocked on every door that the could have gone to. They made complaints to the National Council of Provinces, the Gauteng provincial parliament, Chapter 9 institutions, and it got to a point where clearly no one was willing to assist them and they said well, our only hope is to go to court,” Nomzamo Zondo, Seri’s director of litigation, told The Daily Vox.

According to Ecra’s chairperson, Tsietsi Kukame, the association has approached presidencies under Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, as well as the public protector’s office and the South African Human Rights Commission to no avail.

The Special Investigation Unit investigated the housing allocation in 2006, and a report signed by Devraj Chainee, the head of the municipality’s department of human settlements, states that residents have not received possession of the stands they were allocated due to “corruption fraud and/or bribery, which have resulted in the stand being illegally occupied”, among other factors.

Despite the threat of court action against them, some residents have refused to pay the municipal bills. Many of them, like the Thubakgales, hadn’t realised that they had been allocated homes until the first bills arrived in 2000. It has taken them 15 years to approach the courts, after exhausting every relevant department in government.

“The point about approaching a court is that you have a definite answer which can be tied to definite deadlines,” Zondo says.“What the court says is that you must do it by this time, and if you don’t then you can be held in contempt.”

According to Zondo, the municipality has 10 days to oppose the court application, and another 15 to file a statement substantiating their position. The municipality told The Daily Vox that it is currently reviewing the case.

“The City of Ekurhuleni confirms receipt of the notice of motion from the court. Our legal department is studying the document in order to determine an appropriate response,” said Themba Gadebe, spokesperson for the municipality.

Gadebe added that, “The municipality is determined… to address the backlogs that are experience in most of the informal settlements.”

According to Gadebe, the municipality is currently developing houses in Clayville Extension 54 and Tembisa Extension 25, as well as Esselen Park. Winnie Mandela Park residents are to be accommodated in the Esselen Park and Clayville developments.

But previous engagements with the government have failed Winnie Mandela Park residents, and all Thubagkale has to keep her hopes alive is a court case which will see more time taken before there is a resolution.

“I believe I will get a stand before I die because I’m praying to God to spare me until I get a house or a stand,” Thubakgale says.

– Featured image: By Tsietsi Kukame from Ecra.