Squatter camps are scattered about Greater Johannesburg and further afield across southern Africa – usually created by the need for work, more than 4 million people live this way. Huge sprawling settlements of small, overcrowded shacks, built of out corrugated iron, the springs from previously burnt mattresses demarking sectioned areas, shacks wired with illegal and unsafe electricity which snakes its way over and around the huts in endless cables.
I have visited Joe Slovo settlement on two visits now, accompanying the Children of Fire to literacy schemes that they provide for the children every Sunday morning and on trips to share excess food that has been donated by Woolworths. The camp is based on the north west of Johannesburg on the edge of the suburbs of Coronation and Crosby. It has been part of the landscape for 22 years, built on land owned by Transnet in a land-invasion. Since then many occupants have sublet their properties and landlords taken many shacks to let and fund their businesses. There is little in the form of maintenance or upkeep, no security of tenure and the many fires that occur mean the rebuilding of adequate accommodation does not instill confidence in a home for life.
I have visited the camp during cold weather and, most recently in the height of summer. On both occasions I have met with some really together people and the children run with enthusiasm to join in with the reading scheme – they know the volunteers well and are eager to show their skills and receive books ( most recently some brought over from the The Den / Northwood Lions/ project in Northwood Hills in the UK ). But at month-end when salaries and grants are paid, a percentage of the residents are drunk, both in mid-morning and during night visits. I was safe but witnessed violence among some inebriated residents. I have had many overwhelming hugs and hand-grabbing greetings though. The conditions are appalling, inhumane and miss the most basic of human rights. The camps are spread across South Africa. We saw many when on our steam train trip through the countryside- iconic images of children waving at the train as we travelled through their backyards.
There are too many stories of yet another fire, caused by illegal electrical connections, adults under the influence of alcohol or drugs, adults involved in domestic violence resulting in kicked over paraffin heaters, exploding paraffin stoves. Fires have several times brought half the community to the ground, resulting in people losing everything they own; at times also the people they love, and lots of burns injuries sustained. The Children of Fire volunteers are often the first on the scene- helping to crisis manage. I’ve heard stories of Bronwen climbing on roofs and over shacks during ravaging fires, bringing home burned children and puppies to safer shelter while their homes are rebuilt.
The fires move fast because the shacks are close to each other and most contain paraffin.Children of Fire works in Joe Slovo squatter camp, helping residents in numerous ways and often being asked to help transport people to hospital because the ambulances don’t arrive. Many doors have been donated when homes burned down or even when kicked in by a drunken wife-beater.
In order to make communities safer and in particular, squatter camp communities, there needs to be gainful employment for residents. If people have purpose and income, they are less likely to sit around and play cards and dice and lose what little money they have. Gambling, especially when combined with drinking, leads to serious social problems, violence, and money that is needed to feed and clothe children, not being available.
There are many skilled and semi-skilled people in squatter camps who just need that chance to make their businesses more formal. Lots of small shopkeepers sell their wares to fellow residents and visitors. They also build and furnish shacks for others and provide services like shoe repair. Children of Fire has been working in Joe Slovo squatter camp for more than 20 years. It has a long term “Sunday Library” outdoor reading project. It used to be indoors until political intimidation by the African National Congress made use of the library shack untenable. Now the children learn life skills, about fire prevention and wider community safety issues, draw, read and often receive toys.
Some time ago in 2001, Children of Fire met with Transnet, the owner of the land on which the squatter camp has been built. ‘We sought their co-operation to transfer the land to a Section 21 (not for profit) company that would have members of the squatter camp community on its board as well as well as other people prepared to offer their skills pro bono to help the residents. Some residents rent out shacks to other people for R300 a month and some landlords own more than 15 shacks. The illegal landlords have no interest in living conditions improving at Joe Slovo because it would remove their income and some of them have threatened Children of Fire, its representatives and trainees.
Children of Fire had requested that the social development section of Transnet should consider building an ablution block for the residents to replace unhygenic chemical toilets with proper facilities attached to the main drainage. Such an ablution block should also include showers for men and women and an area where clothes can be washed and dried, to generate employment for at least some of the scores of unemployed women living there. Transnet said in 2000/2001 that it could not assist with such facilities because they would be permanent infrastructure on its land – on land that the company would clearly have to dispose off in the future. Curiously, nonetheless, some sector of local government went ahead with a poor copy of Children of Fire’s idea, installing too-shallow and insufficient gradient plastic-pipe drainage through the camp, which the residents were paid R60 a metre to dig and install – seemingly without any professional supervision. There are no man-holes to inspect the drainage as it passes through the camp.
Also the water pressure is so low to the taps that only one can be used at a time. Queues for water remain a daily feature of Joe Slovo life and when a tap washer fails there seems no one inclined or able to fix it. Flush toilets were installed and on the Coronation side of the camp there was an immediate problem of theft of components including toilet seats. Then there were allegations that a so-called sanitation committee and that a political committee were padlocking individual toilets for their personal use! Hygienic use of toilets was not understood by all the users.