Inside the Inner City

I just got back from an amazing tour of the inner-city housing CALS has been protecting through its anti-eviction campaign.

Johannesburg’s inner city is home to around 100,000 of the city’s poorest residents. But the city government wants them out.

Living downtown is a crucial part of many very poor Joburgers’ livelihood strategies. Being downtown gives them access to money-making opportunities like gathering recycling, selling small goods, and guarding parked cars.

A person can earn about R800 a month in one of these informal enterprises.  But if they live in one of the townships on the city’s outskirts, they will immediately lose about a third of that to transportation costs.

Some downtown high-rise apartment buildings offer “communal living” arrangements, where a single person can rent a small room, with access to shared bathrooms and cooking facilities.  But at R500 per month per person, even this is way out of reach for those at the bottom of Jozi’s employment ladder.

So the very poor overlook the aesthetic flaws and safety hazards of the inner city’s many abandoned buildings to claim a space where they can store their things and sleep safely each night.

Today we visited one of these, the sixteen-story San Jose apartment building in the heart of downtown.

Most of the structure’s windows are broken or missing, and the paint is peeling terribly. One can only guess how many years it has been since the elevators last worked.  The apartments themselves aren’t much to look at, but they provide a private space where people can maintain a safe and dignified family life, humble as it may be.  The building is home to almost 490 people.

San Jose’s residents are highly organized.  Every Sunday they meet to set house rules and discuss problems.  Then they work together to clean the building’s common spaces and haul out the trash.
The ground floor is regularly flooded by rainwater, but the hallways above that are kept swept and clean.  No water flows through the building’s taps, so each week someone hauls mop water up sixteen flights of stairs. The tenants also coordinate nightly patrols to assure safety in the building, since there are no gates to keep strangers out.

Sadly, the tenants’ efforts to maintain a decent home are undercut at every turn by the Johannesburg government.

The city utility companies cut off water and electricity to the entire building long ago, refusing to reconnect these services until someone pays off the debts incurred by the former landlord. Despite a national policy which guarantees every South African household 6000L of free water each month as a constitutional right, San Jose’s residents get not a drop.

The utilities embargo complicates the tenants’ lives in several ways.

The building is more dangerous because there are no lights at night. It is impossible to cook in the apartments or refrigerate food, so residents must take meals outside the home. There is no heat in the winter. People pour water down their toilets to flush them, but the lack of water pressure causes the sewage to accumulate in the garage beneath the building, an open cesspool that creates a terrible stink. If a fire started, there would be no water to put it out with.

The city argues that these health and safety violations require the immediate evacuation of all San Jose residents.  Although the term “evacuation” suggests that residents are to be moved to someplace safer, in fact the city intended to simply kick people out on the streets, leaving them to fend for themselves.

That’s when CALS entered the picture, pointing out that the city’s plan violated several national laws and constitutional provisions.

A High Court quashed the eviction attempt, noting that most of the health and safety problems could in fact be solved by reconnecting water and electricity.  You can read the full judgment here.

Besides not being evicted from their homes, the residents won another concrete victory. The city now collects trash from the building’s dumpster once a week.  Unfortunately, they’re still dragging their heels on the electricity and water reconnection.

On a broader level, this case is not just about the 490 residents of San Jose. The planned eviction was part of a larger campaign to remove tens of thousands of the inner-city poor from abandoned or rundown buildings, with no efforts to provide alternative accommodation.  CALS’ legal victory put those plans on hold.  The city is now appealing.

From the rooftop of San Jose, you can see the entire city of Johannesburg: gritty parts up close, greener suburbs on the horizon.

Eventually, CALS expects the tenants’ case will be appealed all the way to South Africa’s Constitutional Court.  A favorable ruling there will force the city to revamp its plan for inner city housing in a way that includes some provision for the housing rights of the very poor.

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One response to “Inside the Inner City

  1. Thanks for the discription of the situation for us, Lea. Sure hope some relief is forthcoming through the work before you.

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