Newly constructed temporary residential units in Wilgespruit, Johannesburg. Picture: MARCO LONGARI / AFP
Newly constructed temporary residential units in Wilgespruit, Johannesburg. Picture: MARCO LONGARI / AFP

Over three years Isaac Mbatha grew accustomed to the suffocating summer heat and icy winter drafts that pierced the canvas walls of his tent in Wilgespruit on the hilly outskirts of Johannesburg.

He came to terms with the lack of space, running water and electricity in the makeshift home he shared with his wife and three children. But he never got used to the rain.

“When it's raining you can't even sleep,” said Mbatha, recalling the deafening sound of water splattering against the flimsy sheets and the constant fear of flooding. Life is very difficult if you don't have a roof over your head.”

But Covid-19 brought unexpected respite to those wet and sleepless nights. Thanks to the pandemic, 70 Wilgespruit families have been relocated to wooden cottages nearby — free of charge.

“No more rain inside our home, no more cold in the morning,” Mbatha said. “Our life will be better now.”

Wilgespruit is one of SA’s 2,700 informal settlements. A section of it known as Plot 323 came into being in 2017, when hundreds of squatters were evicted from a nearby property where they had been living in shacks for more than a decade.

Thrown onto the streets, they were allowed to settle on the government-owned Wilgespruit hill living in donated tents. Most scrape a meagre living from informal recycling of plastics.

More than a million families live in these informal settlements.

'Not safe' 

The townships, usually only remembered by politicians when it is election season, were dragged back to the government's attention by the coronavirus outbreak. Amid fears that overcrowding and squalor would hinder efforts to stem the disease, authorities rushed to boost access to sanitation and relocate the poorest.

“For corona, the government gave us sanitiser and toilets,” said another resident, Rebecca Jane. “But we don't have water and there are several families living in one tent,” she said. “It's not safe.”

“Plot 323" was the first on a government-compiled list of dozens of settlements in SA to be urgently “de-densified”.

At the inauguration ceremony last week, human settlements minister Lindiwe Sisulu said the “dignity” of the residents had been “restored”. 

When asked why the resettlement had taken so long, she said "we didn’t know about their terrible conditions”.

“The most important thing is that when we were aware of it, in less than a month we were able to solve it ... and we will continue to do it because we are a caring government.”

'Political stunt' 

As expected, Wilgespruit's relocation rapidly became a political football.

“These people had been put by what I would call an uncaring government into these tents and forgotten about,” said Johannesburg mayor Geoffrey Makhubo.

Makhubo, who took office in December, was making reference to his predecessor Herman Mashaba, who is a former DA member.

Wilgespruit was not “created over the last three years — those people were living for 24 years in shacks before they were evicted”, said DA ward councillor Leah Knott. “It's just a political stunt.”

Knott condemned the new resettlement as “completely illegal” and problematic for “residents” from surrounding areas, most of whom are white. Wilgespruit community spokesperson Sekokotle Sekokotle confirmed their “wealthy” and “white” neighbours had been hostile.

He shrugged and gave an ironic smile in gratitude for the pandemic. “Without this virus we would have stayed in those tents. But we don't want to celebrate yet,” he cautioned. “We will do it when all the dwellers are inside brick houses.”

'Struggling to get own land'

Lawyer Thandeka Chauke of the charity Lawyers for Human Rights, doubted Sekokotle's wish would materialise.

“Previous efforts from the government to de-density informal settlements were regarded as a failure,” she said. “What the government terms as temporary resettlement areas ended up being permanent sites.”

While de-densification was a “good thing in principle”, according to Chauke, it was also reminiscent of forced removals under apartheid.

“The most immediate crisis poor communities are facing now is food security, and with these efforts of de-densification there is less money available out there to make sure that these households are food secure,” she said.

As a chilly winter descended on Johannesburg, Mbatha was still grateful for the new roof over their heads. “At least we are now staying in warm houses,” he said. “We thank the government for that.”

Gazing out at the now dismantled tents, he was already dreaming of converting the space into a soccer field, a recycling station and a vegetable garden. But his future remains uncertain.

“We don’t know how long we will be able to stay there,” Mbatha said. “We are still struggling to get our own land. It changes your life if you know that you’re living on your own land. Then I can build my own house if I want and my kids will know where they are from.”