Residents of informal settlements on Cape Town’s railways ‘live in poop’

The need for housing on the Cape peninsula is so urgent that many backyarders who could no longer afford to pay rent as a result of the Covid-19 lockdown, resorted to occupying land along the railway since trains on the central line were suspended. Photo by Mzi Velapi

Communities along Cape Town’s central line complain of inadequate sanitation and access to water as the plan to relocate them stalls.

Philippi and Langa residents occupying the central railway line have complained about a lack of service delivery in their informal settlements since occupying the railway in 2020.

As plans, called Operation Bhekela, to relocate these residents were initiated by the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) earlier this week, it has come to light through Prasa’s walkabout and engagement with the relevant stakeholders, that the residents have limited access to basic services.

The current ratio of toilets, in these informal settlements, according to the Minister of Human Settlements Mmamoloko Kubayi, is one toilet per twenty households. The department’s national policy, however, benchmarks a ratio of one toilet per five households as a minimum standard.

There are currently 1,254 people living on the Langa railway and 800 shacks on the Philippi railway.

“We want to make sure that once we get the land our role is to build houses, because people have to live in good conditions. We want to promise that once this [relocation] has started we want to also include basic services,” said Pamela Tshwete, deputy minister of human settlements. These basic services would include water, electricity and toilets added Tshwete. However, minister Kubayi, mentioned in her responses that electricity is not a human right but water and sanitation have to be provided.

“We have electricity because we connected illegally, and as a result of these izinyoka-nyoka, four children died of electrocution in the informal settlement last year,” said Mxoleleni Ngutyana, a Langa railway resident. “We have also asked for more toilets since Malusi Booi [formerly Cape Town mayoral committee member for human settlements] promised as much,” added Ngutyana. During the walk-about in Langa, a security guard warned us to be careful of “thorns”, his euphemism for human faeces that lay scattered around the informal settlement.

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Several engagements throughout this year, including a housing imbizo, have been held with these communities in order to better their living conditions though some residents considered them just “talkshops”. “The central line will not operate if our requirements are not met, because to be honest we live in poop here,” said Zanele Ngcobodwana, Philippi resident and steering committee member. “We do not want you or political parties to use our situation for point scoring. We now look like liars to our communities because we keep telling them that we will move soon but it does not happen. We sh*t in plastic bags here. Some of you here are coming from hotels and people here do not have the same luxuries. Don’t take us for fools,” Ngcobodwana told the journalists and representatives on the walkabout.

Elderly residents reiterated that not having electricity poses a threat to their wellbeing as they have medication that requires refrigeration and it is unsafe for the women and children in the community.

The City of Cape Town has been accused of not cooperating and failing to deliver services to these informal settlements. “There have been multiple [service delivery] marches and I plead that national government take over and spearhead this project, and declare it as urgent,” said Lonwabo Peter, South African National Civic Organisation (Sanco) regional convener.

In her response to the sanitation problems, Kubayi said that they will make sure that they provide the area with water and communal toilets in the short-term as they try to find a solution to the issue of land availability for relocation. “The land would be permanent but the houses would not be made from brick and mortar so the houses won’t be permanent,” she concluded.

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