The homeless/ huddled/ homeless of Johannesburg’s Berea street
The wall on Berea Street was painted during the festive season. A street artist created the mural, over 20 meters long and two meters high, on the fringe of Johannesburg’s Maboneng District, an island of inner-city rejuvenation amid blocks of dilapidated buildings.
He linked a series of images to phrases describing a version of the South African experience. The result is a sort of wall of self-understanding that touches on our history and the personal frustrations and desires behind things like New Year’s resolutions. That experience is of a middle-upper class urban youth culture. It’s a middle finger to those still scared of downtown Jozi and a handshake to those who don’t know where we’re going but are positive and adventurous enough to go along for the ride. It’s a fresh coat of paint for a new year in a changing city.
Steve Biko’s visage is linked to the phrase “And these walls grew too incompetent, realizing their helplessness”. A flock of birds is connected to the words “Huddled/Homesick/Huddled”. There are no tags; it’s the kind of street art that is commissioned and legal. Flowers hint at positive development; a radio and cap remind of street culture; the faces of Albert Luthuli, Cecil Rhodes and Steve Biko situate the art within history.
Ayanda Ndanadaa, 39, watched the wall as it was painted. “I don’t care,” he says, looking at it from under the bridge a few meters away in a blue workers’ outfit. He, like almost 40 others, has lived under the bridge since he was evicted on 19 December from an apartment block around the corner.
“We don’t feel nothing. We feel bad because we are staying here; we feel bad [about] everything,” says Ndanadaa, arms pleading.
At 3:00 in the morning that December day, the Red Ants and officers from Jeppe and Hillbrow police stations entered the four-story Radiator Centre building on Main Street Johannesburg to forcefully evict the tenants. Windows are missing or smashed on the building and almost half of those remaining are painted green. Some windows have been replaced with cardboard. Residents paid between R400 and R650 per month and some tenants lived there for a decade. “It was dirty,” scream the evictees from their mattresses under the bridge.
They were woken and herded out of the building before they had a chance to collect their belongings. They said they had no warning and no communication from the owner that they would be evicted after the building was sold. They say no one has received alternative accommodation. In the process, police arrested 17 people for trespassing. They were later released. The SAPS was unable to offer more information on the matter before Daily Maverick’s deadline.
After being evicted, the 40-odd people went to buy or find blankets, mattresses and extra clothes. They say all their possessions remain inside the locked building. Some are employed, others are not. They say they need to stay near their old homes to get their possessions. But some of the residents also say they cannot afford to move anywhere else.
At 8:00 on the first Sunday of 2013, women and children slept under the M2’s Sivewright Avenue on-ramp as cars passed above and beside. They have been living there for over two weeks. Blankets were tucked to their chins, the women’s hair wrapped in doeks. A paraffin stove was resting next to a kitchen cabinet. Their whole lives transported to the middle of the road, it looked as though an experimental art installation was set up beside the new mural.
Thankfully, they say, they haven’t had any trouble from tsotsis or police, yet. But those still on the street say four others have been admitted to hospital for illnesses they got while sleeping in the open. One person sleeping under the bridge on Sunday morning has tuberculosis.
“We don’t want to stay here. We are sleeping here because our clothes and property is in that flat,” said Thokozane Mfingwana, 42, from his mattress on the road. Asked if they were able to celebrate Christmas, the group of men, a short distance from the women and children’s mattresses, looked offended. The gist of it was: they could not celebrate. They are unable to feel anything but despair. How could they celebrate Christmas when they have no homes?
On New Year’s Eve, a rooftop bar at the Maboneng district was one of the hot spots in Jozi, charging R100 for entry. A line of people was eventually denied access because the bar had reached capacity. Only 200 meters away, the evictees tried to sleep through the night.
Despite the fresh coat of paint and despite the new year, the evictees are living without dignity and without their basic right to shelter. They have a bridge to protect them from the rain but will soon, no doubt, be forced away from the up-and-coming area by police.
They remembered what happened a few days earlier and could not look at 2013 with excitement. On 27 December 2012, one of the women staying under the bridge went into labour. An ambulance was called to collect her from her mattress and she was rushed to hospital. The baby was named Kwanele (“It’s enough!”) after the situation he was born into. The mother is still in hospital but is expected to return to the street soon.