Councils Must be Ruthless with Restricting Occupation of Unsafe Buildings
I think it must be terrifying to be woken at 04:00 in the morning by a thunderclap that makes the whole building shudder. Then, in a confused state, you realise your bed’s still shaking and, no, it wasn’t thunder, it was the building falling down. Panic and fear – as you rush out of bed, out of a building, out into the streets. A balcony’s fallen off. . . smashed on the pavement, fragments of stone, cement and bricks block your path and cut the bare feet on which you walk.
That’s what at least one resident of the Blue Building, next to the old Junction Hotel in Salt River, experienced on Saturday night when the building started tumbling, crumbling down. Heavy rains may have contributed to its collapse – who knows.
But the authorities had condemned the building anyway and intended to demolish it sometime. The residents – the ones who crowded onto the rain-ridden streets in Cape Town’s cold – had ignored the authorities. Ignored everyone except providence. And it was only providence that protected them. At least this time.
The Blue Building had been built in 1899, next door to the Junction Hotel in Junction Road and, through a lack of maintenance and simple old age, had steadily declined until it was ready to fall. Too tired of the winds, the rain and the desertion.
It’s just one of many Cape Town buildings that have been identified as being unsafe. And yet, people kept living there – as they are living in many similar unsafe and abandoned buildings around the city and its suburbs.
Needless to say, the people who were living in the Blue Building had been without sewerage, electricity or water for months, but that didn’t seem to faze them. They just used the first floor as a toilet and a rubbish dump. Eyewitness reports say the first floor was about a metre deep in rubbish and human excrement mixed with the cold rain from a roof that leaked all the time. A dilapidated building on the point of collapse and people still living there.
Perhaps this is a true measure of just how desperate the housing shortage is. People are desperate for shelter – any shelter, anywhere.
So what are the answers? It would be wonderful to wave a wand and give every Tom, Dick and Harry (and all their cousins, uncles, aunts and other hangers-on too) a nice new place in which to stay. But that’s the stuff of dreams. And, anyway, what are “they” (and their cousins, uncles and aunts) doing to solve their own housing problems?
Concience-stricken welfare workers will doubtless point to how South Africa’s is a heartless society that refuses to provide for its needy people. Maybe the welfare workers are right: maybe we are all heartless and uncaring. But I don’t think so. My concerns are based on a different premise. Anyone of those people in the Blue Building could have done something to keep their own place running or, if it had reached such an atrocious condition that it was irreparable, then they could at least have made sure that they, along with everyone else, evacuated the place before it fell down.
But these people – the residents who have a vested interest in surviving through the night – just continued, willy-nilly, living in a place that was unsafe and unfit for human habitation. In fact they contributed to keeping it unfit for any kind of habitation by adding their own excrement to the growing pile on the first floor. What we actually find, in the Blue Building, is a group of residents who are doing nothing for themselves, or for the community in which they live and, for that alone, they are culpable. So before we turn around and point an accusing finger or five at the “authorities” for not taking action, or at the “wealthy” people of Constantia and Clifton for not supporting them, consider this: the people in the Blue Building were doing nothing at all to help themselves in the first place.
Here’s an interesting conundrum: if (or when) the authorities intervene and insist that people move out of a building that’s too damaged to occupy, guess what happens? They (the people who evict the residents) are, most often saddled with finding “alternative accommodation” for them. We’ve seen exactly this scenario playing out in Schubart Park in Pretoria where, for more than a year now, the Tshwane Council has been trying to force people to leave buildings that can no longer be occupied. The residents demand that Tshwane provide alternative accommodation. So now the Tshwane Council has a problem: they say that it’s not their responsibility to find alternative accommodation, but the residents say it is. A deadlock with some derision.
And the Constitution seems to side with the residents. My views – in these circumstances – are not politically correct but then I’ve always believed it’s more important to save a life than be politically correct. My premise is based on an experience I had when I was a young man and watched a woman, who’d been rescued from the surf on a Wilderness beach, being refused medical attention because she’d lost her bikini top in the surf and her breasts were exposed. Rather than let a black paramedic treat the white woman who was dying and whose breasts were exposed, the group chose not to treat her until a white doctor arrived. A white doctor never made it – and yes, she died over something so silly.
Let’s get back to the problem of illegal occupation of derelict buildings. I’m afraid that I’m on the side of the authorities and I believe it’s their responsibility to evict illegal tenants (using the notorious Red Ants if necessary) before a building falls down or is razed to the ground. If the residents – in any illegally occupied building – want alternative accommodation, I say let’s put them in those same tented refugee camps that we used to house victims of xenophobic attacks last year. Let them get on with it from there. At least their lives should be safe – or as safe as they can be in our South Africa today. I reckon it’ll just take a few weeks before each one of those people has found somewhere else to live – without trying to force a council or a Department of Human Settlements to give them a house or an apartment for nothing. At the moment we have an uncomfortable picture: the indigent are doing nothing to help themselves and the authorities are doing nothing to get them out of derelict buildings because if they do then the indigent become the council’s problem.
In our cities there are hundreds of buildings that have been condemned and yet the illegal occupancy continues unabated. Remember, just a few months ago, several people died when a condemned building caught fire in Johannesburg and the panic-stricken residents leapt to their death from the fifth floor windows. Showing a typical council response, Cape Town’s Disaster Risk Management spokesman, Wilfred Solomons-Johannes, says the council doesn’t own the building so it’s the building owner’s responsibility to find somewhere else for these people to stay.
What he’s actually saying is: “Don’t make your problems my problems” isn’t he? Whether or not the building has been abandoned, the authorities must be held accountable if they do not take action to force people to leave a condemned place. The authorities (the police perhaps) must get them out of there. So Cape Town – and all the other councils too – cannot continue hiding behind the “private property” excuse anymore. They have a responsibility to the people of this country to evict those who live in sub-human conditions in buildings that have, most often, been hijacked from the original owners. When people’s lives are threatened, immediate action is needed and if the authorities are not prepared to act then, I believe, they are culpable when a building collapses.
And if you think that Cape Town is an isolated case, then just wander through Hillbrow, Berea or Yeoville in Johannesburg. Or take a walk through the central city areas of Port Elizabeth, East London, Durban or Bloemfontein. You’ll find many more derelict buildings occupied by illegal residents who, in most cases, have stripped the building of everything that protects lives. Stripped it of the cast iron sewerage pipes, the steel banisters for the stairs or the window frames that stop someone from tumbling off the seventh floor corridor in the rain. Get these people out of these buildings. Get them into tented camps. Get them anywhere where it is safe. And get them to understand that living in places like Schubart Park, or any other derelict building for that matter, is idiotic.
I wish somebody could get the residents to understand the perils of living in an unsafe building. I certainly can’t, but maybe you can.