Standing in the middle of a rutted sand road, oblivious to the rivulets of foul-smelling sewage water running down the middle, Sarah Jones points to a block of corrugated iron shacks where a group of people are gathered outside in the hot morning sun.
“That’s P Block,” she says. “It’s where the Woodstock people stay. Next door are the Salt River people and over there is where the Wynberg people live,” she says, pointing to yet another block of square, one-roomed, match-box sized and corrugated-iron homes.
She continues pointing animatedly in different directions, rattling off a list of Cape Town suburbs – and behind each is a story of human tragedy, lives destroyed and communities torn apart. They include families who are victims of creeping gentrification, as once down-at-heel suburbs become trendy and long-time residents forced out after landlords raise rents beyond their means. Then there are the families whose lives have been turned upside down after breadwinners were left unemployed when their jobs evaporated, victims of South Africa’s shrinking economy.
Yet others are desperate land invaders who moved to Cape Town from poverty-stricken rural areas in search of work. And refugees, who fled violence in their home countries, only to be attacked and forced to flee the waves of xenophobia that are South Africa’s shame.
All have washed up in Blikkiesdorp, a fenced-off dormitory settlement consisting of 1,750 one-roomed corrugated iron houses. It lies 30 km from Cape Town, hidden from sight behind a sand dune at the end of one of Cape Town International Airport’s runways.
It’s worlds apart from the “other” Cape Town, with an iconic mountain range running down its spine, bracketed by azure seas and sparkling white beaches, with fine wines, art galleries and excellent restaurants, and which regularly features in lists of the world’s best cites to live, work, play and holiday. Jones, 52, and her family are part of this community of down-and-out people who call Blikkiesdorp – Tin Can Town – home. All are united by poverty and desperation and most would be living on the streets if they had not ended up in here.
In official jargon, Blikkiesdorp is a Temporary Resettlement Area (TRA) that was set up in 2007 as “emergency housing” for people with nowhere else to go. But eight years later it has an air of permanence and most residents do not believe they will ever be able to escape.
“The Delft Symphony Way TRA (Blikkiesdorp’s official name) will remain a temporary relocation area for the immediate future,” says Councillor Benedicta van Minnen, Cape Town’s Mayoral Committee Member for Human Settlements. “It could, however, benefit in a future improvement and upgrading project”, she says, adding that while the area does not have “a ring-fenced budget, funding is made available as and when needed”.
Signs of this growing permanence can be seen in recently built play areas for the settlement’s children, a council-provided crèche and several social workers. A non-denominational church, in a large circus-like tent that leaks through holes in the roof when it rains, offers Sunday services, after-school and weekend activities to distract youngsters from joining one of the area’s gangs and partaking in the cheap, easily available drugs. It also provides a space for children to do their homework after school and have a simple meal, sometimes the only real nutrition some will get that day. It is one of three churches and a mosque, also in a tent, in the settlement. The vast majority of the more than 20,000 people living in Blikkiesdorp are black or (mixed race) coloureds, with a handful of whites sprinkled among them.
Human dumping ground
Critics describe it as “a human dumping ground” ravaged by poverty, illness, addiction and drug-induced crime. Author and academic Johnny Steinberg, in his recently-published book A Man of Good Hope, is far more graphic in his description of Blikkiesdorp. “It’s Cape Town’s asshole, the muscle through which the city shits out the parts it does not want,” he writes. This crude analogy is reinforced by the all-pervading stench of sewage in the air that makes outsiders gag, even though residents seem oblivious to it.
As we wander through the camp, I am struck by the large number of children dressed in ragged hand-me-downs, playing in the dusty streets oblivious to the vile-smelling rivulets of water seeping from overflowing manholes. And the high number of skinny dogs, many of them puppies or bitches, their teats heavy with milk. At Q Block a group of foreign refugees from various African countries is gathered on a street corner, listlessly watching the world go by.
Like many in this group, Mohamed Madodi, was living rough under a bridge in Woodstock when municipal officials swooped, put them and their meagre possessions on the back of a truck and transported them to Blikkiesdorp.
“They said it was temporary, but that was in 2009 and we are still here. I came to South Africa looking for a better life, but I would go home tomorrow if I could afford to,” he says.
Ali Mohamed, who came to South Africa from Zanzibar in 2009 looking for work, says he just wants to go home, but cannot afford the bus fare. “I wish I never came here because now I am trapped in Blikkiesdorp,” he says.
Sarah Jones’ son Yippie, 34, keeps up a running commentary as he guides us around the area. Outside a tiny shop housed in a converted shipping container, he points out three attractive teenage girls dressed in skimpy spaghetti tops and tight-fitting, low-riding jeans.
“They do business with men between the shacks,” he whispers. I ask what they charge and when I do a quick conversion in my head, I’m shocked to realise that it equates to a mere 50 pence. “It’s all their customers can afford and people here, like these young girls, do what they must to survive,” he says.
These houses are boiling hot in summer and damp and freezing cold in winter, so our children are always sick
Single mother Mareena de Koter was living in a shack in a backyard in the suburb of Kuilsriver and struggled to survive on the ZAR1,100 (about £65) child grant she receives, with more than two-thirds of it going on rent.
“It is better here because I do not pay rent and water is free. I get some free electricity and only need to pay for a little bit more. Gift of the Givers [an NGO] used to bring us food and that helped us feed our kids. But that has stopped and now you will often see children scratching in bins looking for something to eat,” she says.
Her friend Charlene Europa butts in. “We must move because this place is not right for us. It’s very dangerous for women and girls, the street lights are often broken and it is not safe to be outside after dark. We have had cases of children being taken and there was even an incident when a baby was raped,” she says.
Sharon Coleridge, who was part of a community evicted from shacks illegally built on the pavements along a major road as part of a protest to force the authorities to house them, says: “I hate this place and I felt a lot safer when I was living in a shack next to the road. Here I’ve been robbed twice. Even if you lock the door, thieves just cut holes in the corrugated iron. These houses are boiling hot in summer and damp and freezing cold in winter, so our children are always sick.”
Mohamed Ali Sayed, 65, fled the war in Somalia and for his first few years in Cape Town he ran a successful container shop in nearby Delft, until he was forced to flee for his life after his business was burned to the ground during a xenophobic attack in 2007. After spending a few years in a refugee camp set up by the UN, he opened another business in Khayelitsha township. But it was looted and burned down in a new wave of xenophobia and he was moved to Blikkiesdorp by the UN, having lost everything.
He produces a plastic folder filled with a pathetic collection of crumpled, well-thumbed official documents: his refugee status papers, copies of police reports he made about the attacks and a copy of a letter he wrote to the UN appealing for help.
“I do not like this place, but I have no choice. I can’t afford to set up a new shop and I can’t go home because I will be killed,” he says, speaking through an interpreter. “I can’t see that I will ever leave this place … I feel helpless.”
Achmad Ali, 22, from Mogadishu, says he fled to South Africa in 2009 to escape the war in his own country. “I was still at school and if I stayed I would have been forced to fight for Al Shabaab, or be killed if I refused.”
Michael Matthee and his wife Marianna are two of a handful of whites living in Blikkiesdorp. “I lost my job five years ago when the security company I was working for closed down and I could no longer afford to pay my rent on the flat in which we lived. The council gave us a place here and we are grateful to have a roof over our heads,” he says. “I was very nervous at first, but we are used to it now and we get on well with all our neighbours. People do not see colour here, we are all just poor and trying to make ends meet.”
And then it strikes me: everyone I have spoken to has a different story to tell, yet like Matthee’s they are depressingly similar, with a central theme of poverty and desperation and lives that have crashed and burned.
A few hours later my photographer and video journalist colleagues and I say our farewells and head back to our homes in the leafy suburbs of Cape Town.
But for most of Blikkiesdorp’s residents leaving is not an option open to them.
Caption: Blikkiesdorp, a sea of squalor and poverty, lies in the shadow of the magnificent Hottentots Hollands Mountains outside Cape Town. Photo: Justin Sholk