No trains enter the old train station in Alberton, situated at the western edge of the Ekurhuleni metro municipality in Gauteng. They stopped years ago, shortly before the end of Apartheid. But people never stopped arriving in the station on the top of a hill on the north side of the city.
Sarah Tshabalala, age 60, has been living since 2002 in a shack numbered “327” in the informal settlement that grew up on both sides of the old station platform. She came here four years after the settlement first began. “We don’t live nicely, as you see the conditions,” she says, gesturing to her tiny shack and large piles of trash nearby.
On Mondays and Fridays, Tshabalala says she has regular domestic work, earning R100 a day. The rest of the week she cares for her four-year-old granddaughter — the mother has died — and collects cans and bottles for recycling. She cannot say how much she earns from this work, as any profit goes immediately towards buying paraffin and bones with which to cook.
Having recently turned 60, she applied for a pensioner’s grant from the government in June, but was told to come back in September to receive assistance in filling out the paperwork. Even then, the bureaucratic hassles continued. She has not received a single pensioner’s check.
Now Tshabalala and other Alberton residents worry how much longer they may remain at the old train station eking out the meager living they can as it is. Intersite, the company that owns the land — and claims to want to restart the train service in the station — is threatening to evict the residents. In 2007, some residents were moved into RDP houses in the settlement of Thinasonke, 30 km away. There was little rejoicing amongst these people for their newfound houses. Many maintain a second residence during the working week in a shack in Alberton station. At least there, say residents, finding employment is still a possibility.
Fighting a case for eviction … while it is being built
The Community Organization Resource Center’s Max Rambau attended a meeting between Intersite representatives, community leaders Sam Makhafola and Malibongwe Rasmeni, and ward councilor Bruna Haipel on 5 October. There, he says, it became clear that Intersite was building a case for eviction.
A quick glance at the minutes from this meeting bear out such an interpretation. Much of the time was spent discussing the presence of illegal immigrants in the settlement and accusations that the community was using electricity and water that they do not pay for. The latter charges are spurious on their face. There is no electricity to speak of in the settlement, and only two working water taps. Towards the back of the settlement, another tap, flowing uncontrollably with water, has been left unfixed by the municipality and Intersite for the past two years.
No one is providing any services for the residents of this settlement. Fourteen pit toilets exist for the 252 households counted by community leadership. Many women despair of having to relieve themselves in bushes that leave them exposed to the ever-present threat of rape. Trash piles up on all sides, including that dumped by the municipality just outside the borders of the settlement. “I know it’s our responsibility to make our place clean, but it’s the responsibility of the municipality to help us do it,” Rasmeni said.
On 8 October, the community marched to the Alberton Civic Centre to hand over a memorandum of demands to the Ekurhuleni Metro Municipality mayor’s office. ANC Deputy Branch Secretary for Alberton George Letloleng handed over the memorandum for the community.
Confused allegiances, changing agendas
The leadership of the ANC local branch, whose representatives do not live in the settlement, complicates an already complex set of political relationships that affect the residents of Alberton Station. Ward councilor Haipel is from the Democratic Alliance, as is much of her council. The Ekurhuleni metro government is run by the ANC, but with a significant DA minority. Meanwhile, Rasmeni and Makhafola have suggested that the assistance offered by General Alfred Moyo and Mohau Melani of the Informal Settlement Network may be perceived as threatening by ANC leaders.
On 16 October, Moyo suggested that Rasmeni and Makhafola focus on their mandate from within the community rather than focusing too much on political affiliation. The goal should be to form an informal settlement development committee, and not congregate under a banner larger than that.
The ANC branch secretary Lufele Lufele and his deputy, Letloleng, have clashed on multiple occasions with Haipel about the real intentions of the ongoing process between the ward council and Intersite. They demand, with good merit, to see Intersite’s plans for renovating the train station site, question the overbearing presence of Intersite lawyers, and ultimately accuse the proceedings of moving apace towards eviction.
At a meeting on 19 October between Intersite, the council, and community leaders — this time with a representative from Wits’ Center for Applied Legal Studies observing — Haipel admitted multiple times that the goal was eviction, even while denying Letloleng’s argument to his face. “Intersite is going to do the eviction, but they will need to sort out alternative land,” she said at one point. At another, she was unequivocal: “The fact remains that, legally, they [the residents of Alberton Station] are going to be evicted.”
Moreover, a second process, independent of that of the DA-led ward council has been initiated based on the memorandum delivered to metro authorities. The speaker of the EMM council, Patricia Nombeko Kumalo is chairing this process. She has spoken with clarity about the need for service delivery to be the number one priority in the area. Though this has also been brought up in the ward council-driven process, moves towards informal settlement upgrading have been reluctant and little progress is evident from a process that has gone on for much longer than that initiated by Kumalo. Her visit to Alberton Station on 16 October in response to the memorandum brought home the need for immediate action there. “It would have been a different ballgame if I didn’t go there,” she said. Later in the day on 19 October, she met with Rasmeni and Makhafola, accompanied by other EMM officials and the ANC branch representatives.
Room for positive action
The situation for Tshabalala and other residents of Alberton Station is quite clearly tenuous. Intersite is pursuing a case for eviction that is, at least half-heartedly, being shepherded by the ward council. Though Haipel has talked about service delivery, it remains rather unclear what she plans to do about it.
Kumalo appears to be driving a new process that could yield dividends and provide leadership within government structures to stave off eviction. She said that the EMM council approved R100 million to address service issues earlier this year. According to her, the tender is out and about to be awarded. This is a place where community-driven leadership can step up. Kumalo clearly recognizes the value of informal settlement upgrading and has expressed a keen interest in the work of the Informal Settlement Network in this regard after learning about it from Moyo. She met with ISN and CORC representatives on Friday, 30 October, about such issues.
Such an ongoing engagement may reveal new ways that the community of Alberton Station, and perhaps others in the Ekurhuleni metro could benefit from partnership with government. But it will be important for individual community leaders to remain close to their communities and not get caught up in talk shops with politicians.
Prior to a community meeting in Alberton Station, held on the platform of the old station, Chantelle Solomon, age 24, stood off to the side, holding her small child. When I asked her what she would most like to do to improve her situation, she was unequivocal: she wants to move to somewhere where she can have a house and get work. Rasmeni walked by and encouraged her to say that cares most about toilets, not houses.
It may very well be that informal settlement upgrading is the best option available to the people of Alberton Station. But community buy-in will be key to ensuring that the continued political negotiations turn towards the people and not just political convenience.