Living, not working in factories of squalor

Don Makatile

Don Makatile

They are on the factory floor but they do not work here. They are inhabitants of a squatter settlement, an indoor shanty town.

A total of 86 rickety shacks are crammed in here, with whole families living check-by-jowl with strangers in the same predicament of having no house to call their own.

Number 15 2nd Street in Marlboro was once a business address. The sign outside proclaims it was APS House but a graffiti artist has since renamed it "Iraq".

The factory balcony is now used as a rendezvous spot for idle young men. The closest they have ever come to gainful employment has been living in a factory, not working in one.

This is where Lungiswa Mqoqi from Willowvale in the former Transkei lives with her boyfriend, Thembinkosi Bede, who has a job.

Mqoqi says she came to Johannesburg in 2002, like all hopefuls, to seek the proverbial gold in the city streets. All she's been able to find so far is the hardship of moving from factory to factory "buying shacks from people who have left".

She moved from No 20, she says, using the patois of the factory dwellers of Marlboro to refer to their living quarters.

"We bought a shack there for R650," she says about their stay in the previous space. "But those people were crooks."

It is not uncommon for a conman to appear and inform the factory-dwelling community he owns the building.

"That's how we end up paying rent to the wrong people," Mqoqi says.

Once rent has been collected over a considerable period the "owner" vanishes and another appears.

"That was when we decided never to pay a cent again to anyone," Mqoqi says.

Her home is not only small, it is a study in claustrophobia. To sit in her lounge, a visitor has to keep the door ajar with one foot.

Not even the electricity, towards which each shack dweller contributed R50 to meet the R3 500 bill earlier in the year, gives this home a modicum of dignity.

The biggest problem here is theft, she says, explaining why she spends her days circling her turf like a mother hen her chicks.

Bulelani Dlamini is 23. Like Mqoqi she is kept by her working lover. Her one child, to Mqoqi's four, lives in Msinga, KwaZuluNatal, while she hopes to find a job.

"I can't leave," she says. "People here steal even in broad daylight."

She does not want to bring her child Sakhiso to Johannesburg because of the threat of fire.

Her fears are not unfounded. According to community leader Malakia Ndou, a former factory in the vicinity, occupied by squatters, was gutted three times "but people still go back there".

While rampant theft has taught others to be vigilant and not leave their homes unguarded, some have theirs padlocked.

The passages are narrow and present a major fire hazard. One can only imagine how, should a fire break out, the passages would prevent speedy evacuation.

Lovemore Ndlovu from Ladysmith makes a living as a cobbler, repairing the shoes of ZCC members, the church whose badge he wears proudly on his lapel.

He can make R800 in a good month, a windfall many here can only dream of.

Ndlovu's biggest gripe is that there are no working toilets in the building: "We go out to the tavern to relieve ourselves."

Malakia Ndou came here from Limpopo in 1999 to live in a backyard room in Alexandra.

Having discovered that he could pay lower rent by living in factories, he has been living in them, moving from one to the other.

There are 37 factories in the area "and so far four companies have evicted people".

He's lost a lot of money to people who claimed to own the factories.

"Had I been in a flat I'd have long finished paying for it," he says.

Ndou says that he, his wife and three children are not moving until the City of Johannesburg offers them decent housing.

He points to his current abode across the road. His is one of 69 shacks holed up there, he says.

Ndou owns a fruit and vegetable stall outside the building to provide for his family.

But he is adamant about having his own house.

This part of Marlboro is a picture of rat-infested squalor, where the smell of human waste is overwhelming and children compete with goats for a place to play.

Disease is everywhere. But still, this is home, and to some, the only home they can imagine.