Sunday, March 29, 2009

Sunday, sunburn and mayhem in Alexandra

Working on a Sunday cracks a low score on my list of chosen ways to spend the day. But - like washing dishes, cutting toe nails and paying taxes - it has to be done by somebody. And so this weekend was my turn.
I had not yet reached the office and was still in my quiet, pensive state mentally planning which of the papers I would read first when I received a phone call from a cop telling me there was trouble in Alexandra. Ah.... hanging out with toyi-toyiing people in dusty townships in full sun. Things were not looking up.
So I got in to work and let the duty news ed know that I would be heading straight out to check on the unrest in Alex. I linked up with Photojourno and we headed downstairs and signed out the oldest Tazz from the car pool and buzzed off.
We arrived in River Park - a low cost housing settlement close to the London Road offramp. Apparently it was supposed to have been finished off and the houses handed over to local shack dwellers, but the builders had overshot their deadlines and people were now incredibly impatient. They wanted their houses in whatever state, with or without windows, electricity, plumbing, plastered walls or bathroom fixtures. And they wanted them now. TODAY! Sommer!
Calm and coolheaded policemen armed with massive shotguns and rubber ammo were standing guard over the settlement, shepherding the tetchy protestors out. One woman yelled that her name had been on the housing waiting list since 1992, she was now tired of this unending wait, and could she please have a house today. No, the cops said, the houses were not finished and they can't just hand them over to anyone, especially since she didn't have her ID on her.
They politely asked the rowdy crowd to move. Nobody budged, and the whinging continued. Photojourno and I stood out - cameras and notebook becoming less obvious than our increasingly red cheeks and noses as sunburn took effect. Nobody wanted to talk to us, and pointed me in the direction of the men in blue everytime I uttered a sentence.
The one drunkard pointed at me and yelled ama-joh-nah-leest and laughed. Open season. Suddenly I was their sympathetic ear and everyone wanted to tell me their story. The cops grew more annoyed, one grabbed a loud hailer and yelled at the crowd of well over 100 to get moving as they had 30 minutes to leave the area or all hell would break loose.
They began straggling away, smartening their step as the 30-minute deadline approached. They got to the perimeter line and broke out into song. "Mshini wam" - Jacob Zuma's "Bring me my machine gun" hit rang out.
Photojourno and I walked back through the settlement and saw that several of the unfinished houses were locked up with padlocks. Election posters and newspapers were taped over some glassless windows, while fabric pieces fluttered from upstairs windows like curtains. Ash heaps in unplastered rooms as well as discarded food packaging were proof that people were already living in these shells of houses. Sinister messages or names with contact numbers were written across doors of units now obviously claimed by Alex residents.
It all quietened down and we decided to leave.
The housing department admitted that they had been a bit slow in finishing of the low cost houses, but were planning on dishing them out finished within the next few weeks. Strangely enough, none of the houses will be done before the elections!
I had copied down one of the names and numbers writted on one of the staked units and made a call one 'Kunene' to find out what his position was. I was unable to speak to him as the noise on the other end of the line made things difficult. It sounded like Mr Kunene was in a shebeen and he was either extremely drunk or had a limited understanding of English. I think he is going to be rather annoyed when he staggers home tonight, intent on sleeping in his newly claimed posse, and gets turned away by armed cops.

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