Risking their lives is a daily routine for Kossovo residents

| Dudumalingani Mqomboti
Messiah, Kossovo. Photo by Dudumalingani Mqomboti.

The people of Kossovo exist on the margins of unguarded train tracks. Their children are at risk. A lack of service delivery and poor sanitation makes dire conditions worse.

Children abandon their soccer balls and toys in open playgrounds and run towards the train station. Their screams resemble excitement. In less than ten minutes, the Philippi train station, which Kossovo residents’ use, has a crowd.

Two drunken women, pulling up their skirts, stagger to the station in hurried gaits.

“Why do you play here?” one shouts. “Go home, all of you, go home … Whose child is it?” she asks, her Xhosa contorted by alcohol.

Amongst the chaos and the confusion, a child lies by the tracks, two meters from the platform. Security guards disperse the crowd. The train driver stands over the child, shaking, with her hands on her mouth.

“I am glad he is alive,” she says after the child is taken away by ambulance. She walks back to the train, fetches her bag, and leaves the train standing at the platform.

Children at scene of accident. Photo by Dudumalingani Mqomboti.

This is one of many such incidents that children in Kossovo have to witness. To prevent their children from playing on the tracks, parents have to keep them in sight, summoning them away with a shrill call of their names. The only other way to keep them away from the tracks is to lock them up in the house and to never let them play outside.

“Our kids get to see many people committing suicide on the train tracks. Many times. And the train too has killed many of them because they play on those tracks”, says mama Nosibongile Dube, a resident and community leader in the Messiah section of Kossovo.

“This is not a life children should be exposed to. This is not a way to grow up.”

Washing hangs near the train line. Photo by Dudumalingani Mqomboti.

Messiah lies on the train tracks on the central line. Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) has promised to move them but they have been waiting for a long time.

Kossovo (or Kosovo) is an informal settlement on the outskirts of Cape Town that was built on a forest. It is not known who moved here first around 20 years ago. There are still no services here.

Opposite it, across the train station, is Philippi, and adjacent to it, next to the shrubs where Kossovo residents are forced to relieve themselves, is Marcus Garvey.

New toilets were dropped off last week but cannot be used, as they are only the structure. Now children play in them. The municipality does not clean the old toilets and so residents have stopped using them.

Children playing in the new toilets. Photo by Dudumalingani Mqomboti.

Taking a walk with Mama Dube to the forest where residents relieve themselves, we walk underneath a bridge, with nothing to barricade us from trains. People cannot relieve themselves during the day because train commuters can see them, and then when it is dark, they need to go as a group as they fear for their lives. Already two women have fallen prey to rapists and murderers.

The sanitation here contradicts the claim in a 2012 National Department of Water Affairs report, echoed by Mayor Patricia de Lille, that 100% of Cape Town informal settlements have adequate sanitation.

New unfinished toilets. Photo by Dudumalingani Mqomboti.

In the Messiah section, where Mama Dube lives, service delivery shortcomings pile up. Residents install their own electricity, connecting wires from another section that has electricity. The live wires carrying power weave a fatal pattern over the shacks. There are only two taps, which half the time do not have water.

The first shacks in Messiah were erected eight years ago. Mama Dube was amongst the first. Her house appears small from the front, but inside, it stretches back, allowing her to fit in her furniture and still have enough space for her six children. Most of the shacks are small. From underneath her home, I imagine the sound is present in other homes too, there is the recurrent rumble of the train as it passes by.

Part of the problem of service delivery for Messiah, beyond the complacency of local government, is the fighting between the Ward 33 councilors, Nico Mzalisi of the ANC and Nqu Mesuli of the DA. The community even started a committee with the sole mandate to demand the two councillors work together. It has not yielded much.

Despite this, Messiah is not a place of abject misery; men hang about drinking their beer, kids play soccer, women share jokes at the queue for water. People seem to know each other. But this lightheartedness lasts only until the haunting sound of murderous trains drags people back to a harsher reality.

People gather at the scene of a train accident. Photo by Dudumalingani Mqomboti.

Editor’s note

In the interest of fairness, this editor’s note has been added to this article.

The Daily Maverick reran this article. User CatiaDeL commented at the end of the article:

Not to let the WC government off the hook, but for the sake of balance:

“Kosovo is located in an area that serves as a “retention ponds”, a site to which water gravitates, and breaks the surface as soon as it rains …. The permanent high water table, and the high shack densities, makes it impossible to install conventional underground services. Because the inhabitants of Kossovo were relatively recent migrants compared to many others on the housing waiting list, it was impossible to enable them to jump the housing queue without creating an enormous backlash.

So we had to find an alternative to provide sanitation. We did this in the form of expensive imported technology called “vacuum pump toilets”. These are very similar to the toilets used on aeroplanes, and work on a vacuum system. It proved possible to install them in Kossovo because they require only a single shallow-laid pipe, which could be achieved without heavy machinery. Through minimal reconfiguration of the settlement, it was possible to install a number of public toilet blocks, of ten vacuum pump toilets each, throughout the settlement, at a cost of over R5 milllion. Within two years the toilets (and the underground pipes) had been vandalised beyond the point of repair. The community demanded a full flush system, which remained impossible. So to alleviate the crisis, the City ordered 900 “new generation” chemical toilets, which are a significant improvement on the previous chemical system. The first three toilets installed were immediately burnt to the ground and the contractor’s staff were threatened. Two workers were injured by members of the community. So the contractor withdrew his staff. And when the City’s workers tried to clean the community’s few remaining toilets, they were also driven out through violence. Without a hint of irony, the media referred to this as a “service delivery” protest.

We have now managed to install the new chemical toilets in Kossovo, and (except for proper storm water) the are is fully serviced. People continue to demand brick houses and full flush toilets. While we understand the need and the enormous difficulties of living in a shack settlement, it does not help anybody if we make misleading commitments. Any politician who promises to replace shack settlements with formal housing in the foreseeable future is lying. Given a waiting list of approximately 400,000 families in Cape Town alone, the conflicting demands on the available budget, and the continued rapid growth of the City, we must be honest about what is achievable. That is why we have introduced “in situ upgrading” with its own subsidy stream, to upgrade shack settlements incrementally.

If only communities would take joint responsibility for maintaining the costly service infrastructure, we could do so much more. Currently we spend two-thirds of the City’s water and sanitation budget on fixing vandalised taps, pipes and toilets.”

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TOPICS:  Housing Human Rights Sanitation

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