Johannesburg - The people who live with the dead can’t remember what the name of the cemetery was before they built their homes here. Their presence has wrapped around it, like a human scar on the flesh of the departed, absorbing the resting place it was meant to be.
The “In loving memory ofs” and “May a devoted father rest” are forgotten as people hurry past to work. Those graves marked with numbers, instead of names, get trodden under foot.
Children play on and between the tombstones as chickens and cows feed. Dust rises from the unpaved roads and the smell from a service station hangs in the air. This is Hlala Kwabafileyo, the place where the dead live, an informal settlement at Sharpeville in the Vaal region.
Those who stay here say they are haunted, hemmed in by the ghosts of their ancestors on one side, and the corruption that they blame for leaving them this way on the other.
“The conditions we live in here, really we are treated like animals, like objects, like things. Things that are only remembered when we have to vote,” says resident Solomon Nkaota with an angry shake of his head.
“The way we are treated by the authorities is unbearable. Those who live on the graves, it is inhumane.”
Nkaota runs a creche with his wife Nomalanga. Just a few metres from gravestones, they teach over 80 children how to count and colour in. The pair met when they were youth counsellors, but they soon realised you need to get the kids early, before the drugs and disillusionment set in.
Having a place of your own, to grow your family, your business, your dreams are big aspirations in Hlala Kwabafileyo.
Nkaota wants to expand his business. Outside the fence of the creche, children are playing in the rubbish that carpets the floor.
He wants to be able to provide for them, but he can’t as he and his wife don’t own the land, and the land they are on doesn’t have services.
The frustrations follow the same ebb and flow of most South African informal settlements. No electricity. Makeshift pipes that residents laid themselves bring water from other areas. Pit toilets. No work. No money. Little hope.
“My dreams are not right. I wake up and I think I see something,” resident Nontobeko Nyongwana says. Living among the graves is a constant burden on the minds of the residents. “The ghosts are saying we are sleeping on top of them. We should move.”
Nyongwana doesn’t need to be told twice. She has been on the RDP waiting list since 1996 and has a neat plastic folder where she keeps the notice she got in 2009, assigning her a stand. Number 5590. But despite her written proof, the Housing Department has been unable to help her.
Her neighbour Phineas Mathobela never applied for a house. He has lost his faith in the system. “I found it useless to apply for a house, even though I’m struggling.” He sees the fact that he has been robbed four times in recent years by people he suspects of being nyaope addicts as more than a coincidence.
Like their punishment in living in this place, it’s part of a conspiracy. “Not properly dealing with nyaope is a strategy by the government to destroy the youth and continue corruption,” Mathobela says. His face crumples as he speaks. “The youth are those who can try to fight against injustice.”
The angry man cuts a lone figure in his neat shack. He’s haunted by the infringements of crime and lack of humane living conditions are making on his hard-earned political freedom. “I don’t think I can ever have fair treatment,” he adds. “I will only have peace if the ANC is removed from ruling the country.”
The Star had visited here two weeks before, after Hlala Kwabafileyo was mentioned in the Gauteng legislature as a problem that needed to be addressed. Nkaota showed us around, and a few days later he says he was contacted by the authorities. They asked him to encourage a certain group of shack dwellers to move from where they were living on a part of the cemetery. It was a piece of the cemetery where children were buried.
When The Star returned a second time, the only evidence that people had been living there was the refuse they had left behind, strewn across the dry grass. Nkaota says he moved the residents, hoping this was the beginning of bigger changes, but the progress stalled there.
“They manipulated us into removing the people from the graves so that when (the media) comes here there are no people on the graves,” adds Nkaota. “People have been on the graves since as long as this place has been here.”
Questions were sent to Sedibeng municipality to get answers to rumours circulating that the people will be kicked off the land and that the cemetery will be fenced. The municipality referred them to Emfuleni municipality, which has not responded.