Tale of 3 Cape suburbsComment on this story
Langa, Pinelands and Bonteheuwel are neighbours, separated by mere kilometres, but they may as well be different countries.
Let us remember, Patrick McKenzie urges, the people of Bonteheuwel never asked for this divide.
The former politician says it is not their fault they feel so separate from places such as Langa and Pinelands, even in the context of a 2014 Cape Town; their perceptions are a holdover from a world divided by apartheid.
McKenzie says things have remained the same for so long it’s no surprise people live and think as they do, looking enviously or suspiciously across the old divides knowing only that where they are is what is familiar. Home.
The 60-year-old McKenzie – a Bonteheuwel boy who retired this year after a chequered 40-year career spanning the old Labour Party and its nemesis the ANC – no longer lives in the community, but acknowledges its claim to his affections.
Like thousands of others, he did not choose Bonteheuwel; the Group Areas Act chose it for him.
For those who came from District Six, with its neighbourliness, its cinemas and shops and quick routes into the city, Bonteheuwel was disillusioning, sandy, hostile. There were no lights, no pavements. No community spirit.
“Worst of all,” McKenzie says, “just a few hundred metres away, Pinelands had it all.”
The divide was inescapable.
Yet people made a virtue of necessity; Bonteheuwel became “home”, a place, McKenzie says, where there grew a culture of hope, love and forgiveness.
Bonteheuwel is easily misjudged. The rubble and junk beside the road as you enter Netreg is a dump not worth clearing for it will only reappear overnight. And, anyway, it is a resource for scavengers.
But the rough exterior of Bonteheuwel’s notorious Kreefgat conceals the spiritedness and resilience of the human element that defines it.
The streets are busy.
A horse and cart, returning from delivering the last scrap for the day, comes dashing along, driven by a bunch of kids, the youngest about five, the oldest perhaps 16. They grin keenly for the camera.
People are standing in their doorways, or leaning over the fence to chat to neighbours. Some have set up chairs on the pavement.
It’s obvious this is a poor community, but a community that has learnt to endure and to make the best of things.
One of a pair of old timers cooling off with a bottle of wine – “Dis net ’n knertsie (It’s only a little wine)” – calls me over.
“It’s already past noon,” he chuckles, implying no permission is required.
Anyone who dares disturb the neighbourhood, he tells me, will be “sorted out”.
He’s referring to a stand-off in this street last November when the police tried to retrieve a stolen vehicle and ended up having two vans set alight.
On the other side of Kreefgat we meet Uncle Herby. He’s in his early sixties and out walking his dog.
He says: “Bonteheuwel is a good place to live. There are good people here, and we look after each other.”
Hinting perhaps at an underworld figure, he adds: “There’s one man who makes it his business to keep us safe and protected.”
Another resident, Ruby Davids, agrees. The community spirit is a part of Bonteheuwel that, maybe because of the poverty, drug abuse and gang violence, few outsiders ever see.
Davids remembers moving into the area in the 1980s, and living in fear.
“This was the turf of the Young Killers, then. Outdoors, you had reason to be scared.”
Activism was intense, too, and police tear gas common.
Davids’s mother, Elizabeth Langley, 81, and neighbour Minnie McQueen, 73, agree Bonteheuwel used to be tough, but after all these years there is no other place they would rather call home.
They’re convinced having only one gang operating in the area has brought a kind of peace to Kreefgat.
The gang danger was one thing in the 1980s, but McQueen remembers the single-storey housing – with electricity, running water and toilets.
Most residents live in brick houses, but the extended families are cramped into shacks that form backyard dwellings.
The women agree Bonteheuwel residents are sequestered from neighbouring Langa and Pinelands.
In Langa’s case, there’s mutual suspicion, Davids says.
“It’s not about race – they’ve read stories about crime here and we have heard stories about crime there.”
Crime isn’t the issue with Pinelands, says Cynthia Cupido, in her mid-fifties.
“The only time we go to Pinelands is to work in their kitchens and gardens.
“If by some miracle they come in here, it’s to drop us back home.”
And that’s really what Bonteheuwel is to them all – home.
As McKenzie says, the story of Bonteheuwel, Langa and Pinelands is “a tale of two suburbs separated by a township”.
“The closest most Bonteheuwel residents get to interacting with their Pinelands neighbours is a speedy taxi drive along the N2 which offers views of mansions and lush golf courses. Pinelands residents have little interaction with Bonteheuwel, except to drive past on their way to the airport. It’s sad there’s so little integration, which could only benefit the city as a whole,” he says.
It would be encouraging, he suggests, if those who benefited from segregation could “stretch out a hand of friendship in a spirit of neighbourly love”.
“Let us remember that as people from Bonteheuwel, we never asked for or insisted on this divide.”
After 23 years of living in the appalling conditions of Dura Hostel in Zone 16 and battling to get a government house, pensioner Eunice Patiwe, 65, will still vote for the ruling party on Wednesday.
“I came from a painful place of apartheid. We hoped things would be better after 1994. I am free now, but I don’t have a house and live in a filthy place like this,” says Patiwe
Patiwe, who uses a wheelchair, shares the hostel – one hall divided into about 10 2mx2m rooms – with eight families, about 40 people.
The hostel is infested with rats and flies. Patiwe’s room, pictured right, is piled high with boxes and clothes. Her wheelchair cannot fit in the tiny space next to her bed.
“It’s better than before, but my children need jobs. Crimes such as rape and murder and drugs are a big problem here,” she says.
The mother of six children, aged between 25 and 46, has been on the waiting list for a house since 1995.
Although she blames the current government for not doing more on improving her living conditions, she says she will still vote for the ANC as her dream is to go to Nkandla to see where the “president and his wives live”.
“I am an ANC and will be voting for the party that freed me,” she says.
Another Dura Hostel resident, Vathiswa Kosi, 33, who has been living there since 1999, is planning to abstain from voting as she does not believe her vote will change much.
“It’s very dirty here. We all use the same dirty toilet with no doors. There is garbage on the streets. My daughter contracted TB from living here with so many people,” she says.
Men and women share toilets and showers. None of the toilets have doors or electricity.
“We want the politicians to come and see the conditions we are living under here and not just come here when they want our votes. I won’t vote. They are eating money in top positions while we suffer,” Kosi says.
The stories of the hostel’s occupants are not unique. It’s a common narrative across a township which community police forum chairman Ayanda Mooi says has been neglected and left to fall apart.
Every corner has its own rundown remnant of apartheid, often a grey brick building with graffitied walls and a sunken roof. It’s an urban sprawl that according to Mooi has attracted crime and even made many parts of the township inaccessible to residents as it is almost certain they will be robbed, attacked or even raped there.
It’s a far cry from the township’s roots at the heart of the Western Cape’s struggle efforts. Established in 1927 under the Urban Areas Act, residents in the township often clashed with an oppressive government, most notably in 1960, when several people were gunned down during the anti-pass campaign.
It is now home to 52 401 people.
But where the turn of democracy was a swansong for many suburbs, like many townships Langa’s post-democratic journey has been a turbulent one.
Mooi said the township was now worse off than it was before 1994, a statement he justified by pointing at a rising gang and drug culture that is threatening to swallow the neighbourhood.
“They are smoking dagga and tik everywhere,” he says. “There was violence before, but they only used to stab each other in fights. Now they all have firearms.”
He adds that most gangsters are between the ages of 16 to 18.
“When the schools open up again the crime gets worse.”– Additional reporting by Kieran Legg
Riad Davids knows all about crossing the road. The Community Policing Forum vice-chairman has crossed many streets, avenues and highways, seen his home torn down in District 6 and taken up his own little space in Grassy Park.
Now he has settled in Pinelands, and of all the houses he has lived in, this one feels most like home.
“You know I never thought of myself living in Pinelands,” he says laughing. “I came here for the dream, the big house and big garden… It doesn’t mean I’ve stopped fighting.”
As the so-called “garden city”, Pinelands was South Africa’s first town-planned suburb. It sprang from the remains of a Victorian-era farm, an expanse of fertile land dotted with hundreds of pine trees planted by the state.
From 1918 the suburb quickly took shape, every design decision closely following the principles of the father of the garden city movement, Sir Ebenezer Howard.
But with the surge of people, came the clatter of construction as new roads and railways were laid. These transport networks connected Pinelands to the city, but also turned it into an “island suburb”, squared off from its neighbours, Langa and Bonteheuwel. It’s why many people feel Pinelands exists in a bubble, or stasis, says ward councillor Brian Watkyns.
The 63-year-old, who has represented the neighbourhood for over 30 years, challenged the Group Areas Act under apartheid and was among those who spearheaded attempts to open local schools to all races in the late 1980s. He was also there for the suburb’s post-1994 metropolitan resurgence as thousands of middle-class earners of different races moved to Pinelands.
According to the 2011 National Population Census released by StatsSA, more than 30 percent of the suburb’s population is black, coloured, Indian and Asian – a quick turnaround for an area that 20 years ago was almost exclusively white.
In Watkyns’s opinion, it is now one of the most integrated areas in the city: “It is totally integrated. It isn’t just the population numbers, people are comfortable living alongside each other here.
“Sure, you get the odd issues of people building houses out of keeping with the area, and often it gets turned into a race issue. But the reality is it has nothing to do with race and everything to do with architecture.”
Keeping Pinelands in line with the early 1900s vision that spawned the suburb is almost an obsession for the community.
The Residents’ Association regularly plants trees, mows parks and erects swings and jungle gyms while residents maintain manicured verges and cut back trees that line the suburb’s many island-like parks.
But new developments are springing up across the area. From Old Mutual’s golf course to a new hospital, Watkyns says residents are afraid the changing fabric of the world around Pinelands may encroach on what makes the suburb unique. The sentiment of “not in my backyard” is no longer a racial, but aesthetic. James Williams, who has owned a guest house in the suburb for nearly 20 years, is comfortable with crime levels, but says “it’s the new developments that bother me”.
Riad Davids sits in a sprawling park. It has been raining, but he reminds me “Pinelands is always dry”.
“Our forefathers made a decision long ago to keep any bottle stores from opening up here. And we’ve never had a bottle store here.”
He ponders if people in Pinelands have “crossed the road” into Langa and Bonteheuwel.
“I think we do cross the road,” he says at length. “It’s not like we pretend these places don’t exist. I see food drives, blanket drives, you know, charity drives all the time. When we as a suburb have excess money on a municipal level, as a member of the Ratepayers Association I often ask for it to be spent creating jobs for the nearby poorer communities such as Maitland Gardens.”
But Davids is of the belief that Pinelands has never never been given anything for free. He says he is often taking on the city over issues such as rates.
“And when the city does not have the funds to do something, we all chip in and make sure it happens.”
This is true for the number-plate recognition cameras that will go up in a bid to curb crime and for the many trees regularly planted along the canal.
In a suburb where there is staunch support for the DA, there is always one question on every resident’s mind. While they have “crossed the road”, and their schools and sports clubs regularly interact with those in Langa and Bonteheuwel, the question is: “What is best for our village?”