Lance Witten spoke to residents of Stroompie, about their daily struggle to keep their informal housing structures, as part of #TheDignityProject.
The community of Stroompie has been in existence for decades, with some saying the first people settled on the vacant plot behind Trafalgar High School on the slopes of Devil’s Peak more than 30 years ago.
Residents there say they have been victimised by law enforcement officials who often blame them for crime committed in Vredehoek and surrounds.
“But we are peaceful people just trying to get by,” says Deirdré, who is the newest member of the community. She and her husband moved in last year.
“And sometimes they’re spiteful,” says Elton, who works as a car guard on Longmarket Street at the Eastern Food Bazaar. “They can see it will rain, so they come and take down your structures.”
According to the community, they’re allowed to set up structures, provided they are broken down again every morning.
“They say they don’t want the drivers going past onto De Waal Drive to see us,” says Elton. “We’re an eyesore, they say. So we can have our hokkies up, so long as we take them down again. You know how difficult that is to do in winter? Every day up and down.”
Stroompie gets its name from a natural spring that bubbles up on Trafalgar’s property. The principal there diverted the spring into a stream that flows out of a rudimentary well-point that is never turned off and has never run dry.
It is here that many of the city’s homeless collect fresh water daily to drink and cook, wash their clothing and to bathe.
Some of the more industrious collect massive vats of water they use to wash parked cars in the CBD in order to make a living.
There are around 12 structures at any given time in Stroompie and there is a structure to the community too.
“No one can just come in here. If you are down and out, you’re welcome,” says Elton. “But don’t come in here and cause k*k.”
A stroller walks by with a wrapped up parcel. Elton’s home is the closest one to the hole in the fence on the highway side of Stroompie. The stroller pops his head into Elton’s place. “Is it safe to walk here?”
“Yeah, it’s safe,” Elton replies.
Our conversation continues, but moments later, Elton leaps up and screams at the man who had entered Stroompie earlier. He rushes over to the middle of the settlement, where thick plumes of pungent white smoke begins to rise, filling their air with the distinct smell of burning rubber.
“He’s burning wires,” says Tessa, looking up from the Tom Clancy novel she is reading under the shade of a tree.
“But he won’t get much out of that,” answers Deirdré.
Copper collected by burning the rubber that surrounds it fetches a far lower price at scrap yards than stripping the rubber from the wire, the women says. But stripping the rubber takes time, and “for a junkie, time is of the essence”, says Tessa.
As Elton attempts to douse the flames and chase the stranger away, a fire engine slows down on the overpass from Gardens onto De Waal Drive. The crew switches on its siren, and the men call out from the van.
Elton waves them away.
“Now they will say, ‘you see? They are burning stuff to extract copper from the wires in Stroompie’. But it’s not us. You saw how this man came in here and we don’t know him. But Stroompie gets the blame,” says Deirdré.
Another man, who asked not to be named, said he used to regularly rob some of the children at Trafalgar, but after an engagement with the principal and having been threatened by the Stroompie community, he stopped.
Tessa has only been living in Stroompie for a few months. She recalls how, when she first got to the area, she didn’t know how she would manage to build a structure for herself.
“But there’s a guy here, they call him Arab. He is like the mayor around here.”
Deirdré says that when she and her husband moved in, while they were out skarreling, it was Arab who had laid the foundations and built the basic framework for their structure.
“That’s his mansion over there,” Deirdré points across the field to a brightly decorated shack. “Minstrel mansion.”
Stroompie is a close-knit community. Last December, they celebrated their first wedding, when Deirdré and her man tied the knot.
“Ooh, it was such a celebration,” says Deirdré. “You know how we got looks on the train carrying these live chickens that we would slaughter as part of the ceremony?”
Tessa laughs. “I remember.”
The ceremony was held in the middle of the field, presided over by one of the residents. The party went on late into the night.
“I can’t wait for my husband to come home,” she says. He has been serving four months in Pollsmoor for possession of drugs.
“He’s a Rasta… we smoke dagga. Where’s the harm in that? We don’t sell it, we don’t encourage children to smoke it. Stroompie always has this bad rap. But we, our community, this family, we’re good.”
The residents of the settlement only want a place to call home. “If the city can give us landand maybe some porta loos, and maybe some basic building materials, we can make ourselves nice wendy houses. Then we won’t be an eyesore,” says Elton.
“But they want to move us to Blikkiesdorp,” continues Deirdré.
She says if residents aren’t home when when law enforcement raids Stroompie, their building materials are dumped onto the back of a truck, personal possessions and all, and dumped in Blikkiesdorp.
“They’re trying to force us there. But what must we do there? The skarrel is here,” says Deirdré, a pleading in her voice. “Blikkiesdorp is so far away and there’s nothing, no opportunities, nothing for us there.”
She looks over at her dismantled shack now positioned in the middle of the field, contemplating having to set it up again later that evening. “It’s just a hok, but it’s my home. I call it home.”