AT LESS than 1.5m tall, it's clear why Denise's nickname is "Kleintjie". She moves with an industriousness about her, like every movement is critical to surival. And yet, her nature is easy-going, her demeanour pleasant, like she has all the time in the world for you. "I've been here more than 10 years. I live here, this is my home, and noone can take it away from me," she says defiantly. Kleintjie is the unofficial mayor of Stroompie, a settlement on a vacant plot of land just behind Trafalgar High School. Picture Henk Kruger/Cape Argus

The unofficial mayor of Stroompie, Denise aka “Kleintjie” is small, quiet, but strong. Cape Argus deputy news editor Lance Witten spoke to her as part of#TheDignityProject.

Cape Town - At less than 1.5m tall, it’s clear why Denise’s nickname is “Kleintjie”. She moves with an industriousness about her, like every movement is critical to survival. And yet, her nature is easy-going and her demeanour pleasant, like she has all the time in the world for you.

“I’ve been here more than 10 years. I live here. This is my home and no one can take it away from me,” she says defiantly.

Kleintjie is the unofficial mayor of Stroompie, a settlement on a vacant plot of land just behind Trafalgar High School.

“She can’t be in charge, she’s too soft and nice,” remarks Tessa, who has been living in Stroompie for the past few months.

“Denise is soft-spoken, but I guess nothing happens unless she knows about it.

“Arab… now he’s the mayor. But even he can’t compare.”

Arab, a nickname he has garnered, is a man in his 60s who looks after the community while living among them, skarreling to find building materials while eking out his own living. He provides newcomers to Stroompie with building materials.

“I’m not in charge,” Denise says with a smile. Her coy demeanour belies the power she holds over the community.

“If you want to get into Stroompie,” Magadien Wentzel, former 28s general, says, “you need to go through Denise. No one will trust you if Denise doesn’t trust you.”

It’s a Friday afternoon and the Cape Argus is sitting among a group of Stroompie residents when Denise arrives from the UIF queue.

“They were looking for Denise,” says one.

“We asked ‘who’s that?’” says another.

“Hy’t dan gesê ‘Kleintjie’,” says yet another.

She extends a hand in recognition. It is clear she is popular within her community.

“Are you in charge here?” we ask.

“Not in charge… but I think I’m the favourite.”

Denise left home more than a decade ago. After her mom died, a fight broke out between her and her siblings over the house their mother had left her.

She decided to walk away instead.

“(Those) people, they want to fight. I decided to just leave. I don’t want to fight over things. It’s just things. The other day, you remember when I told you I was in hospital, looking after my family?”

Denise recounts her time spent at her sister’s bedside and, later, how she spent nights watching over her sister at a house in Mitchells Plain.

“I must go there and look after them. After that, they spat me out again. But it’s okay. I come back home here. This is my home.”

While Denise isn’t necessarily the community leader, she carries a degree of respect within Stroompie.

“They see you here with me… they will ask later ‘is that your boyfriend?’ You see, they get jealous over me.”

Kleintjie’s home is the first along the back fence of Trafalgar High School as you enter Stroompie.

“Everyone must pass here. I keep an eye out,” she says, “but I miss things and sometimes I’m not here, then criminals get in and steal our stuff and also they commit crimes.

“Then they run back here. They break into cars, steal things, and run here. And then the law comes and blames us. What did we do? We just want to live.”

Denise shifts uneasily on her feet and glances back at her home. “That’s all we have. All we have. I can go back to Mitchells Plain, but I can’t handle the stress. And then they stress on your children too.”

Denise has a 20-year-old daughter who lives with her family.

“Why must they take it out on her? I don’t want her to live like me. I know she is better off with them. Why must they force her to pay rent and contribute to the monthly groceries?”

She begins fidgeting.

“I must get back before anyone misses me. If I’m not here and I don’t tell anyone, the people stress.”

Denise denies she is in charge of the community, simply saying she is a “favourite” among the people of Stroompie.

“I’m not in charge,” she giggles. “But maybe if they see me here with you, they will joke later like ‘is that your boyfriend?’”

She chuckles again, fully aware of the recurring joke.

Living in Stroompie has not been easy and Denise has stood her ground many times against law enforcement officials who had wanted to demolish structures.

“If they come, we send word out. We tell the people to come home and rescue their personal belongings.

“If they take your seil (plastic sheet), that’s it, you’re done, but it can be replaced. Now, say they take your ID, your documents, your life. What then?

“They come and take everything. And then your life is over.”

Cape Argus