Malcolm Matambanadzo is beside himself with rage. Last week he stood across the street, watching helplessly as authorities removed his personal belongings from a two-storey warehouse building in Salisbury Street in the Joburg CBD.
In the process, he lost his passport, education certificates and money. He was rushed out of the building at lunch time after the City of Joburg building inspectors declared it unsafe for habitation.
Matambanadzo was living in one of Joburg’s bad buildings – a ruined shell of what was once a commercial property – now targeted by the city in a three-month campaign to enforce health and safety regulations in the inner city.
“Look, this is the only place I can afford to rent in the city,” he says. “We are not animals. We are human beings and we are trying to make ends meet.
“I have been moving around the city since 2003 because I could not afford rent in most the refurbished residential flats. I had finally found a home here where I could afford to pay R850 a month.”
Matambanadzo is one of hundreds of mostly migrants, disabled and elderly people living in the warehouse structure at the corner of Kruis and Salisbury streets which was illegally converted into rows of rooms.
Each of the 370 rooms is shared by at least four people. The floors and passageways are covered in stagnant water, the roofs are plastic and the walls separated by barbed wire.
“We used to have a caretaker who we paid our rent to,” says resident Benefit Tigore, an artisan who ekes out a living by doing piece jobs in nearby Chinese factories.
“I used to live in Hillbrow, but the rent became unaffordable for me over the years. I knew someone from Zimbabwe who told me about this place. It was cheaper and more convenient for me. I could reach most of the workshops and factories around here on foot.”
Tigore feared his eviction would mean he had to earn four times more to afford rental flats in the city.
So, last week, Tigore and Matambanadzo formed an impromptu committee to represent the residents in their resistance to the eviction and approached attorneys from Socio-Economic Rights Institute (Seri) to take on their case.
Most of Salisbury’s occupants earn a precarious living by selling vegetables, fruit and food in the area.
In 2009, a Joburg Emergency Management Service inspection team visited the occupants and warned them of the building’s non-compliance with fire and safety regulations.
“They said there were not enough fire sprinklers in the basement and in the building itself,” Tigore explains.
“After that, we told the caretaker, who increased the extinguishers and the sprinklers. We recently had a fire breaking out in one of the rooms here, but we were able to put it out without seeking help.”
The outside world barely affects the occupants, except when police come to raid their building or city inspectors check on their living conditions. Nurses from Doctors Without Borders keep an eye out for potential outbreaks of disease with frequent visits to the rundown building.
But even by the standards of the rundown Joburg CBD outskirts, the people of Salisbury can be regarded as poor and vulnerable, says Seri attorney Osmond Mngomezulu.
“Any eviction of hundreds of people, especially the poor like these people, who have no alternative, is nothing less than a humanitarian crisis,” Mngomezulu says.
“Their eviction would have rendered them homeless. For them the choice of living is between the streets and the building they occupy.
“If the city considers the building so unsafe, then it would make sense if they offered an alternative to these people.”
Last week, Mngomezulu secured interim court relief preventing the eviction of Salisbury residents. He says their eviction was not an isolated incident in recent years.
“The circumstances of those who are poor and have faced eviction by either private business or the city are very similar,” he says.
“Our point of departure is that we do not want to see people being rendered homeless – particularly children, the elderly and disabled, who have nowhere else to go.”
Mngomezulu says there is a clear process of gentrification in the city, in which the poor are being cast aside to make way for those who can afford high rentals.
“Before 2007, evictions by the city on health and safety grounds were alarming, until the battle was won in court,” he says.
“Since then, we have seen an increasing number of unlawful evictions which are a clear violation of the constitution. It is so sad that the constitution provides for people not to be evicted without a court order, yet, as in this case, we had to go to court to get (it) enforced,” he says.
Standing outside the tiny room he shares with his brother, his wife and their two children, Matambanadzo furiously points at a pile of rubble in the passage.
“Look at that,” he says. “Do you think if we had a choice we would live in these conditions?
“No, but I would rather be inside here than be out in the streets.
“At least here we have electricity, a communal tap to share and bathrooms. Plus, I can afford the rent.”