Maureen and I have been friends since the early seventies, but hadn’t seen each other for more than fifteen years. I “found:” her on Face Book and learned that she was a member of the Johannesburg City Council. I had no idea what that entailed until I spent four days with her in the suburb of Randburg, Ward 114.
It was to have been a free week – council was not meeting. But the phone never stopped ringing, and the emails kept coming:
Councilor there is a break in the pipes and the water is running into the houses.
Councilor, the city has not sent any food for the people whose shacks were burned down yesterday.
Councilor, we have a meeting tomorrow morning about a new project.
Councilor, this is the third time I’ve called you about the flies. You’ve got to do something about the chickens our neighbors are raising.
The first morning Maureen took me out to Zandspruit, the African squatter camp in her ward. ( She herself lives in a quiet, mixed-race middle class neighborhood – also part of her ward.) There’d been a fire and several shacks were destroyed. Maureen worked the phones to find out if food and mattresses had been delivered, then headed out to see the situation for herself.
We walked part of the way on a tarred road she’d worked to get built. She was eager to show me the brick school and daycare facility before going on to the fire. We took a dirt trail between shacks thrown up with corrugated iron, dirt floors, no windows. Maureen had been able to acquire what we call porta-potties for the community, but now some people had built shacks on the roads so she received complaints that the trucks hadn’t come to empty them.
We walked past people collecting water at a communal tap which provided safe drinking water (90% of South Africans have access to clean water), but without a sewerage system, water is thrown out in the road, and we had to delicately maneuver down the path.
We discovered the burnt shacks were down a steep narrow trail between shacks, and Maureen’s volunteer helper asked one of the women along the way if I could sit in her shack. I was grateful since it was getting very hot.
The woman had a six year old daughter who’ll have to start school next year, the mother told me sadly. She was ironing a pair of men’s pants with a flat iron – you know the kind you heat over a stove. I saw no other furniture in the one roomed shack except a small table and chair where the daughter was playing with some scraps she imagined to be a doll.. The front of the house was partially closed with a sheet of metal, but there was no possibility to close a door or lock it.
I was impressed with the woman’s gracious hospitality. Maureen’s volunteer talked with her about her registration. Evidently it’s essential to register everyone in the house in order to qualify when the government houses become available. She warned the woman not to take in foreigners or borders; if they weren’t registered, that would disqualify her when her name come up.
As we drove back home Maureen explained the contentious government housing policy. When the ANC came into power eighteen years ago, it promised free housing to any family unit earning less than $450 a month; a rental to those earning up to $900; and the ability to pay off a house on a mortgage with the government assuming the down-payment.
However, the ANC has not been able to fulfill its promises, though there have been tremendous advances in the development of new communities. A major problem is that people stream into Johannesburg from the rural areas, and even more from other countries – Nigerians, Somalians, Zimbabweans. All these people look for work and a house.
Yet, the average income in Zandspruit is less than$125 a month and there is high unemployment.
Maureen took me to see Cosmos City, the highpoint of her term. She negotiated for the purchase of the land, worked with engineers to design the infrastructure, and proudly pointed to 12,500 one and two bedroom houses for previous shack dwellers. She has already negotiated the purchase of more land and is promising many of the people in Zandspruit a house in a year.
Unfortunately even as those houses are built many more people will crowd into Zandspruit than can be accommodated.
We returned home, weary and dirty after the hours in Zandspruit. (We did not discover the cause of the fire. “Probably a candle, or a drunkard, or a boyfriend beating his girlfriend.” Maureen commented.) But the day wasn’t over yet. Another emergency meeting called, which she had to attend. Even in her role as elected councilor she is continually threatened, accused, and challenged by members of other parties. I was amazed at her persistent determination to honor God in the role she’s been given. I learned first hand, that being a politician, especially at the local level, is no easy job.