Yesterday, Saturday 8 September, the streets of Yeoville Bellevue were teeming with children. Children from all over Gauteng, bussed in by the Gauteng Department of Education to participate in an Children’s Carnival. Different schools were dressed in various brightly-coloured traditional and not-so-traditional and simply fanciful costumes. The streets were crowded with the carnival procession, the pavements hijacked by buses.
On the Yeoville Boys sportsground was a serious stage with DJs having a mock competition (that most kids were more or less ignoring). Dressed-up teens struck poses as I walked by with my camera, one group dressed in blue insisting that I take a series of BFF pics for them (though there were no arrangements for them to get the pictures – they were just happy they had been taken and that they had a chance to see them on the back of my digital camera).
A foursome of boys clamoured to see their picture and I smelt alcohol. They were barely 15 years old. I asked them if they were still at school and they confirmed they were. When I asked why they had been drinking, the one whose breath I had smelt waved away my question in denial. When I insisted, he back-tracked and said they hadn’t had much. As they left, another in the group assured me that it wasn’t all of them. People more than three blocks from where this event was happening were blissfully unaware of it – publicity had been minimal.
Late last night, around 11.30, George Lebone sent a Please Call Me on his cell phone. I obliged and he told me he was in Raymond St, near Rockey, outside Green House, a somewhat dubious night-spot, highlighted in the press some years ago for allegedly procuring Mozambican teenagers for under-age sex work. He said he was watching the police cover up the body of a man who had been in Green House when a group of men arrived in a taxi, stormed into the premises, hauled him out and shot him dead in the street. The men then left.
George had no idea what the story was behind this cold-blooded execution. Meanwhile, he said, inside Green House the drinking and partying continued as though nothing had happened.
Walking back home, he came across a fight in the street outside Hunger Jack Inn, a guest-house cum club half a block away from my house in a residential area. He watched bemused as the group of men manhandled and shouted at each other, competing with the noise of music from the club.
Together with other members of the Yeoville Bellevue Ratepayers Association, I have been doing a house by house visual audit of the area, so that we can compile a comprehensive list of challenges in our area to give to the MMC for Planning in the City of Johannesburg. This morning, one of my fellow ‘auditors’ came to my house while I was finishing breakfast and we chatted until we were ready to leave and do our counting.
She is a black South African married to a Congolese man. She is part of a street committee in her road, one of a handful of concerned residents who go out and clean the street once a week and who try to deal with some of the anti-social behaviour taking place in their area. She asked me what was to be done about the many water meters that were leaking in her street and elsewhere. She was worried about the wastage and we spoke about recent newspaper reports which said that Johannesburg is losing millions of litres of water due to leaks in the city’s old and failing infrastructure, water that is purified and then pumped at great cost over 60km from the Vaal Dam, Johannesburg being one of the few major cities without its own water supply. She spoke of how some meters had been repaired only to leak again. She spoke of her frustration in trying to get Joburg Water to take the situation seriously. She fretted over her general sense of despair at the difficulty in getting people to take part in the street committee, leaving it to a handful of dedicated residents, to whom others always came when there were problems.
Later on, when we were working in a particularly run-down and dirty street, she wondered how people could live in such squalor and not feel motivated to do anything about it. I reminded her of a comment by an enlightened CoJ official who once said to me that ‘if the municipality treats people in such a way that they feel as though the authorities don’t care about them, they will stop caring about themselves’. Besides, there are many people who are so absorbed with basic survival that it is unrealistic to think that they will easily find the motivation or the time to be ‘responsible citizens’.
We spent three hours trawling the streets, noting down the good and the bad of each property. Most people who have taken part in this exercise have been amazed at the number of well-kept properties. There’s a sense that there are many people in the area who take pride in their homes, despite the challenges posed by more neglected properties around them. One person who accompanied me last week was very excited about seeing parts of Yeoville Bellevue that she hadn’t seen in 15 years. She tends to move from her flat to work, from her flat to the shops in Killarney, from her flat to her friends. She has no relationship with Yeoville Bellevue anymore, even though she lives in the area. She was delighted to have a second opportunity to go out today, telling me that she had spoken about her experience with her friends, some of whom had also lived in the area before.
I too am consistently shocked and heartened by what I see. There are some really horrible properties – we wondered what it felt like for someone who kept their property in very good shape to live across the road from a small block of flats that was in terrible condition – run-down, broken-edged, litter-strewn.
We finished today, more or less. Now it all goes into a database and we can get a global sense of what is happening in the area. One thing we have noticed is that there is a disturbing spike in the number of additional buildings, often two-storey flat blocks, being built at the back of a 500 sq m property with a three-bedroomed house already on it. While they provide accommodation for the burgeoning number of people in the area (over 38 000 according to the 2011 census), most of them are probably not approved by council, so there is no check on the quality of materials and construction. In addition, no-one knows what the impact is on the infrastructure of the area – water supply, sewerage, electricity.
We intend to invite the planning people to come and drive around the area with us. There are at least three properties that suddenly have a large pile of bricks in front of them – bricks that weren’t there when we did out rounds last weekend.
Yeoville Bellevue is an exciting, worrying place.
After our audit today, I drove my colleagues back to their respective homes. While dropping one person off, a man with a guitar slung over his back rushed up to the car. He greeted me by name while I puzzled over who he was. He asked my colleague to wait and listen to what he had to say. It seems there was a house around the corner whose occupants had already had the misfortune of having a minibus taxi plough through their wall. Their other concern was that ‘the Congolese’ spaza shop near their house was dumping waste on the street corner their house – and the waste contained the remains of fish that was apparently being cooked by the owners of the spaza shops and sold to the public. The man with the guitar asked us to go around and talk to the corner house people and discuss with them what could be done. He stressed that it wasn’t about the people being Congolese – ‘I’m not being “racist”‘, he said. ‘But we have to teach them the right way of doing things.’
Before he left, I asked him how he knew me and he said: ‘ Maurice, I’ve known you for a long time, we used to fight a lot. But also I played in your 2010 Africa Week Festival.’ I asked what we used to fight about. ‘About the work you are doing in Yeoville Bellevue,’ he said. ‘I thought you were full of shit, causing problems for people by trying to clean the area up, but now I realise that you’re doing a good thing. The place isn’t like it was when I first came here in 1997. It’s bad. Someone must do something to clean up Rockey St, especially between Cavendish and Raymond. I have seen how people get robbed at half past one, two o’clock in the morning. There are no knives or guns, People don’t get hit. The thieves come up and grab them around the neck and hold them until they empty their pockets. I’ve seen people throw out everything from their pockets and then be released. The worst place is that passage where the ‘coloureds’ live, that broken white building. The drugs and violence there. Those guys smoke crack and then need more money and go out and get it from whoever comes along.’
It’s not the first time that someone has told me that I am considered to be troublesome. It’s also not the first time someone has come around and realised that there are challenges that must be addressed in the area and that there are people around who behave in very anti-social, destructive ways who need to be challenged.
He walked away, guitar over his shoulder, satisfied that he had done his ‘civic duty’ by telling us of the problem of the fish. I will let the councillor know and ask him to go around and talk to the spaza shop owners, making it clear to them that there are more correct and more respectful-of-your-neighbours ways of doing things.
Just another couple of days in Yeoville Bellevue.