Durban’s slum nightmare. Part two: Home is a crowded container

This is the feature package on the Durban slum building problem. It contained the main piece and then two sidebars. Published in the Sunday Tribune on July 17, 2011, on page 13 (for first edition) and page 6 (for second edition.

Original article as it appeared in the Sunday Tribune on July 17, 2011, page 13.


Many of Durban’s poor are living in slum conditions, and there’s very little they can do about it. Matthew Savides and Mitchell Harper report

THE AIR is thick with the stench of faeces, urine and stagnant water. It’s difficult to breathe. The rooms are cramped and as many as 100 people share just three toilets and showers. It’s dark, it’s dank and it’s a seemingly hopeless situation.

You might think this is a prison, but you’d be wrong. This is the reality that thousands of Durban’s poorest people are living in. And they do so because it’s cheap. At one property in Carlisle Street in the CBD, 10 shipping containers have been stacked in the courtyard. As many as 12 to 18 people live in a single container at a cost of R20 a person a night. At other places, rent is anywhere between R700 and R1 500 a cubicle and several share each cubicle.

There are at least 60 illegal accommodation facilities operating in Durban, according to the municipality’s Inner City eThekwini Regeneration and Urban Management Programme (iTrump). Fifteen of them are in the CBD, eight in the Umgeni Road area, seven near the beachfront and four in the Albert Park area.

The problem is also spreading to suburbs, where homes are being converted illegally and dozens are made to sleep in deplorable conditions. About 28 of these are in Chatsworth, the Bluff, Seaview, Hillary, Queensburgh and other suburbs.

Officials said it was “difficult” to get an idea of how many people lived in these conditions, but estimates run into the thousands. And it’s a situation that doesn’t seem to be getting any better.

“Imagine walking into a building so over-populated that you can’t even believe there are so many people fitting into such small areas, such small cubicles. You come across the most inhumane conditions. And these people are not stupid – many of them are highly qualified, but they are forced to take this accommodation because they are desperate.

“The owners and managing (leasing) agents are taking advantage of the situation. The buildings do not meet the regulations governing health, fire, safety and building development. Compliance is nonexistent.

PICTURE: MTHOBISI MBANJWA. Insp Shalendra Singh interacts with children at a slum building in the Durban CBD. Just metres away from them is an overflowing rubbish bin and stagnant water from the courtyard.

“Some buildings have three toilets and three showers for more than 140 people. People defecate in toilets that aren’t working, and urinate and defecate on the fire escapes, because there aren’t enough toilets,” said Inspector Dean Nieuwoudt of the Special Projects Task Team.

Officials come across the same conditions in many buildings.

Advocate Aubrey Mthethwa, also of the task team, said: “It’s frustrating, especially when you find young children living in these conditions. You see people crammed into tiny spaces. Men, women, children all live in one space. They share the showers and toilets, which means they are exposed to each other. There is no privacy.”

On a tour of just two of the buildings on Friday morning, the appalling state of the living conditions became clear. Children sat on a dirty blanket playing with Lego blocks and toy cars, while just behind them were overflowing dustbins and just metres away were puddles of milky white water where women had been doing washing. Inside, the ventilation was poor, so much so that illness is rife.

“There are not enough windows, so there is no ventilation. Just think about it: if one person gets any communicable disease it will spread to all the people living there. Even the inspectors and teams who go in to deal with the problem get sick,” Nieuwoudt said.

He said because the buildings were crowded, excess refuse posed a problem. “Rats are attracted to the refuse, and they spread diseases. In one case, the rats actually attacked officials who went into an electricity box to sort out illegal connections,” he said.

PICTURE: MTHOBISI MBANJWA. A resident points out his bed in the shipping container he calls home. As many as 18 people live in a single container.

Residents were reluctant to talk about the conditions, fearing owners, caretakers or managing agents would victimise them.

One man, who lives at 4 Umgeni Road, owned by a prominent Durban businessman and lawyer, said he lived there because he had few options.

“We can’t go anywhere else. We have no other choice, because it is the only place we can afford. Living here is fine, because it is cheap. The biggest problem we have is that it is not clean. We just wish the owner would try to make it clean.”

He said it was common for five or 10 people to live in a single room, sometimes just 3m wide.

“Everyone is crammed here and we all share toilets and showers. A lot of people get sick, very sick,” he said.

But why doesn’t he complain? “There is no point. You get targeted by landlords,” he said.

It’s not just the buildings that are a problem. Barely 1km away, 58 people, most of them Zimbabwean, live in shipping containers that have been turned into makeshift housing. There are also rooms in the building in Carlisle Street. Each of the rooms and containers is named after a Zimbabwean town.

One of the residents is Andrew Tanyanyiwa. He has lived in a converted container for more than 18 months.

“This room used to be full of people, now there are just three of us,” he said, adding that one of his roommates was his father.

Like all the other residents, Tanyanyiwa doesn’t want to live where he is now, but says he has no choice.

“It’s expensive to live in the city,” he said. He points to a block of flats from his elevated container. “It’s also expensive to live there. It costs almost nothing to live here.”


OFFICIALS, inspectors and the police face an uphill task in dealing with slumlords and the dodgy buildings they create. They’ve had faeces thrown at them while doing their work and two building inspectors were stabbed.

PICTURE: MTHOBISI MBANJWA. Police officer Sipho Duma inspects one of the shipping containers at a slum building in Durban.

But their work has not been in vain.

“We are making progress and have had a number of successes. The things we are doing are working,” said iTrump head Hoosen Moolla.

A few CBD buildings have been turned around, he said, and the criminals who used to live there have been dealt with. One such building was the Ark Royal in Mahatma Gandhi (Point) Road. Once a haven for drug dealers and assorted criminals, the building was recently sold to high-profile Durban businessman Roy Moodley.

“We intervened there, got people out and sealed the building. We saved a building,” Moolla said.

Similar cases apply to Sandringham Court in Gillespie Street – “where drug dealers operated” – and Trafalgar Court, where two
officials were stabbed during an inspection. Both men survived.

“At Trafalgar, we had people committing rape on the beachfront and running into that building to hide. But we have cleaned it up and the residents in the area are very happy. We have had successes which show that we can make a difference,” Moolla said.

iTrump head Hoosen Moolla

Yvonne Badenhorst, who chairs the Point community policing forum, said slum buildings were a problem in the area, but she praised iTrump for its intervention.

“A lot of people have the mindset that crime in the Point area is out of control, when it isn’t. There are people trying to change that (perception), including iTrump,” she said.


SALEH Abasi watched in horror as flames engulfed the Johannes Nkosi (Alice) Street building that he called home.

As he stood on the pavement outside, his wife and three children were still trapped inside as the fire began to the spread through the makeshift rooms.
His mind raced, his hands dripped with sweat and his knees were weak. But he was lucky. His family was plucked from the building by fire and emergency services. All 100-plus residents were lucky to escape what one official described as a “death trap”.

The woman who lived in the cubicle next to him was forced to throw her two young children from a window into the waiting arms of other residents on the pavement two storeys down.

“I was so scared. There were small children playing and they started a fire. It started in that room and went to the room above them and then to the next room and the next. The next thing, the whole second floor was on fire,” Abasi said this week, speaking about the incident on July 2 in the heart of Durban’s CBD.

After the fire, in which he lost all of his possessions, Abasi moved to a building in Bertha Mkhize (Victoria) Street. The conditions there are just as tough – if not tougher.

“I paid R1 500 a month for my room. It was quite big, with a toilet and shower,” the car guard said.

Asked how big the room was, he pointed out an area about 6m long and about 4m wide. Not exactly luxury living conditions, but it was better than what many other residents had to contend with.

“There were many rooms there. Some were like mine, quite big and with a toilet. But others were very small. There are too many people living there, more than 100,” Abasi said.

But, he said, he didn’t have much choice. “In town you can stay at very nice places, but it’s too expensive. I don’t have enough money,” he said.
The building is owned by Khalil Peer, and notices have been served on him instructing him to get the building up to scratch. If he fails to do so, he will be charged.


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