Media: Life in the tin jungle of Blikkiesdorp

24 11 2009

‘when it’s windy, it’s like you’re eating sand’

November 23, 2009 Edition 1
Caryn Dolley –
Cape Times

EYES wide with fear, beads of perspiration at her temples, she runs into the dusty road and shrieks at the policeman: “Help. Come here quick. They’re being beaten.”His heavy boots crunching on the sand and loose stones, eyes screwed up in the harsh sunlight, he rushes after the woman into the stifling heat of a corrugated iron hut.

Inside a man, trembling with apparent rage, is hitting his girlfriend and his sister, who are cowering in a corner.

After a few minutes of shouting, accusations peppered with curses flung between the man and the women, the policeman manages to calm the situation.

“It’s the frustration; it’s the frustration,” he says afterwards, shaking his head as he walks back into the glare of sunlight reflecting off row upon row of identical iron huts.

This is Blikkiesdorp.

And the Delft police station commissioner, Basil Vellai, says the crime we have just witnessed is common in the area. In fact, the assaults that occur there are usually more violent.

Vellai says the man, who works night shift, was trying to sleep in the hut, but the women were cleaning, and the noise they were making kept him awake.

This caused him to snap.

Inside the iron structure, his home, the heat is almost overpowering. After five minutes inside, one feels sticky with perspiration.

But once you leave the shelter for the dusty street, you realise it’s a toss-up between shade with suffocating heat indoors, and hint of a hot breeze and blinding sunlight outside.

As we drive away, neighbours from the densely packed huts, shielding their eyes with their hands, stand outside and watch the car as we pass.

When we turn at the first corner, they shuffle back into their homes.

Vellai points out the different parts of Blikkiesdorp – where, for example, the victims of last year’s xenophobic attacks are now housed.

Some of the plain iron huts, each with just one small window, look stark and unwelcome, but others have been daubed with paint or decorated in an effort to personalise them.

A few children play in the dust of the streets, their only playground. If they fall, they will graze their knees, as there is no grass to act as a buffer. Nor are there trees for shade.

We see a number of children wearing only bathing costumes or shorts, trying to keep cool by splashing water from bottles over themselves.

It is only 11am and the day is still to grow hotter.

A naked child is trying to cool down by directing water on to himself with a hand cupped under a tap.

A neighbourhood watch member joins us in the car. She says a number of mothers complained the previous day about the children playing with the taps.

A tap and toilet are shared between four huts, and the water is needed for washing, cleaning and cooking.

The neighbourhood watch member may not be named as she has already been threatened with her life, accused of passing on information to police.

She says it is unpleasant living in Blikkiesdorp.

“It’s very dangerous,” she says. “But there are also very nice people.

“In the summer it gets so hot. And in winter it gets very, very cold.

“When it’s windy, it’s like you’re eating sand. And when it rains the ground turns into mud and the mud is walked into the houses.

“People aren’t really happy, but it’s much better than living on the street,” she says with a shrug.

As we drive along we see some huts are surrounded by coils of barbed wire.

Wet clothes hang haphazardly from cords strung from a door to a window.

The neighbourhood watch member says when the first group of residents arrived in Blikkiesdorp last year, the huts had no windows and they had to make their own.

“At least the places being built now have windows.”

In a hushed voice she says drug dealing and use is a big problem, and she points to a hut she says a drug dealer has taken over.

She says that in many cases a dealer offers residents money to house his stock of drugs.

“Then the family next door sees they are making money and they also are recruited and keep drugs for money.”

As she gets out of the car, she reaffirms, as if fearful that we will carry away the wrong impression, that some Blikkiesdorp residents “are very good people”.

She then walks to one of more than a thousand non-descript huts, her feet stirring up fine dust that hangs briefly in the still air behind her.

caryn.dolley@inl.co.za

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