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Preacher-turned-journalist's mission to tell the stories of Imizamo Yethu

Resident Owen Xubuzane is the presenter, cameraman and editor of IY TV, which reports on the daily on-goings of the settlement

24 March 2019 - 00:00 By Anton Crone

In March 2017, the worst shack fire in Cape Town's history killed four people, razed more than 3,500 shacks and left 15,000 people homeless. Two years on, many Imizamo Yethu fire victims remain in limbo, with entire families still living in temporary 3m x 3m shacks. Relief for them is at least another two years away.
Walking through Imizamo Yethu (known as "IY" in these parts) I can, for a moment, imagine I am in a quaint Italian village. The alleyways are narrow, the ground is cobbled underfoot, and the view is wonderful. The moment passes quickly, because I'm walking along a path carved by sewage, slipping on rocks that channel effluent downhill, bordered by shack walls made of sheet metal and pilfered road signs.
The view, however, remains wonderful because IY looks onto prime real estate. Sol Kerzner's impressive home is on the opposite slope, and a leafy valley below resounds with the clip-clop of horseback riders. Up here in IY, the metal walls on my left bounce to the beat of reggae music and the walls opposite vibrate with the passion of gospel.
As a bishop of the Salem Apostolic Church in Zion, IY resident Owen Xubuzane finds salvation in preaching, which sometimes involves night-long vigils followed by baptisms at sunrise. He is also an intern teacher at the local Silikamva High School, and he is IY's citizen journalist.
Trained by the nonprofit Cape Digital Foundation, Xubuzane is the presenter, cameraman and editor of IY TV. With a cellphone and a basic editing app, he makes daily online broadcasts about everything from budding musical talent to the plight of fire victims in the Temporary Relocation Area (TRA), which is where we are heading. We have just interviewed a tattoo artist, Joseph, in his shack at the top of IY. He spoke to us through a haze of sweet-smelling smoke while stabbing a new design into the skin on his ankle using orange ink and a sewing needle.
From the highest vantage point at the top of IY the aspect is spectacular. Those who have to defecate up here when the council toilets are bunged up or broken, which is often, at least have the view to distract them.
Down at the bottom of IY the sewage eventually exits the alley and fans out onto a flight of steps leading to a traffic circle. Here, luxury 4x4s towing horseboxes are joined on the road by amaphela ("cockroaches", the nickname for informal taxis) in the cheek-by-jowl mix of wealth and poverty that is Hout Bay.
We pass a small cafe on the right where local tour guide Kenny Tokwe has lunch and meets tourists with a philanthropic bent, then we pass row upon row of portable toilets and enter the TRA. Compared to the labyrinth of metal shacks on the higher slopes, it is regimented, uniform, like a refugee camp.
After the 2017 fire, concerned citizens engaged with the city council to ensure such a tragedy never happened again. They recognised the need for better infrastructure, better housing, and better access by road so emergency vehicles could reach the area. Lack of access was the key factor in why the damage was so bad two years ago.
At the core of the new plan is an initiative called super-blocking. The area affected by fire would be rezoned and afforded better infrastructure such as roads, sanitation and buried electricity connections. During that time affected residents would move into a TRA built on municipal land.
Families of four or more were allocated two of the 3m-square shacks that could be joined together. Some families weren't so lucky.
Outside one 3x3 I meet Khowulezile Mcaphukisi, who is breast-feeding her baby. She invites me in to meet her husband and older daughter. The baby is put tenderly on the bed next to two sleeping toddlers. Another two children are on their way back from school, making a total of eight who share this small space.
Xubuzane is reporting the stories of the people in the 3x3s. While I am there, he interviews residents who are collecting water. They turn on the tap at the end of a row of toilets and brown water gushes out. We wait 10 minutes before it clears to a light beige colour that is deemed usable.
A few shacks along I meet Molawa Dumezweni, who is lying on a bed with a bout of flu while her family sits alongside. Dumezweni coughs a phlegmy greeting as I step inside. Chances are her son-in-law, daughter and granddaughter will catch the same flu. The story is repeated a bit further along: three generations in a 3x3.
One of the supporters of super-blocking was community leader Ziyanda Phandle. She no longer lives in Imizamo Yethu because she and her family were threatened by residents who refused to relocate to the TRA.
Phandle says that while discussions were under way with the city after the 2017 disaster, many people rebuilt on the land laid waste by fire, thereby putting formal development on hold. What made matters worse is that nonresidents took advantage of the situation and built there too.
"We are in court proceedings with 200 households who rebuilt after the fire," says ward councillor Roberto Quintas. Those households need to make way for a new road. "To get the super-blocking project under way we need to get that road sorted out."
Land above the adjoining cemetery has been developed as a temporary relocation area for these households, but the residents have rejected the city's terms.
"They are sitting on a ticking bomb because the fire can happen any time. The reason that fire affected so many families is because there is no room for firefighters to go in," Phandle says. "The shacks are closer to each other so there is no way for people to move to get their stuff out of the way."
Even if the deadlock was resolved immediately, redevelopment would still be 18-24 months away. But no agreement is in sight. The result is thousands of people are stuck in the TRA, and thousands are perched precariously on the slopes in shacks more derelict and flimsy than those they replaced.
Fires are relatively frequent here. In February last year a fire gutted 100 shacks, leaving 350 people homeless. Three weeks ago, a fire razed 19 shelters, displacing nearly 100 people. Fortunately it was mid-morning when the blaze erupted, which meant it could be brought under control by citizens and firefighters, who had to climb uphill dragging hoses through twisting alleys to reach the flames.
At the smouldering site the next morning, scrap collectors were scrounging what they could while others were hastily erecting new shacks. Rebuilding must begin immediately if residents want to keep their patch and protect their remaining possessions.
Xubuzane says the fire started when the electricity returned after a power outage. "They left a pot of food on a hot plate which they forgot to turn off before going to work," he says. The power returned and the place was soon in flames.
Leaving the site of the fire, I follow a series of alleyways where wires run haphazardly from transformer boxes above, sometimes gathering in knots. Some of the cables wind around trees, and some do duty as washing lines.
Rays of hope do shine now and then. A separate formal housing development has gone on unimpeded by the 2017 fire. This could relieve some pressure but structures will only be in place by the end of 2020 at the earliest.
Some Hout Bay residents on the border of Imizamo Yethu recognise the need for more land. A number of landowners in neighbouring Hughenden have offered to sell their land to the city at what they deem fair market prices.
"I realised we could be part of the solution by offering this land so people could build low-cost housing," says Hughenden resident Deon Robbertz.
But the bureaucracy grinds slowly, and some fear the land might be taken over by squatters. Residents of Meadows, the suburb next along, look at Hughenden as a buffer zone and are opposing the sale.
But many Hout Bay residents spring into action when disaster occurs in Imizamo Yethu. Volunteers from the nonprofit Thula Thula Hout Bay provided basic relief for victims of the 2017 fire, as well as the more recent ones, in the form of food, blankets and other necessities.
Another organisation regularly involved with the TRA is Community Cook Up IY. At the core of its programme is a feeding scheme that provides healthy meals to children every Friday evening.
Organisers Camilla Wilson and Tjarla Norton live in Hout Bay and appeal for donations of food, cooking and eating utensils from Hout Bay residents and businesses.
I join Cook Up IY one Friday evening as volunteers set up pots of hot food, and brace themselves as the kids come rushing. They take plates of food to a makeshift gym where local boys learn boxing. The trainees stand in a circle, holding hands to form a boxing ring. Two boys slip on their gloves and go at it with passion.
Steam from the food mingles with the steam of perspiration - a flurry of punches, and a bruised ego, healed by the promise of a good meal.
Outside, other kids queue frantically for food. Volunteers bark orders to keep them in line. Some kids start eating the moment the food hits their plate, others move off to sit and eat at the foot of council toilets.
In the TRA there is one toilet for every five households; on average that is one toilet per 25 people. The toilet components are the cheap plastic variety that break easily. The sewerage struggles with the load, resulting in overflowing cisterns. Wilson tells me that the portable toilets left behind after the council toilets were built serve double duty. The problem is they are not serviced any longer.
It becomes clear when I visit a local shebeen why Friday is Cook Up IY's evening of choice. Many TRA parents are too drunk on the weekend to contemplate feeding children. One intoxicated woman collapses at the doorway of the shebeen. A lone infant watches from the alley nearby.
"Those people are not staying there because they want to stay there. They are staying there because they want what the City of Cape Town promised them," says Phandle.
Despite the terrible infrastructure, Imizamo Yethu has one tech convenience that many urban areas don't. The company TooMuchWifi delivers affordable internet to IY via routers in local businesses such as spazas and hair salons. So residents can use one internet provider throughout much of IY without having to switch between different operators, or having to pay the exorbitant rates of cellular companies.
There is no charge to watch IY TV. The Cape Digital Foundation believes in enabling citizens to solve real-world problems through technology, and IY TV is finding its place as a multifaceted local resource.
Not only can locals catch up on the latest news, but they can list their business on IY TV's website for free, and learners from grade 4 through to 9 can do school exercises using a large range of digital workbooks.
Aiming for Silikamva High School at the top of Imizamo Yethu, I leave the TRA and walk up an alley. The sun hits the rocky pinnacle above the shanty town, painting it a russet gold.
Then gospel music brings me back to earth and I trudge between the shacks. I lose my way, turn back, and find another alley that doubles as a sewage trench. It's a sign that this is the way to the top.
As I pass an open door, a woman smiles at me as she packs a large suitcase. Perhaps she's found a way out of this purgatorial maze. But I don't ask directions. I trudge on as if I know the way. But I don't. I don't think anyone really does...

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