Residents of a rundown block of flats in Westdene, Johannesburg are living in inhumane conditions. The building is commonly known and referred to by its address – 10A.
The people living at 10A have to sleep with sticks in their hands to ward off rats at night whose size is equivalent to a cat. From the moment one enters the building one is struck by an ominous feeling. There are tiles missing from the dusty old staircase.
The floor of what used to be communal bathrooms is littered with rubbish. In some areas, the rubbish has collected in water that has formed a thick black goo. Without even touching anything one could start to feel dust forming on one’s palms.
Tiny flies float through the thick stuffy air. “You can see [that there are] windows that are here but there is not much ventilation. For a big place like this it’s closed off,” said Llewellyn Josephs who is a member of the Westdene Residents Association. Josephs has also been a community security guard for 15 years.
Residents use makeshift locks to chain their doors shut when they are away at work. The gaping holes in the walls make great hiding spots for contraband.
Josephs said that drugs such as tik and Wonga had been found hidden in the building. “In the last raid we had found drugs inside these walls,” Josephs said.
A Hub For Criminal Activity
Speaking to The Open Journal Josephs said that the building attracts people suffering from drug and alcohol abuse and is notorious for criminal activity.
“You know Kimberley’s got the big hole. So this is Kimberley. This is the hole,” Josephs said. “I’ve caught guys with remote jammers, with car keys for other vehicles. They even steal bins and hide [them] here.”
Josephs says the criminals living in the building have developed a special code to allow their clients to solicit drugs and prostitution. Clients park outside the building and communicate using car hooters.
“You want a girl just hit one hoot they’ll come to you. You want a fix, press two hoots they’ll come to you. There’s a code I’ve been monitoring the code. I’m seeing the movement,” Josephs explained.
Rosa Vucevic, Vice Chair of the Westdene Residents Association says people living close to the building have also been affected by the crime.
Parts of the building are so dark that candles have to be used during the day. Josephs says residents were forced to get creative when they went without water and electricity for over a year.
“It’s noted at the [Department of Water and Sanitation] that the water is now fixed but it’s not registered on their system. So that’s how we got to find out that [it was] bypassed.”
Lending A Helping Hand
It is not just criminals who reside at 10A, an array of issues has forced ordinary people to live there.
Elizabeth Damani is one such person. Damani is originally from the Eastern Cape but now works as a domestic worker in Johannesburg. During the week she works for two different families, the first one pays her R100 a day and the second one pays her R150 day.
“There’s nothing I can do. There’s only one thing [I can do and that is] to put food on the table for my kids. If you’re a mother you do whatever [you have to] to make a living for the kids,” Damani said.
Damani says she struggles to support her four kids as well as her family back home in the Eastern Cape. She sends R300 of her own money to support her six family members in the Eastern Cape through the Shoprite Money Market Service.
Josephs and Vucevic said that local government and the community have tried to intervene and are making great strides.
“There are good people that have come out of this place that have made a change [in] their lives,” Josephs said referring to the residents of 10A.“We’ve taken an onus to assist them with trying to find work; taking them back into society. It’s hard but we have taken over a lot.”
Josephs said that the people include prostitutes to murderers but they all show a keen interest in improving their lives. “They tell us straight. ‘This is my life I want [to] change’,” he said. “It all starts with them.”
The conditions at 10A have caught the attention of Lynn Fortuin, a local humanitarian. Fortuin runs an NGO called the Wykes Foundation with her siblings, Rae Israel, Kim Leon and Derek Wykes.
The group plans on opening a safe-haven called Heaven’s Gate for the residents of 10A. They want to create a safe living and learning environment for the children and hopes to rehabilitate the children’s parents and help them find work.
All photos courtesy of Neani Neto.