It’s on a Thursday night, half past seven in Western Township, Johannesburg. The hall is full. A man is standing at the front talking. But no-one can hear him. The man’s voice is too soft. So everyone starts to talk amongst themselves.
Suddenly someone stands up and says: “We all know that Elvis doesn’t talk loudly. So will everyone stop talking so that we can hear. Everyone nods in agreement. Then someone fetches Elvis from the front. He stands on a chair in the middle of the hall. Elvis looks like he will fall off the chair – but he carries on talking.
Now everyone is quiet, They all want to hear. Elvis is talking about a meeting with the Johannesburg City Council. The Council are breaking down people’s homes and building new houses in Western.
You will think the people of Western are lucky to get new houses. But you will only think they are lucky until you see the houses. As someone at the meeting said: “These new houses are like a pair of fifteen-year-old pants. When you try to put them on, they don’t fit anymore. They hurt you. Our families have grown. We will never fit into these tiny new houses.”
The people of Western have fought a struggle for better houses – and they have won. When the Council started to build the new houses, no-one in Western knew about it. And when the people saw the new houses, they did not like them. Now the Council has said they will build eight different types of houses – not just one kind. And people can look at the houses and choose. The Council will only build houses that people have chosen.
The problems In Western started twenty-five years ago. The Johannesburg City Council was ‘cleaning up’ Johannesburg. They moved everyone around. Everyone who lived in Western Native Township, as Western used to be called, had to move to Soweto. Then the Council started to move ‘coloureds’ out of ‘white’ areas – and into Western.
Mrs Daniels was one of the people who moved into Western twenty five years ago. She tells us about it:
“I was living in Newclare. We lived in a GG house – a government house. Then the City Council told us to move. We didn’t know why we had to move – we just did what the Council told us to do. They said we must go to the housing office in Western Native Township. And so we did.
“I went with my baby, Elvis, the same one with the soft voice. I waited at the office the whole day – and the whole of the next day and the day after that. There were people at the office from allover Johannesburg, from Doornfontein, Fietas Jeppe, Sophiatown.
“Then the people in the office said we must go and find houses for ourselves. And that is what we did. We walked up and down the streets.
If you saw a house that you wanted, you wrote down the number. You took the number to the offices. Then they gave you the keys. If the keys were gone, it meant the house was taken and you had to start looking again.
It was terrible looking for houses. People were still living there, waiting to be moved to Soweto. I think they hated us. When we asked them about houses, they were very rude. They thought we were the reason that they had to move.
“I first looked in Matta Street before I found this house here in Moguerane Street. I’m pleased now – Matta Street is where all the shebeens are. I chose this house because it was big and clean. The people before us had taken the ceilings out and a window-frame. People did this because the Council did not pay them for the work they had done on the houses.
“When we moved into Western, the Council said it was just for a short time. They said they were going to build new houses for us. That was 25 years ago. Since then, the children have become parents and the parents have become ouma’s and oupa’s – all while they were waiting for new houses.
“But things started to change in 1980. There was a big meeting to talk about houses. People started the Westbury Residents’ Action Committee (WRAC) to fight for better houses. We also decided to send a letter to PW Botha. In that letter we told him we were tired of waiting for new houses. We sent that letter to the Council and to every newspaper. Two months later they started knocking down old houses and building new ones. They called the place where they built the new houses “Pedestrian Court.”
“People say that Western is a slum, a bad place to live. But you should see Pedestrian Court. With those houses they built an instant slum.
There are just bare blocks, no ceilings, lime paint, no hot water. And the rooms are so small that people had to sell half their furniture when they moved in.
“The Council did not talk to anyone about the houses. And when the council moved people, they just moved people anyhow. When everyone had moved, the two biggest gangs were in one street the Spaldings were on one side, and Fast Guns were on the other side. It was war there every Saturday.
“We complained so much that the Council only built 300 houses in Pedestrian Court. Then for five years we heard nothing.
“In May this year we saw them digging trenches. This time we were wise. Everyone went to look. We didn’t like what we saw. They were building houses with two bed rooms. But in Western you can find 27 people living together. The houses were too small. So people just filled the trenches up again.
‘Our Action Committee, or WRAC as we call it, also went to see the Council. The Council didn’t want to listen. They carried on building. People got angrier. They went and pushed the walls down. Then the police came with their teargas. Children threw stones at the cars on Ontdekkers Road. People were arrested.
“In the end the Council started to talk to us. First they said they would change the new houses.
The Council said they would build houses with three bedrooms, not two bedrooms. When we said we still didn’t like the houses, they said we must plan our own houses. They thought we couldn’t do it. But we did.
“WRAC got an office at the hall people came every afternoon to say what they wanted in the new houses. We used what they said for new plans. We then gave these plans to the Council. Now the Council is using some of these ideas.”
The people of Western have been pushed around for a long time. They have been told what to do. But no more. Now they have an organisation and they fight their struggles together. They have not only won better houses. They have won the right to choose. That is a right most people in this country haven’t got yet!