Houses, roads, and a 15-year wait

By PHAKAMISA MAYABA / Bump into *Old John Hewana, down to a T like the approachable residents of Kuyasa township: generally well-meaning, beanie slanted over one eyebrow, a piecemeal gig going here or there, thanks very much. But also – even as he tries so hard to be of good cheer – the wan glare of discontent about him.

An ingrained feature around here, that one. Anguished raconteurs who put up appearances, crack jokes as though fortifying themselves in humour to stave off the potholes of uncertainty that rage deep within.

Ever seen men who laugh with straight faces? And laugh more than the joke deserves? They get the jest’s schema, but have to deliberately feign indulgent guffaws, because what’s there to laugh about when things are so tough on so many?

For Hewana, it’s the house he expected to move into more than a decade ago, and the construction job he is supposed to be clocking into every morning. Neither has materialised.

Scenes reminiscent of a war zone. Image: eParkeni

And he has two kids, a steady lady and an aged mother on chronic medication whom he dotes on. When the diabetes afflicting her spikes, her legs balloon. The pain is so intense she can hardly speak, let alone make it to the sour-smelling long drop at the back of the house. Their adobe house is an eyesore. The paint is peeling, the roof flaps in the wind, and it’s so old that nobody remembers when it was first built.

Hewana is one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, who’d faithfully believed in the Ou Boks Project. Conceived around 2006, the rationale was that this multi-million-rand presidential effort result in the relocation of the people of the Old Location, making way for the much-needed redevelopment of that area.

The Location, consisting of venerable areas like Six Penny and Diep Hoek – arguably the township’s oldest nooks – bears the stigmata of underdevelopment, poverty, neglect and inequality. Dilapidated, neglected and crumbling mud houses stand among shacks and well-built suburban monstrosities. Poverty and affluence coexist cheek by jowl as some residents drive around in gleaming German sedans, just as others are lining up for a free plate of food from some NGO.

The gutted shell of what evidently used to be someone’s home in the Old Location. Image: eParkeni

In due course, Hewana’s allocated house would have afforded his sickly mother the dignity of a flushing toilet. Except that it stands unoccupied, the walls crumbling, window frames ripped out, and roofless, the corrugated iron sheets stolen for someone else’s use. The area behind Bongweni Location where this house and others stand is reminiscent of a grim, desolate scene from a Spielberg war drama.

The houses, some 80 of them, are gutted, hollowed structures. Garbage lies strewn everywhere. Some are used as drug dens, or place for passersby to relieve themselves. Not long ago they were the scene of a bloody, smoldering incident of mob justice.

In short, the Ou Boks Project is one of those tragedies over which sane men hang their heads in shame, asking how something like this could ever happen while an entire town looks on.

The Northern Cape MEC for Co-operative Governance, Human Settlements and Traditional Affairs (COGHSTA), Bentley Vaas, has lamented this tragedy, and so has the minister of human settlements, Mmamoloko Kubayi (see editor’s note). But fixing it will apparently take time, and so Hewana’s mom must endure her woes a little longer.

Besides, few hearts seem to be in it, as most people would rather speak in hushed tones or on conditions of anonymity because, well, there is, according to Hewana, what you might label a prevalent culture of ‘economic exclusion’ of dissenters, and those who haven’t yet whipped themselves into the survivalist habit of biting their tongue. The unspoken rule is simple enough: If you’re still hoping to find work, best shut up and look the other way. You know, towing the line and all that.

Hewana himself is quite familiar with this code. As a volunteer of a political party, he claims to have been promised a construction gig. As soon as one came up, he was assured, his name would automatically be added to a list of those to be employed when the revamp of the N1 highway got under way. But there was a snag: The hordes of locals desperate for work baulked at the ‘list’. They wanted the tried-and-tested, equitable process of drawing lots – the identity documents of all applicants are tossed into a box and shuffled. It’s fair. It’s democratic. Everybody enjoys an equal opportunity.

Ultimately, says another resident who’s careful with his identity, there was something of a stalemate between the powers that be who were bent on pushing through their list, and residents who were crying foul. As a result, and fearing economic deprivation, locals tend to tiptoe around these matters. In some quarters, to voice dissatisfaction about how these underhanded, opaque methods are holding residents to ransom are no less than what Chief Justice Raymond Zondo determined about cadre deployment, namely ‘unconstitutional.’

On this, eParkeni hopes to write extensively; how, in an attempt to cling to power, political parties treat the public economic space as though it were their mothers’ spaza shop. Like some tribal fiefdom where the laws of the land can be bent according to the Chiefs’ whims.

An improvement to the township’s roads. Image: eParkeni

But the media (even this hapless rag) often get a bad rap for being purveyors of bad news. Prophets of doom who can’t even write. Though the second slur may come close to home, here at eParkeni we are suckers for a feel-good story, if not for anything but to boost people’s morale. It’s rough out there, and being on the ground, we find ourselves subjected on a daily basis to gut-wrenching scenes of real struggles and poverty.

That said, although August may be a windy month, there has seemingly been fewer dust storms around Kuyasa. This could be attributed to the invisible hand of climate change, but kudos must also go the recent revamp project which saw roads around Bongweni all paved up. Even under the lash of a summer cloudburst, the roads are orderly, and motorists seem happy.

A revamped road right around the memorial for the Colesberg Four. Image: eParkeni

For now, the national problem of bad roads and potholes is not something that locals worry about. ‘The paving,’ says one resident, ‘has been a lifesaver. A few months ago, I’d worry when it rained, because that usually meant the entire street would be flooded.’

Awesome news! If only Hewana, or at least his ailing mother, could also enjoy the basic dignity of a flushing toilet in their lifetime.

* Not his real name.


Editor’s note: Extracts from a report by the government news agency:

In December last year, the minister of human settlements, Mmamoloko Kubayi, assured the Colesberg community that the government would intervene in blocked and incomplete housing projects. She made this commitment during a District Development Model (DDM) Community Imbizo and Service Fair held in the Toto Mayaba Stadium in Colesburg. Kubayi visited housing project sites which remained incomplete, including the Oubox Housing Project in the Umsombonvu Municipality.

Source: South African Government News Agency, ‘Kubayi visits unfinished housing projects’, December 9, 2022, at

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