Living in the shadow of hope: the story of Ramaphosa Informal Settlements

Top view of an informal settlement
Ramaphosa informal settlement in Ekurhuleni is as old as our democracy. (Oratile Kekana)

On Thursday 15 February 2018, Cyril Ramaphosa was sworn in as South Africa’s president at the De Tuynhuys, the office of the President, situated close to where Parliament once stood in the heart of Cape Town.  

On the same day, more than 24 kms from the promise of the new administration, law enforcement agencies were fighting with people invading land in Philippi on the Cape Flats. Having successfully resisted authorities, a group of about 6,000 people settled on land previously used as a recreation park across Victoria Mxenge township. 

This was the birth of Ramaphosa Informal Settlement in Philippi. The founding residents had hope that under the leadership of Cyril Ramaphosa, they’d soon have formal housing. 

Six years later it’s home to about 3,000 households who live in crudely constructed shacks with no electricity, no roads and no formal housing. 

Babalwa Siswana, a community leader of Ramaphosa Informal Settlement, describes themselves as a forgotten community.  

Over the past six years, since President Ramaphosa came to power, little has been done for them. In 2019 the City of Cape Town installed toilets and water for residents of Ramaphosa settlement and promised to return to install electricity but has not lived up to that promise. 

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“There is a conflict between Ramaphosa Informal Settlement and Victoria Mxenge residents over illegal electricity connections,’’ says Siswana. These conflicts are caused by informal dwellers who forcefully want to illegally connect electricity from metre boxes in Victoria Mxenge. 

Illegal electricity connections in 2023 resulted in six community members being fatally electrocuted on separate events. Families use candles, paraffin lamps and stoves for cooking and keeping warm, which have led to many shack fires in the area.

Siswana says that the community members find it difficult to access health facilities, getting to the police station and fire station. 

‘’Healthcare facilities are a bit far from us. One must catch a taxi to get there. If a person is sick at home the ambulance can’t drive in because of the small spaces,’’ she adds.

The issue of informal settlements isn’t new. In Cape Town alone, there are about 437 informal settlements consisting of around 146,000 households. Many of these were established before 1994. And many are a mirror image of Ramaphosa. 

According to the government’s 30 Year Review report, informal dwellings have increased as people flock to urban centres in search of more opportunities as well as better infrastructure and health care. There are over 3 200 informal settlements across the country, home to 8% (5 million) of the population. 

Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) estimates that 12.3% of households in the country live in informal dwellings. 

Gauteng

Thandwa Madikane (59) walks briskly towards the taxi rank on the busy main road that runs through Ramaphosa informal settlement outside Germiston in Ekurhuleni, east of Johannesburg. As he jumps over a puddle of raw sewage the flaps of his jacket open up to show his yellow T-shirt with the faded face of a smiling Cyril Ramaphosa across his stomach. 

Madikane was one of the first residents of Ramaphosa informal settlement. He says people started moving in just before the 1994 elections. 

“This was an open area where cattle used to graze. We fought for this land, we were being shot at by the Boers when we first moved in here from [the neighbouring] Reiger Park where we were paying rent,” he recalls animatedly. 

At the time Madikane and the others erected shacks of corrugated iron to live in. This was the case in many of the country’s big cities. In 2009 the government introduced the Informal Settlement Upgrading Programme which sought to provide these communities with adequate housing, infrastructure and services. According to the 30 Year Review, more than 2.1 million households have benefitted from this programme.  

“We named the place Ramaphosa because he was the leader of the union of mineworkers at the time. Most of us were mine workers and he had made his name by fighting for the rights of the workers,” he says. 

Madikane’s shack was upgraded to a RDP house in 1999. But shacks keep mushrooming in Ramaphosa as the need for housing grows. Today, nearly 1 in 5 (19.4%) Ekurhuleni households live in informal dwellings.

 More than 30,000 people live in Ramaphosa but the place is a long cry from home.

“It is very disappointing that Ramaphosa has never set foot here. We wish for him to visit this area to see how his people are surviving. We don’t have services, we have nothing to be proud of for fighting for this area,” he says. 

Nozamikhaya November sells amagwinya outside Ramaphosa taxi rank

Stalls of informal vendors are lined outside the shopping centre next to the taxi rank. One of the vendors is 55-year-old Nozamikhaya November from Sterkspruit in the Eastern Cape. She moved to Gauteng 25 years ago. 

“I came to Johannesburg looking for greener pastures and I got a job as a domestic worker. At the time I was renting a shack in Reiger Park. When I heard about this place I decided to move in here to get my space and save the rent money,” she says, dropping a dollop of amagwinya dough into a pot of boiling oil.

She describes the area as a shanty town with no sign of progress.

“Conditions have only worsened. We lack proper roads. We don’t have a school here, our children have to walk for 15 km to get to school and they have to cross a busy road. Most people survive on government grants and the R350 social relief grant. I don’t even want to mention the issue of employment. It is a serious struggle for our children to find jobs.” 

On a chilly mid-morning people – young and old – bask in the sun in front of their houses.  The roads are full of potholes, residents have patched some with soil and stones. Young children play in the streets while rats scurry about. 

ANC ward 42 councillor Tsotang Motloung, elected in November 2021, tells Health-e News her priority is to construct tarred roads in the area.

“We have done reblocking of some parts of Ramaphosa for the construction of roads and also to electrify the shacks,” she says.

In 2021 the City of Ekurhuleni reportedly spent more than R20 million providing electricity in parts of the settlement. But a walk through Ramaphosa shows that there is much to be done.  

Mohale Lepota doesn’t have electricity and often cooks on an open fire (Oratile Kekana)

Forty-three-year-old Mohale Lepota’s two children aged 11 and five should be back from school in the neighbouring Reiger Park in a couple of hours. He’s already started preparing their lunch: a medium-sized black pot set on an open fire at the back of his RDP house is on the boil. 

“I want to quickly go to the spaza shop to buy Benny, [a powdered chicken flavoured stock], so that my children don’t have to eat dry rice,” he says.

Lepota does not have electricity and he cannot afford to buy paraffin. 

“We’ve lived here for 10 years and have never had electricity. That’s why we still use candles at night and an open fire to cook. On rainy days I ask the neighbours to allow me to cook on their stoves.” 

Parts of Ramaphosa Informal Settlement are difficult to navigate: the passages between shacks are narrow and live electric wires hang dangerously low. Most residents use illegally connected electricity. Some electric wires lie across the street from one shack to the other. 

Limpopo 

But even in more formalised settings life in Ramaphosa is one without basic service delivery. About 1000 families live in Ramaphosa settlement which falls under Elias Motsoaledi Local Municipality in Limpopo’s Sekhukhune district. 

The area was established in 1984, but residents still don’t have a reliable water supply. 

Recent figures show that access to water in Limpopo has decreased from a high of 84% in 2010 to 69.1% 2022. This is a major setback for the health and well-being of communities around the province. 

“We sometimes endure weeks without a drop of water from our taps. We’re forced to buy water from vendors, and it’s quite expensive here, with water tanker operators expecting us to pay close to R200 per 250 litres,” says Samora Hlangu, (45). 

Water provision by the municipality is unreliable. 

“It takes them months to fill those tanks with water, while the other water tanks are just stored at the municipality,” he explains. Hlangu describes life in Ramaphosa as a complete disaster. 

More promises

From the Western Cape, Gauteng to Limpopo the lived realities of the people of Ramaphosa reflect gaps in the delivery of the most basic of services, something which is squarely the responsibilities of the government of the day.  

But it’s not clear if the political parties will pay at the polls. In Cape Town’s Ramaphosa settlement, Babalwa Siswana, is certain that the Democratic Alliance, which has been governing the Western Cape since 2009, is not getting her vote. She wants a government that’s more sympathetic to challenges facing black South Africans, she says. 

In Gauteng however, the three major metropolitan municipalities have been in the throes of coalition politics which have seen the Mayoral chain in Ekurhuleni change hands three times in as many years. Residents in Ramaphosa say they would rather stick to the party they know and vote for the ANC.  – Health-e News

Authors

  • Yoliswa Sobuwa
  • Palesa Matlala

    Palesa Matlala, is a photojournalist and documentary photographer. Prior to joining Health-e, she wrote for ThisAbility Newspaper focusing on disability activism. She formed part of a research team for the SABC 2 disability magazine Activated. She was also an intern at Bhekisisa Centre of Health journalism. Her interests are telling community health stories, focusing on mental health, women's health and early childhood development.

    View all posts
  • Oratile Kekana

    Oratile is a journalism graduate from the Tshwane University of Technology. Her journalism journey began at Zebediela FM, where she worked as a news reader. At university, she joined TUT FM as a presenter and producer. She later interned at the Polokwane Observer, where she worked as a general reporter and photographer. In her free time, she’s also a TikTok content creator.

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