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Publication Details

Reference
Hinely Rebecca  (2009) 'Poors of Chatsworth' take charge. Eye on Civil Society : -.

Summary
CHILDREN dart in from the yard and flit about as rice bubbles on the
stove in the flat Savatri Chetty shares with her grandson, Nolan, 13,
granddaughter, Noleen, 11, and son Trevolyn, 10. The Westcliff flat in
Chatsworth has been Chetty's home since she moved there in mid-1989 with
her two eldest children.

After 20 years of living in the one-roomed flat with her family, there
are many memories, but perhaps the most poignant is of the time it was
almost taken from Chetty. In 1998, municipal officials came to evict
Chetty, then six months pregnant with Trevolyn.

The arrears had been building since December 1989, just six months after
Chetty moved to Westcliff, when she lost her job at a nearby clothing
factory. The widow struggled to put food on the table, earning income
with sporadic casual and odd jobs.

But casual labour, such as a job cleaning the beach near the Bluff,
barely brought in enough to pay for bread after accounting for taxi
fares and, as neighbours began feeling the pinch of factory
retrenchments, the occasional domestic job became harder to secure.

Chetty's maintenance grant was cut by a third in the same month as rents
went up. So the bills piled up. First, the electricity was cut. Then the
water. With candles, open fires in the yard, and buckets of water
brought from the neighbours, somehow Chetty managed for a short time.

Then word came - eviction was imminent.

Chetty recalls the details of that day, the events burned into her
memory. The caretaker warned her that the eviction squad was on the march.

Not knowing where else to turn, she turned to the community. Local
activists - Orlean, Pinkey, Sushila, Pam, Radha, Joyce, Patsy, Dion,
Doll and others - came to stand with her.

All but two were women and, like thousands of battle-hardened community
activists across South Africa, as well as allies like Fatima Meer and
Ashwin Desai, they stood strong and defended the flat as the dogs were
unleashed and the riot police attacked.

When the tear gas cleared, they were still standing - the battle had
been won. But the war was left to fight.

Chetty is not the only one who can recall the minutest detail of that
day. Everyone who was there can, and as they retell the story it comes
alive with an almost mythical air.

It is evident that something was born that day - a consciousness and a
will to fight. Chetty's was the first attempted eviction, but her case
was certainly not unique.

Woman-headed households, unemployment and poverty are not rare in
Westcliff. At the time of Chetty's attempted eviction, 300 other
families were slated for eviction in a community of just over 700.

Something had to be done to defend the flats and expose the plight of
their residents.

Thus was born the Westcliff Flat Dwellers' Association at the turn of
the 21st century when then-president Thabo Mbeki and Trevor Manuel's
neoliberal policies were imposing harder times on citizens living in
some of the most precarious situations.

In the face of evictions and water and electricity cut-offs, the
neighbours banded together - spontaneously and in ways they had not done
previously - to fight for each other and their personal and collective
rights. It was then that the "poors of Chatsworth", the term they coined
for themselves, cut their political teeth.

They had imagined that during this era they would be reaping the
benefits of a new democratic system.

Those at the forefront of the struggle in Chatsworth had spent the
apartheid years not as activists but as factory workers, mothers and
shopowners.

Slowly and after much organising and persistence, this new generation of
protesters began to see the fruits of their labour.

At marches and campaigns, through lectures and municipal meetings, at
functions and over the communal cooking pot, their strength grew. And
those involved along the way, like Chetty, were empowered by the
experiences.

She remembers fondly a week-long social movements indaba where, far from
the pressures of housework and child care, she was able to stay up late
at night sharing stories and experiences with comrades from all over
South Africa, finding strength in common struggles.

For women like Chetty, whose lives had been circumscribed by the walls
of a flat, community organising became an avenue for personal growth and
empowerment.

Today, nearly 11 years after her attempted eviction, Chetty can reflect
on the accomplishments of the organisation.

Being strong during the 2000s finally brought new fruits in the form of
somewhat greater municipal accountability, and new campaigns for a right
to shelter and for better service delivery.

All households receive 9kl of free basic water a month, new water meters
are being installed in the flats and the community is being trained to
read the meters and its bills, which are no longer consolidated.

Instead of accepting the government's national policy of signing over
ownership of rental properties to tenants, the residents of Westcliff
pushed for their dilapidated flats to be upgraded first; work began last
year.

The area began to take on a fresh new feel as cracking walls were
plastered, dreary faded yellow paint was covered by lively peaches and
blues, asbestos roofs were replaced, ceilings were installed and damp
and water-damaged bathrooms were waterproofed.

Now the residents have homes to be proud of when the day comes to sign
their sectional titles.

While the Westcliff Flat Residents' Association has much to celebrate,
community activists like Chetty are not resting on their laurels. There
are still too many battles to be fought.

Upgrading continues, and several flats, like Chetty's, are in such a
state of disrepair that slight rehab will not do - the crumbling
buildings will have to be rebuilt. And the new prepaid electricity
meters are proving too expensive for many families.

Still unemployed, Chetty now spends Trevolyn's entire monthly child
support grant on electricity because at least R50 a week is needed to
keep the stove warm and the lights on. Despite the hardships, she is not
complaining.

With the rest of the community, she will be searching for solutions
tonight at the weekly meeting at a school. Perhaps pushing for solar
panels to solve the electricity woes?

The battle for a better Chatsworth rages on.


Rebecca Hinely, a Georgetown University postgraduate student, is a
visiting scholar at UKZN's Centre for Civil Society.

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