A Visit to Westcliff Flats


Ron Singer

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 123 in June, 2010.


RS: Let’s say something happened, and Orlean and Pinkey had to move away …
Aunty Deeda: They stay here.
RS: But suppose … would you be able to replace them?
Deeda: No!

         Purely by chance, I met Aunty Deeda during a seven week visit to South Africa and Botswana. I came to conduct interviews and  to visit sites for my book, Uhuru Revisited. The interviewees are all people working to accomplish tasks that African governments have been unable, or unwilling, to accomplish in the half-century or so since Independence (uhuru), or, in the case of South Africa, in the sixteen years since majority rule (1994). In southern Africa, my specific focus was on activists and educators who are trying to reduce the gap between rich and poor, a gap that is perhaps as wide in South Africa as any other country on Earth.
Based in Johannesburg, on March 8, 2010 I drove to Durban, a large city on the Indian Ocean, mainly to meet with two people both of whom turned out not to be available for an interview.  Owing in part to serendipity, the trip was not in vain. I had been hoping to meet several other activists, including Orlean Naidoo, head of a local Durban organization, the Westcliff Flat Residents Association (WFRA). Given the choice of staying in a guest house or in a public-housing (“Council”) flat in Block 75, Road 332, where Orlean had lived and which she could lend me, I chose the latter. I wanted to experience the life of the people for whom she works. I had also been told that this was a “historic flat,” the site of pioneering meetings in the post-apartheid struggle for human rights. The choice turned out to be very lucky, for I got to spend many hours talking and riding around the city with Orlean, and I got to know several of her co-workers and clients, including:

Pinkey Naidoo: Orlean’s husband, driver, and lieutenant, always at her side, in “his familiar cap and dark glasses.”

Dolly Pillay: Orlean’s lieutenant and side-kick;

Lazarus Soobramoney: Minister, Church of the Nazarene; Principal, Lotus Primary School; and Orlean’s co-captain;

Aunty Deeda was one of the hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of people served by the WFRA.

         I met Aunty Deeda early Friday morning, March 12, 2010. I was waiting for Orlean and Pinkey to pick me up so we could drive to the University (of KwaZulu-Natal), when I heard a slow, labored tread on the steps outside. Then, someone tapped at the locked gate, which protects the flat and lets in breezes. It was already very hot and humid on this late Summer day in semi-tropical Chatsworth, where there are scary snakes and lush foliage. Like every other place in South Africa, the residents live behind gates or walls to protect their property, great or small, from robbers. The tapper was Aunty Deeda. She asked to come in so she could write an urgent note that she hoped I would deliver to Orlean and Pinkey. In the event, she was delayed so long by both the writing process and by my seizing the opportunity to interview her that she got to make her request in person. Later, I found the note squashed into the cushion of the easy chair in which she had been sitting. It gives a good initial idea of the hundreds of small good works Orlean and Pinkey are called upon to do every day:


Dear Pinkey/Orlean,
       Please, please, help me to get a card for electricity. Ewa lost his card swop [swap] time. His daughter lost it. I don’t have a card. I bought power for [the number of hours indecipherable]. only. Please help me, urgently. I can’t stay in the dark. I got little power left. Thank you.
                                                                        Aunt Deeda

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          The best introduction to what Orlean does, and how she came to do it, will be to pass on parts of the story she told me:

My father’s history is also very interesting. Because his family lived around the Zulu-land area of Empangeni, Mandini, that area. Part of his family worked in the timber company, the paper mill, and in the timber factory. My mother’s family were farmers. They owned large pieces of land. They were directly affected by the Group Areas Act [1950], and moved into Chatsworth [1964]. The land was taken away for little bits of money.

The way the housing allocation happened during the apartheid era, they allocated houses on the basis of class. If your income was good, you would get a well-designed house, tile roof, large enough. If you were very poor, then you had to come to a flat like this. So people were moved according to race, but then they were affected by class.

I wasn’t brought up in a political environment. I was never involved in any community gatherings, affairs. I lived in a middle-class home with a fence around the yard. And my dad had a car. You know, you just said “Hello” to your neighbor from the balcony. If you went anywhere, you just drove out of the driveway, and you drove back. My father was a building contractor. He earned a lot of money. Here in Chatsworth.

So I was brought up in a middle-class home, but my husband was brought up in a very poor home. His family didn’t have good income, and he didn’t have a good job. That’s how we moved into this place, into a one room with kitchen. It was according to the husband’s economic status. And I wasn’t employed at that time, I was a housewife.

Right across from me, there was a female, and she had four kids. The municipality had sent her a letter, telling her that, if she didn’t pay arrears [rent, electricity, water] within seven days, she would be evicted. She was so scared she didn’t know what to do, she overdosed, some tablets or stuff, she wanted to kill herself. This was in late 1997. She was one of the women that lived off the maintenance grant. The apartheid government used to give maintenance grants to the disabled and to single-headed households. A grant for all the children under the age of eighteen and the head of the household. She was dependent on that because her husband had deserted them. He was working somewhere far away, and he could not be traced. So she received this notice, and, with four kids, where are you going to go if you’re thrown out on the street? So she decided to commit suicide. Everyone in the community was trying to sympathize with her. And I had just moved into this flat. I didn’t know how to react.

Now people started talking around with each other, and we started getting information on how you can really handle the situation. We started sharing the information with her. The advice was that, maybe she would apply for a divorce, because her husband’s no longer with her. She can actually save the house in that process. The house will now be transferred to her. The arrears would be written off because they were her husband’s. That’s how they  managed to save the flat. So that was the first experience in getting involved with something. Of giving a little advice, and something becoming successful.

Saving that flat meant so much. The starting point of organizing was not very long after that. There was already the sense of people being threatened with evictions, disconnections, and stuff. It happened a few months later. That the maintenance was being chopped was a rumor in 1997, but it became a reality in 1998. They decided to chop by one-third. They said it was in line with the RDP, the redistribution program. It meant, “We will take the accumulated wealth of the apartheid government, the white government, and redistribute it.” But here it was taking from the poor and giving to the poor. So they chopped the maintenance, because they said Black people never benefited from that maintenance. During the apartheid era, only Coloureds and Indians benefited from the maintenance.

The chopping was a realistic thing to do, because people did benefit from it. But what went wrong was, whilst they chopped the maintenance, they increased the tariffs. Within a month, the maintenance was chopped one-third, the tariffs went up by ten per cent.

So people from Bayview, Westcliff, and Crossmore [three of the four flatted Chatsworth communities] came together. We had a meeting, and we decided that we wanted to start an organization that would engage with the government. That was here [in the flat]. April, May, June, 1998, there were already lots of discussions around organizing, around retaliating. We started by requesting a meeting with local officials. In June was our first meeting with them. Then, on the Fourth of July, there was the first protest in South Africa, post-apartheid. It just so happened to fall on that day. What brought this community [flat dwellers] to be more stable was the Defiance campaign that we lived through successfully for at least eight years.

         Among other damage, the uprooting of rural Indian villagers had destroyed much of their social fabric. Set down in Chatsworth, then chilled by economic vicissitudes that shut the textile factories where they worked, leading to unemployment rates that sometimes reached 70%, the poor substrata of Chatsworth became rife with disease, crime, broken families, and despair. The emergent social-protest movement not only fought specific ills –evictions, disconnections, and crime (by forming neighborhood watches)—but rekindled the lost sense of community. When I was there, that community spirit made the WFRA in action a pleasure  to behold.


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         There is another major character in this story, also an old woman, whom I did not actually  meet. This was Professor Fatima Meer, who died the same day I met Deeda, Friday, March 12, my last day in Durban. Since I had also come to the city to read poetry at a commemorative event for the recently deceased Dennis Brutus, my time in Durban can be said to have been framed by two deaths. Like Professor Meer, Dennis Brutus had been a giant in both Struggles, the one against apartheid, and the current one against what some activists call economic apartheid. 
         1999: Enter Fatima Meer. Orlean began this part of the story two or three days before Meer’s death.

It was a big meeting of all the community, early 1999, before the elections, the second round [first was 1994]. We invited all the political parties. We also read an article in the paper that introduced us to an ANC* support group called the Concerned Citizens Group (CCG). They had a list of names, all apartheid stalwarts. Professor Fatima Meer was leading this group.

*African National Congress, the governing party since 1994.

When people, when Fatima Meer, stood up to speak, the crowd shouted at her. “Where were you all this while, when we were suffering?” She was a retired professor, by then.  People were very harsh, very rude, raised aggressive questions. I was one of the people that were attacking her. I said, “We are not interested in the previous oppressor. We are interested in the present oppressor.” She very clearly remembers my words, and she always repeats them to everybody. Those were the words that really touched her.

She very humbly approached the crowd, said she was very sorry for being so ignorant. People were all right with it, because she said, “I will be here, I will be working to help you start organizing, so we can start communicating.” You just became hopeful. Writing Mandela’s biography, an important role during the Struggle. People can only hope that somebody [like that] will come and rescue the situation. And that’s what happened.

         Orlean told me the rest of the story on Friday night, March 12, after she had learned of Professor Meer’s death.

We ended up meeting with Fatima Meer, discussing our issues more broadly, getting deeper into the issues we were facing. One of the critical issues was that a family living in a shack in the community was threatened to be evicted. The next day, at eight a.m.! We had planned to physically resist, mobilize the community. But we now felt even more empowered. In the morning, before we could even start gathering people, we found Fatima Meer already in the community. She was already making communications with the municipality. And that eviction was stayed. That family was given a little bit of security that day.

         Fatima Meer wound up playing a leading role in the history of the Durban social movements. In 1999, already in poor health, she wrote a comprehensive report to the government. (She was a sociologist.)  Her CCG soon morphed into the DSF (Durban Social Forum), a big umbrella group that expanded the protest movement to communities in the Durban environs, such as the African township of Mpumalanga where, in 2006, they wrote their Declaration (statement of principles).

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         A major theme in the history of the Durban social protest movement has been unity. A signal event from the late 1990’s is recounted in We Are the Poors, a book by Naidoo’s fellow-activist, Ashwin Desai. Said one local counselor, an African, at a demonstration: “I lived in a shack. Why are the Indians protesting?” Replied an old Indian woman, Girlie Amod, “We are not Indians. We are the poors.” And, since thirty percent of Chatsworth was African (i.e. black),  other protesters began to chant, “We are not black, we are the poors.” Thus did the Durban social movement consciously adopt the multi-racialism of apartheid-era protests. 
         But disunity of another sort has dogged the Durban social movement. As Orlean told me in passionate, regretful detail, internal squabbling that mixes the personal and the ideological has become endemic. Even in 2001, it marred the huge (over 20,000 people) DSF-organized protest march at the showcase World Conference against Racism. Since 2006, disunity has weakened the movement. 
                  Not within the WFRA, however. Consistent champions of Left solidarity, at the WCAR, they hosted an Untouchables group from Calcutta, which, with the help of a Hindu translator, joined in a combination neighborhood tour and anti-eviction protest. “We’re such a small community,” says Naidoo, “727 families, and yet we are making such a big impact. It’s because we’re united. 


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         Ever since the WFRA outgrew Orlean’s flat, Lotus Primary School has been the nexus of local activism. I was lucky enough to be invited to a weekly community meeting run by Orlean. Since the school lacks an assembly hall, the meeting took place in a semi-circle under a big tree, with all of us sitting on classroom chairs. Chairing this gathering of some forty people, mostly women, Orlean was like a wise judge. She responded to every one of the numerous complaints according to its urgency, its nature, and even the credibility of the complainant. (“Durban is semi-tropical. We have snakes here. You must deal with that.”) As I recall, an amanuensis/lieutenant recorded names, flat numbers, the nature of each complaint, and a plan of action. These plans ranged from a visit from Orlean and Pinkey the next day to check the electricity meter and to give advice about when and how much new service to buy; to a phone call to the local Council to check the current status of a previous complaint, or to make a new one; and to a long-range commitment for a mass protest at a culprit’s headquarters (ESKOM, the electricity company) or office (the local Council). 

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         In the fight against poverty and inequality in South Africa today, education is often twinned with activism. An educational expert I interviewed before coming to Durban was Graeme Bloch, of the Development Bank of Southern Africa, a parastatal that runs conferences and dispenses grants for worthy projects, such as university infrastructure. Near the end of his new book, The Toxic Mix, a scathing analysis of the woes of South African education, Bloch quotes a document called The Roadmap, in the creation of which the DBSA played a major role: “Develop a social compact for quality education… Mobilisation of communities at all levels to raise awareness and participation in education issues. …. Implement poverty-combating measures that improve the environment for learning and teaching.” 
         In a late-night interview, Principal Lazarus Soobramoney described Lotus Primary in terms that closely matched Bloch’s prescriptions. Lazarus explained that funding is based on geography and outmoded economic categories. In this very poor country, all the schools in Durban, where, in aggregate, there is a lot of money, were lumped as Quintile Five, which means they are in the same category as the Ex-Model C schools, elitist white schools which have twenty-million rand endowments, and which can raise a lot of additional private money. Lotus, which Lazarus said, should have been a Two or Three, gets only 17,600 rands per year, or fifty-five rands [US $9.90] per pupil [of whom there are 318], whereas the actual cost is more like three hundred.

LS: What they give us is enough for, maybe, the toilet paper.

RS: So you have to spend a lot of time raising money.

LS: Yes…. We try to get someone to sponsor a child. Now the school fees, for ten years, have been three-hundred rands [about U.S.$40] a year, which is absolutely nothing. So I used to get families, an individual, to sponsor a child …”Ron, can you sponsor a child for three-hundred rands?” And you’d say, “Three- hundred rands a month?” And I’d say, “No, it’s a year.” He says, “Oh, I would take the three hundred. And show me my child.”

RS (trying to avoid the bite): Oh, that’s wonderful.

LS (bulldog): So I would choose [child’s name], and say, “Here’s …, who is being sponsored by Ron.” I would call the mommy, congratulate her, and tell her, “Your son has received a bursary [scholarship]. However, he needs to do his homework. He must not come to the Principal’s office for any default. He has to behave himself.” And part of the agreement is, Ron can even phone me and check, “How’s he doing?”

         After about an hour, we exited the office, and, not quite done,  Lazarus unlocked the adjacent storeroom and showed me his treasures: boxes of shoes, candy, cartons of mealie [corn meal] packs. Every day, he explained, he watches for need, then gives out what he has, with an admonition for the learners to repay him by doing a good job. And, finally, both of us exhausted, he drove me home, where we parked in front of the flats and he told me one last story. A woman in this unit, Block 75, was suffering from advanced-stage tuberculosis.  Before it spread, he arranged to have her hospitalized. Then, three months later, when she died, he found a new home for her son.


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         At one point during the interview, Lazarus went off to help with the photocopying. When he came back, he grabbed a guitar from a chair beside his desk and, in a high, ringing voice, serenaded me.

In the beginning was the word,
The word was with God.
In the beginning, God made man
and all, equally. 
And who are you to spoil the print,
and paint it only white now?

         Theorists within the South African Left offer an analogue to the Biblical idea of time: they tend to see the country’s future as either socialism or disaster; or, alternatively, as expanded social democracy or disaster. I have no opinion about this question, but, in just seven weeks in South Africa, my work and travels brought me into contact with quite a few Orleans. I refer to the people who are pushing back against the government’s neo-liberal economic policies. These policies include cost recovery measures which are aimed at wealth creation and the de-racialization of the middle class, but which are anathema to the poor. South Africa’s activists are the conscience of the nation, fighting for a more just society. By one count, that nation is only sixteen years old. These fighters are its future.

Principal Sources:

Bloch, Graeme. The Toxic Mix: what’s wrong with South Africa’s schools and how to fix it (Cape Town, Tafelberg, NB Publishers, 2009).

Bond, Patrick, Professor, Centre for Civil Society, University of KwaZulu-Natal. Daily emails (Feb-May 2010).

Chatsworth, Struggle for Shelter, Honouring the work of Professor Fatima Meer and contributing to her 80th birthday (video).

Desai, Ashwin. We Are the Poors (New York, Monthly Review Press, 2002).

Mail & Guardian (weekly newspaper), Feb-Apr 2010.

Singer, Ron. Interviews: Professor Richard Ballard (School of Development Studies, University of KwaZulu-Natal), Aunty Deeda, Orlean Naidoo, Lazarus Soobramoney. (March 8-12, 2010.)