‘We have nowhere else to go’

Nadia Lottering stands on the top floor where the fire broke out last year.

People occupying 104 Darling Street are still busy cleaning up the mess and rebuilding the space eight months after a fire gutted the top floor of the building.

In November last year, the building was wrecked after a 4-year-old boy locked himself in a room and set it alight, destroying five rooms on the upper floor (“Blaze guts block”, CapeTowner, November 16, 2017).

But the inhabitants of the building, many of them living there since they were little, didn’t give up and decided to clean the building themselves and rebuild their homes inside the place. The building belongs to the national Department of Public Works, and the occupants are currently not paying rent to live there.

Nadia Lottering, who grew up in the building, said after the fire, her four children were taken away from her, as was Nicolene Werner’s son. The children were placed in foster homes.

She said thereafter, they joined the Reclaim the City campaign, which encouraged them to repair the building to make it liveable again.

Ms Werner was one of the people whose living space was destroyed in the fire. She said she was now squatting in the communal area inside the building.

Ms Lottering said they didn’t have electricity, but they had water. She said the City wanted them to move to Wolwerivier — about 30km out of the city centre – but they couldn’t because “it’s a desert”.

She said while they were aware of the criminals using the adjoining cafe as a safe haven after they mug people, the cafe had nothing to do with the building.

However, they would clean it up when they had a chance, she said. “We would really like the owners of the building to help us clean up the building and I want my children back.

Miss Lottering added: “We made the space liveable again.”

Aaron Petersen had also built himself a “hokkie” in between the debris left behind after the fire.

“I’ve been living here since I was born. We have nowhere else to go,” he said.

Meanwhile, the City registered the space as a problem building, which means they will investigate the building in question in terms of the Problem Building By-law and serve a notice on the owner listing any contraventions, ordering that they be addressed.

If the owner does not do so within the appropriate timeframe, the City will oversee the restoration of the building and bill the cost to the owner of the building. If the building cannot be restored, it may be necessary to sell or demolish the building.

JP Smith, the mayoral committee member for safety and security; and social services, said some of the concerns they had at 104 Upper Darling Street included vermin infestation, dumping concerns, unlawful occupation, alleged criminal activity and alleged drug activity.

“The tenants are there unlawfully. In terms of the Problem Building By-Law, they have no authority to reside there.

“The owner previously placed barbed wire around the perimeter of the property; however, this has not been a deterrent. The issue of alternative accommodation needs to be taken up with the owner.”

The City said they were unaware of the offer to move the occupants of the building to Wolwerivier.

Jared Rossouw of Ndifuna uKwazi, which is part of the Reclaim the City campaign, said all spheres of government owned vast amounts of land in the inner city and surrounds, much of which was unused and could be used to reverse spatial apartheid.

“Last week, (Public Works Minister) Thulas Nxesi announced that the national Department of Public Works would dispose of R7.5 billion worth of public land, and that this will release 3 500 hectares for human settlements and 22 000 hectares for restitution and land reform.

“He said that more land and properties will be identified for social housing and student accommodation.

“Minister Nxesi should start with 104 Darling Street, which is owned by Public Works. Some residents have been living here for decades but have been totally neglected after the landlord who was managing the property disappeared.

“The building is now in ruins.”

He said residents should be accommodated and the land redeveloped as social housing.

The owner of the building, the Department of Public Works, did not respond to enquiries from the CapeTowner by the time this edition went to print.

However, earlier this year, they said the department would start an eviction process and consider how best the building could be used. It was unclear when the eviction would take place.