On an uncharacteristically warm and sunny winter’s morning on the 18th of July, around 300 people gathered at Blikkiesdorp temporary settlement in the Cape Flats to give their 67 minutes of community service for Mandela Day.
The event was organised by Boundless Heart Foundation under the leadership of founding member and Mandela Rhodes scholar, Andrew Gasnolar, who had been planning the event since the beginning of the year. He gathered on-the-ground support from a range of different sources, including teams of staff from SA breweries and the City of Cape Town, as well as around 100 American ‘Semester Abroad’ students from UCT.
Gasnolar said that the goal was to start a movement to “transform” Blikkiesdorp. “Just because it’s a temporary settlement, it doesn’t mean you’re supposed to feel like it’s not a home, or supposed to feel like you don’t have dignity,” he said.
Residents of Blikkiesdorp, who live in what Gasnolar calls “six by three meter tin cans”, have been waiting to be relocated to government houses for almost five years and, Gasnolar says, may well be waiting for at least another ten years. Nevertheless, the settlement continues to be referred to as ‘temporary’ and Gasnolar feels this serves as an excuse for both the city and local NGOs not to be pulled into helping improve living conditions and bring better services to the area.
Meanwhile, numbers in this isolated and overcrowded dustbowl continue to swell. Official statistics say that the 1,700 structures in Blikkiesdorp house over 8,000 people, though some locals estimate the population is almost double that. Gasnolar says that any sense of community is “fractured” and that “all that unites (residents) is that they all don’t want to be there”.
Although the settlement does have water and electricity, residents have to share one ablution block between at least four households, and according to a Mrs Losiko Nguna, who has been living in Blikkiesdorp for more than four years, hygiene is a major problem and taps are regularly run dry or not functioning properly. Losiko says drugs are also prevalent and that there is a “lot of crime” in the area.
But for all the area’s problems, the atmosphere amongst Blikkiesdorp locals on Mandela Day was far from despondent. Alexander Valgobin, an American volunteer studying at UCT said that he had witnessed “great energy and positivity all round, which is very surprising considering the circumstances”.
Volunteers were eagerly involved in painting the temporary settlement’s uniformly grey tin shacks in an array of bright colours reminiscent of Bo Kaap, planting trees and a communal garden area, setting up a mobile library and reading books to local children, many of whom said they had never been read to before. A free HIV and TB screening centre was also opened for the day. Aside from this, there was a stage where locals were entertained by the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra, a tent with an array of exhibits from Iziko museum and an area where residents could have free professional family portraits taken. Capetonian street artists were also commissioned to paint colourful and uplifting murals on the sides of some of the houses.
Local children seemed to be particularly excited by all the festivities, and had their faces painted, played rugby and football with volunteers and even joined in with the painting of houses. Much of Boundless Heart’s focus is on youth development and Gasnolar said that the children of Blikkiesdorp could discover through interaction with others that the life they had come to know in the settlement did not have to be “their life from here until the end” and that “there are other possibilities”.
Some local adults were also eager to be active participants in the transformation of Blikkiesdorp and asked if they could use the excess paint to paint their houses themselves. As not all houses in the settlement could be painted on the day, the hope is that locals will continue to be similarly motivated to carry on once the volunteers have gone
Although a lot was achieved on Mandela Day and most volunteers worked for far longer than the prescribed 67 minutes, community involvement will remain crucial to Gasnolar’s and Boundless Heart’s wider vision going forward. “Big events call the attention to the cause, but then you use that as the springboard to carry things on,” Gasnolar said. With that in mind, all proposals were discussed with community leaders prior to the event and the community garden and the new library will be given over to the community to manage and maintain. “They have bought into the project,” Gasnolar says, “now they have to take ownership”.
Photos/video by Suzy Lindquist