Christina Mtandana's home business selling vetkoek to passers-by in Sweet Home Farm is okay, but it could be better. She's constantly battling to get ahead in a constant battle against the weather

Words by Leonie Joubert | 21 Jun, 2015

The serving hatch of Christina Mtandana’s takeaway and restaurant looks out onto two different worlds. The dark slab of rock cutting across the western horizon looks surly and featureless at this distance, but it is still the unmistakable flank of Table Mountain, with its hem of pricy suburban homes and a university ranked amongst the continent’s oldest and most prestigious. In the immediate foreground, there is a rectangle of grass that has grown thick and lush on the stagnant water seeping up from the ground beneath. The glassy pond reflects a sky that momentarily allows the glow of weak sunlight through, following one of the coldest fronts to hit the Cape this past winter. It dusted snow across the nearby peaks and poured masses of water down into the natural wetlands upon which many of the settlements on the Cape Flats now sit. A threesome of goats dozes on the edge of the dell, while a single chicken bobs past. Plastic bags, empty bottles, a discarded 5kg flour packet and crushed polystyrene cups litter the greenery.

The serving hatch of Christina’s store—it is called Siqalo, from isiqalo meaning “new start” in Xhosa—is bolted shut. The fryer that usually bubbles away in the front room of her home sits cold and silent. There are no swollen blobs of dough jostling for room in the mesh cradle. There won’t be any customers popping their heads up against the burglar bars to order their usual: a vetkoek, deep-fried dough bread that 40-year-old Christina sells either plain, or with a burger patty, or Russian sausage or jam. The faint whir of the freezer motor is ominously silent. It has been four days since the electricity went off and she hasn’t turned over a penny of business in that time.

“Ja, the electricity went off at noon on Friday. I was still busy with my dough. I had to throw it away because you can’t keep it a long time. It’s about 10 kay-gee [kg] of flour.” That’s roughly 100 vetkoek, she calculates quickly, a total of R200 lost. But Christina is making a plan.

Ja, the electricity went off at noon on Friday, says Christina. I was still busy with my dough. I had to throw it away because you can’t keep it a long time

She is standing in the courtyard, overseeing things. The brick paving under her feet is tilted and buckled. One brick rears up, another sinks into a trough beneath a skin of felt carpeting that has been moulded to the brickwork, stretched taut and smooth by time and trampling feet. She points to the tangle of electrical cables lying on the ground. They are joined together like those ancient Celtic motifs, the mouth of one snake-like creature circling around to gobble the tail of another. Layers of insulating rubber have been peeled back, their copper entrails spliced together and then bandaged over. The red-brown metal looks raw and lethal.

“Ja, it is dangerous,” says Christina, “but it will go up on the roof now-now.” She calls across in Xhosa to the man she’s hired to connect her electricity cables to her father’s supply, a few shacks away. It is a temporary fix until the council gets here and repairs the outage.

This part of Sweet Home Farm—an informal settlement in Philippi, on the Cape Flats, that sandy expanse of wetland southeast of the central city known as the “dumping ground” for black South Africans under the apartheid state—has been on the grid since 2010, but is still subject to occasional power cuts. Sometimes it happens briefly, like when the city’s electricity department comes in to connect up new areas of the settlement. When the power first went down four days ago, she thought it was this sort of routine upgrade. But as the hours dragged on, and the power didn’t return, she figured out that only about 15 or so shacks had been knocked off the grid. Something to do with a component burning out in the substation nearby, she was later told.

It seems like such a simple thing—a single cable of current-conducting wire strung from the overhead pole, down into the prepaid meter in her shack—but the implications for a person living in Sweet Home are incalculable. The immediate benefit is obvious: it’s much easier for Christina to run her takeaway and restaurant business. Now, she can buy meat in bulk and store it in the fridge-freezer, whereas previously she only bought what she could use in a day. Electricity means fewer trips to the shops, less taxi fare, less spoilage, more time to fire up the kitchen, more turnover. And it’s much safer cooking the vetkoek in an electric deep fryer, than over a paraffin stove as she used to.

The need for electricity, along with the other primary municipal services—running water, proper sanitation, efficient refuse removal, installing and maintaining storm water drains—is critical to the wellbeing of neighbourhoods like this in Sweet Home. This is particularly true as the region ploughs forward into a climate-altered future, where heatwaves, windstorms, droughts and wintertime floods are likely to happen more often, and more aggressively. For the time being, though, Christina has to revert to candles and gas, until she can plug a cable into the socket in her dad’s place, and fire up the kitchen again.

There’s something merciless about the Cape Town cold: the moisture in the air makes it feel as though it’s nudged the mercury way further down the temperature gauge than the reading shows. The wet soaks into your very bones. Christina’s five-room home includes the west-facing kitchen with its two fridge-freezers, microwave, deep fryer and plumbing that she paid a contractor to install. In the food business, you have to wash your hands all the time, she says. But these shacks don’t have running water, so she installed the basin in the kitchen, and connected up a single tap with a nearby municipal water pipe running past her shack. The outlet pipe from the kitchen sink runs from beneath her shack into a drainage pond outside the front of her place.

Behind the kitchen is the rest of her house, which is snug and warm. The lounge feels roomy, in spite of its plump furniture, tables and TV cabinet. The passageway leads down to two bedrooms, one off to the right with a curtain across the doorway, and the master bedroom at the end where just the foot of the double bed can be seen through the door, which stands ajar, offering a view of framed black and white photographs. The third bedroom is at the foot of the L and is only accessible from the courtyard outside. It’s chained shut now, and has been converted to a games room with a pool table.

But Christina has abandoned her shack for the moment; it is full of people lounging about by candlelight, and she needs a bit of quiet. Propped up in a chair inside the doorway of her neighbour Nontobeko’s place, a modest single-room home across the tiny courtyard, Christina’s silhouette almost disappears into the gloom, even at midday. There aren’t any windows, and with the power still out, the spiral of glass coiling out from the bare light socket overhead is useless.

She reflects on what happens here when the bitter gales harry the shantytown: “It’s very bad for my house because the wind, it shakes the zinc sheets and then the rain blows between them.” She points up at the corner of Nontobeko’s room. The plywood wall is stained where the rain has seeped through, like watery ink blooming across blotting paper. The leak is precariously close to the shack’s prepaid electricity box. This may be a shack made of informal building materials, but infrastructure like this shows just how permanent those homes are intended to be: a power cable installed by the electricity department feeds from this box, through a white conduit pipe in the wall, and up to the connection housing on the overhead pole. The entire skyline is a series of sagging cables that string between all these homes, hooking them up to the grid.

“It’s wet there,” continues Christina, pointing again to the roof. “All the places, there’s water coming inside. It’s not nice for us when it’s raining. It floods. Outside it’s full of water wherever you go, where you put your foot.”

Christina is fortunate. She was able to build on relatively high ground, so her home isn’t prone to the typical upwelling of groundwater that happens in so many parts of the Cape Flats. This ancient dune field sits on a high-water table, and one that is naturally prone to flooding during the wet season. When it rains, the groundwater recharges, seeps up and pools in all the lower-lying areas, gathering into stagnant pools in walkways, roads and around communal toilets. Informal settlements like Sweet Home are plagued by this kind of “ponding” every year. If the water rises high enough, it will flood into residents’ homes, seep into their bedding and furniture, leave clothes and bedding sodden, cause food to rot, and—if a family is “wealthy” enough to own any appliances—potentially destroy those too. It is also hard to go to work or school when almost everything you own is soaked through.

Cape Town’s population grew by nearly a third between 2001 and 2011, according to StatsSA. About 40% of the city’s growth rate is due to people moving here from elsewhere in the country and housing is at a premium. If you’re poor, buying into the bricks-and-mortar property market isn’t even an option. Impoverished families needing a roof over their heads will find open land where they can, and put up their own homes.

So why do people like Christina settle in areas where it invariably floods, year after year? Why invest their limited assets on building in a place where they’re likely to have their possessions ruined by flooding and their lives disrupted? The motivations, researchers at the University of Cape Town’s Flooding in Cape Town under Climate Risk (FLiCCR) Project found, are complex and more rational than one may think: new settlers often arrive in summertime, when an area looks dry and habitable; they might buy a shack but the former owner won’t tell them how bad the flooding actually gets; they will likely need to live as close to a taxi rank or train station as possible, so they can get to town easily and find work; and, as is also often the case, they have nowhere else to go.

“It was not winter when I arrived,” said one man from nearby Graveyard Pond, when he was explaining why he settled in an area that later turned out to be a flooding hotspot. He didn’t know about the dangers of living in a place like this or the problems he would encounter. “The first day we had a lot of water here … People were standing in upper areas; some were laughing at us: ‘Why did you go and stay there in the first place?’ But when we were putting up our hokkies [shacks] they didn’t say anything! I had to roll up my trousers it was so wet. I had to leave the shack for a few days.”

People like Christina don’t get into the housing market like your average middle class person. There are no salary slips to convince a bank manager to extend a 30-year mortgage at market-related interest rates. No savings to put down a 10% deposit. No parent to stand surety or pitch in with extra money. Christina left the family home in Queenstown, in the Eastern Cape, as a young teenager in 1986, to join her father, Goodman, in Cape Town. Like so many Xhosa-speaking South Africans from the former homelands of Transkei and Ciskei, he followed the well-worn path of the migrant, trekking to Cape Town in search of work. When Christina arrived later on, he did little to encourage her to stick at her schooling.

If the water rises high enough, it will flood into residents’ homes, seep into their bedding and furniture, leave clothes sodden, cause food to rot

“I only went to school for one year when I moved here,” says Christina. “He didn’t care … If he [had] pushed us, maybe I would be something now. But he just didn’t mind about me not going to school.”

When her father lost his job—and with it the room his family lived in—they had to move in with his girlfriend. “It was not nice, and life was difficult.” Christina took a position as a live-in char with a woman in Grassy Park who she says treated her well and taught her how to clean and iron. “She was a nice lady.” Christina started saving up and “piece by piece” bought the materials she needed to build her own shack, a one-room structure that she put up on a piece of ground in Lansdowne. A second room followed, which she offered to her father. But eventually the informal settlers here were forced to move. Without any legal title to the land, Christina couldn’t exactly sell her place and recover her investment. So she did what most people in the informal property market do in this situation: she broke down her home, hired a truck, transported the materials to Sweet Home, and started over. That was in 2005.

Life in a makeshift shelter is not for the faint-hearted, particularly when a gale blows through, strafing you with a machine-gun fire of icy pellets and rain. Imagine darting 50 metres through the dark, in the middle of a storm, just to relieve your bladder? Christina’s shack is about that far from the nearest stand of nine communal toilets which flank the green detention pond. “For the children, we keep a five-litre bucket with a lid. You can do that with the children.” Christina’s hands gesture as if pressing the rim down on a bucket lid. “And you can leave it outside and then tomorrow morning you make a plan to go throw it in the toilet. But as an adult you can’t just sit in the house and do that. You have to make a plan to get to the toilet.”

It’s a precarious existence.

A week earlier, the roof of her rear bedroom, now the poolroom, was ripped off in the early hours of the morning during a storm, while Christina and her son, Liyema (5), slept in the bed beneath it. At least two sheets were torn away, another left whipping back and forth as the wind snarled overhead. The two of them fled to another room in the house, just as the rains started, soaking her furniture. But by the next day, she had workmen from her neighbourhood up on the roof hammering the zinc sheets back into place.

Christina ran Siqalo from her father’s place for a year, because it was closer to one of the main routes through Sweet Home and always bustling with foot traffic as people headed to the taxi rank or school. But his house is lower down than hers, so the business flooded quite badly when it rained. The water level got really high in the kitchen and her appliances started to shock her. She had to lift all the electricity cables onto upended crates and put on gumboots with two layers of socks.

Like many people do in this neighbourhood, Christina did what she could to keep the floodwaters at bay: she dug trenches around the house to channel the water away, and she put building rubble into the bigger puddles and trenches so that people could use these like stepping stones.

She used plastic sheeting to stop the rain getting in. When her brother moved back in with her dad, she had to relocate Siqalo into her home. At the time it felt like a trade-off: risk flooding, but get good business; or benefit from higher ground, but be away from the throng of the crowd. Still, the business doesn’t seem to be suffering too much, now that she’s back in her home a block or two back from the main thoroughfare. People know her now. There’s hardly a moment to pause on the busy days.

Sitting in the dark of her neighbour’s room, the electricity still off, it’s clear just how ill-equipped these little homes are to cope with the savage storms that routinely sweep across the Cape peninsula during winter. Crescent moons of light stud the seam where the sheet-iron roof meets the thin wall, allowing a cold wind and rain to enter the shack. In the centre of the room, a large aluminium kettle steams over the paraffin stove, which doesn’t have a hope of warming the room. But the worst of the front has broken, for now, and the faint sunshine outside tries to burn up some of the water lying about in muddy waters.

Ambling down the dirt road towards Section A in Sweet Home, Christina sidesteps the puddles and piles of building rubble. This is one of the lower-lying areas of the settlement, and the deep canals on either side of the road do their damnedest to channel the water away from the homes and into the stormwater drains, but the system is overburdened and water spills over into the road. Christina is part of the street committee here, and also part of a group that’s liaising with the city as it plans to “reblock” the area. Reblocking means laying out formal plots that will be given to families. Even if the city can’t build a house for them, at least the issue of ownership is settled, enabling occupants to safely invest in putting up a bricks-and-mortar structure for themselves.

Reblocking requires putting in pavements, stormwater drains, proper water reticulation and sewerage infrastructure, tarred roads and streetlights. This enables floodwater to be drained away more effectively. In many of these settlements, when communal toilets become blocked up or broken, people often have to resort to buckets and chamber pots, which they’ll have no choice but to empty out into the drainage systems or roadside canals. But these systems often get clogged up with litter. Household rubbish is dumped in communal skips, which are dropped off by municipal trucks or contractors—individual homes don’t have wheelie bins or door-to-door rubbish removal, like in the suburbs. Sweet Homes refuse skips are irregularly serviced and litter ends up strewn about the place, washing into the stormwater drains. Heavy rains push the drainage system to the brink. Many drains block up and flood back into the streets, bringing with them raw sewage.

On a day like today, after a bad storm, Christina and other members of the street committee will go door-to-door to see which homes have been worst hit by the floods. They’ll then work either with the City of Cape Town’s disaster relief teams, or non-governmental organisations such as the Red Cross or the Salvation Army to help coordinate distribution of flood-relief kits, plastic sheeting (to help waterproof houses, either over the roofs or on the floors), dry blankets and meals.

Enock Kopele, the man in charge of the “central area” of the city’s Disaster Risk Management Team in which Sweet Home falls, and chair of the Flood and Storm Planning Task Team, helps coordinate the kind of infrastructural upgrade that will make Christina’s life so much easier. His team flags high flood-risk areas, particularly in informal settlements, which the city can then prioritise for upgrading, like with this reblocking initiative. Flood hotspots are invariably in the lower-lying parts of the Cape Flats, but also areas where service delivery is falling behind. Something as simple as regular rubbish removal, clearing storm water drains, and taking away building rubble can help areas drain faster. This means liaising with the city as well as with community leaders, such as those on the committee on which Christina sits.

The FLiCCR Project made an interesting discovery. While “hard engineered” solutions like sanitation and storm water management are key to reducing flood risk or other hazards associated with extreme weather events, “softer” solutions like person-to-person interactions between different levels of governance are also important. For instance, rather than the city imposing solutions on a community, it is important that they work with the street committees to negotiate a community’s priorities. When you see the difference that getting access to basic services—water, electricity, a toilet, rubbish removal, a working storm drainage system—has made to Christina’s life, you realise why service delivery becomes even more urgent in the face of rising global temperatures and the associated regional shifts in climate.

The southwestern tip of the African continent thrusts out into the rim of the Atlantic Ocean in such a way that it has drawn its own unique climate around itself. The rest of the sub-continent gets its rain in summer, and has dry, frigid winters. The Western Cape region, however, gets buffeted by ferocious winter storms, which, when they have rained themselves out, give way to sweltering summers where the wind drives relentlessly from the southern ocean, stripping the air of moisture, leaving everything parched and prone to the kind of raging conflagrations that have helped sculpt the province’s unique vegetation for the past five or so million years.

Christina realises that having clean water in her kitchen is important if she wants to have a successful restaurant, which is why she had the tap, basin and drainage pipe installed

Global warming is now driving more energy into the weather systems that buffet the Cape. Climate scientists anticipate higher temperatures, warmer days, fewer cooler days, more heatwaves, more intense droughts, and increasingly severe extreme weather events, according to the 2012 Western Cape Climate Change Response Strategy. Aside from the kind of flooding Sweet Home residents already have to deal with, the summertime implications of heatwaves and drought are just as harsh. During heatwaves, food perishes faster, and pest-borne diseases spread more quickly. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has flagged the link between spikes in daily temperatures, and an increase in the rate of everyday forms of food poisoning like salmonella.

Scientists writing on the human health implications of climate change for the IPCC’s 2007 assessment report note that contact “between food and pest species, especially flies, rodents and cockroaches, is also temperature sensitive”. Fly activity is largely driven by temperature. “In temperate countries, warmer weather and milder winters are likely to increase the abundance of flies and other pest species during the summer months, with the pests appearing earlier in spring.” Homes that have electricity, where people can afford to run fridges, will be more resilient in the face of these extremes. But those that can’t use refrigeration—like Christina during the protracted blackout—will be more vulnerable. This is particularly true for those with compromised immune systems due to illness or poor nutrition.

Christina has no qualms talking about the fact that she’s HIV positive. At first, though, it was hard. She had just moved to Sweet Home from Lansdowne when she got ill. She lost so much weight, people noticed, and somehow news of her diagnosis spread. “I walked around here and people pointed fingers at me and said, ‘HIV! HIV!’, like I was the first person in Sweet Home who is HIV positive. One lady came up to me in the street and said, ‘Christina, what’s wrong with you? Haai, they say you’ve got AIDS’.” Christina is matter of fact about her condition. “I got tired of everyone asking me, ‘Why are you so thin and bah, bah, bah.’ So I tell them straight. I’m not a person to have secrets.”

It took an encounter with someone in The Warehouse, a civil society organisation working in the community, to convince her that she had a whole life ahead of her. She trained up in catering, found funding to set up her small business, and slowly grew it from a small paraffin-fired operation to the bustling takeaway that Siqalo is now.

Christina knows that having clean water in her kitchen is important if she wants to have a successful restaurant, which is why she had the tap, basin and drainage pipe installed. The IPCC warns of the health implications linked to lack of access to water, good sanitation and extreme weather events, and how these are pivotal in terms of how climate change will affect people living in urban slum environments. What often happens in a poorly serviced community like Sweet Home is a build up of contaminants during the dry season, such as with the black water contents of toilet buckets which get emptied into the stormwater drains. The first rains of the season stir up these contaminants, which often pollute puddles and blocked stormwater drains. Children playing in the streets or merely walking through this water can easily pick up water-borne illnesses.

Children in low-income communities are particularly at risk of diarrhoea-related disease, especially if they live in slums, writes the IPCC, which warns of the association between cholera outbreaks, flood events and faecal contamination of the water supplies in sub-Saharan Africa. People with compromised immune systems, such as those with HIV or TB, are similarly at risk, especially of contracting gastrointestinal infections associated with contaminated water.

Christina’s own recovery since her HIV diagnosis has been remarkable. She started taking ARVs in 2005. Her body now is strong, full figured, and healthy. “Even those people that were laughing at me, they come to me and said, ‘Hey, Christina I’m sick now, I need help. Where did you get help?’ I tell them, ‘Just pray to god, and then go to the clinic and do what the sisters and the doctors tell you to do’.” She also offers her own idiosyncratic form of counselling: “You will survive.”

It was about three years ago,” says Christina. There was an anonymous cry that woke her at 2am. “Fire! Fire! Fire!” Christina has just come back from a street committee meeting where they were coordinating a local census that will allow the city to know how many families live in Sweet Home, a crucial detail for the reblocking process. She is perched on the edge of her armchair. Her windowless lounge is snug and cosy. The electricity supply has finally been restored after ten days and Dr Phil is on the box chastising a 20-something redhead for her narcissistic self-absorption. For a moment it is easy to forget that Christina lives in a shantytown in one of Cape Town’s poorest neighbourhoods.

Fire services responded to nearly 1200 incidents in informal settlements in 2012. Nearly 3500 structures were affected, and 105 people died

“We were all sleeping,” she continues. “The neighbours heard the fire, but it was too late.” A woman and her three-year-old daughter died in the fire. “Then the police came and took the bodies away. She left behind another girl; she was ten. Luckily she was not staying in that house, she was in her cousin’s sister’s house.” Fires are commonplace in settlements like Sweet Home where people often use candles for lighting, or paraffin stoves for cooking. “People often fall asleep with the candles burning or the paraffin stove on, and that’s when fires happen. Or sometimes people get drunk and forget a pot on the stove. There’s a drunk guy near here who burned down his house—twice! The neighbours kicked the door down and rescued him.”

A fire in one person’s lounge can easily become an inferno that can devour entire blocks in a matter of hours, if the conditions are right. Homes like Christina’s are built from corrugated iron sheets, plywood boards and untreated wooden planks. Many are built with barely a shoulder’s width between them. A single careless moment in one person’s lounge could cost neighbours like Christina everything they’ve built up in their homes over years—all uninsured, and hard to replace for families who are this poor.

Fire services responded to nearly 1200 incidents in informal settlements in 2012, according to the City of Cape Town; nearly 3500 structures were affected, and 105 people died. Fires still happen now that residents have got electricity. Sometimes people install illegal connections, which can cause a fire, or someone will forget a pot on the stove. But, on balance, they don’t happen nearly as often as they did in the past.

Rising temperatures are however expected to increase wind speeds year-round, creating “stronger and more dominant” high-pressure systems in the neighbouring Atlantic Ocean, according to scientists involved with the Western Cape government’s provincial climate strategy. This means stronger winter storms, as well as faster, more potent winds combined with heat waves in the dry season— they call it “fire weather”. For people living in flimsy structures made from highly flammable materials and poorly insulated against the cold and the heat, extreme weather will make life in the shack lands surrounding Cape Town even more fragile and precarious.

Clean flowing water in the home, refrigeration and decent cooking facilities for food, storm water drains that clear away dirty water, refuse removal, working sewage systems—they are all critical aspects to life in a slum settlement. In the absence of these municipal services, or when they fail, it can have serious health implications for people like Christina. These services are going to be stretched even further, in future, as the demands of extreme weather events associated with climate change escalate.

It is about a fortnight after the power outage that shut down the Siqalo kitchen, and Christina is back to cooking with electricity. Her fryer gurgles as the next batch of vetkoek cooks in the oil. There is a tray with sliced tomato and leaves of iceberg lettuce. The burger patties are frying up on the electric stove in the passageway. Christina hops up from the lounge chair as a woman’s head appears at the open hatch. She slips a clear plastic bag onto her hand as a makeshift glove, picks up a vetkoek, and slices it open with a bread knife, while she listens to the customer place her order.

For the time being, everything is back to normal. Christina’s freezer is stocked up with frozen supplies, rows of dough swell benignly on a shelf beneath the microwave, and the orders are pouring in. Outside her kitchen, where the air is thick with the smell of cooking food, the weather is balmy, drying out the seeping paths that bring the foot traffic past her business. But another weather system is approaching: a massive storm is on the way. This is the Cape, after all, and it’ll be a good two months before the summer winds tack around to their usual drying south-easterlies. Until then, the people of Sweet Home will have to batten down the hatches against the next bout of torrential rains. *

Leonie Joubert is a science writer and journalist based in Cape Town. Her books include Scorched (2006), Boiling Point (2008) and The Hungry Season (2012)