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Trapped in a 29-year-old nightmare

Block 5 squatter camp PIC. MORERI SEJAKGOMO
Any day now, the yellow monster will rumble through the Block 5 squatter camp, forcibly evicting a community of at least 200 residents who have lived there since 1989. For the residents, this week is a culmination of threats they have lived with through the decades. They spoke to Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI

“We don’t know if we are alive or dead. We don’t know if we are citizens or not.  “God is with us.”

We are seated in a covered shelter, paved with marble tiles a few metres from her house. Mma Sithole, the unofficial matriarch of the 200-plus community of squatters here, speaks with a restrained tone, the smoke from the smouldering wood fire filling the shelter and occasionally masking her emotions.

Originally a resident of Newstands, Mma Sithole was amongst pioneers who moved to the narrow strip of land, located on the western fringe of a 77-hectare plot between the Grand Palm and Mogoditshane.

The land belongs to Botswana Development Corporation (BDC), which plans a top-of-the range mixed-use estate featuring single and multi-family plots, commercial and civic developments and perhaps an 18-hole golf course, according to previously published plans.

With the corporation’s contractor due on site in March, the squatters had until Wednesday, February 28, to move out.  The community had resisted previous deadlines and even a 2012 court order. In that year, the BDC dangled a carrot for the squatters, giving 28 households P10,000 each in ex-gratia payments to “help with relocation”. Some went, some returned.

Last September the squatters were warned developments had drawn near and a deadline was set. That deadline passed. Last month, they were given their sternest warning yet: move out by February 28 or face the yellow monster.

Since moving in 1989, Mma Sithole has raised a family of 18, most of them born in the camp. They include her 26-year-old son, a bearded, sturdy young man who sits silently in the far end of the shelter, expressionless.

The young man has a sister who is nursing a one-week-old child. The patriarch of the family passed away some years ago and Mma Sithole assumed the leadership role for her family and of the community in general. The community has no power or running water. Parents wake their children up at 4am to go and bath in the nearby Segoditshane River.

“Many times our children go to school without bathing and their teachers shout at them asking (them) why they look dirty,” one of Mma Sithole’s children says.“Even that river that we are using, private companies come there and fill their tanks, which lowers the water level for us.”Lately, however, the children are refusing to go to school.

“They say they don’t want to go because they’re afraid they’ll find our community bulldozed and parents missing. They can’t concentrate at school,” a community member explains.

The matriarch chips in: “We have long asked authorities for just a little help. Even just a jojo in the middle of the camp strictly to provide drinking water. Prisoners get water and electricity, but citizens are left without any help”. Over the years, Mma Sithole has made similar appeals to government. The matriarch and other members of the community say they have visited nearly every government office for assistance, even going to Ditshwanelo.

As we talk, members of the community bring forward stacks of official correspondence. Many of the documents are visibly frayed at the ends. They

have been frequently thumbed through, presented for viewing, prayed over.

Perusing the documents is a journey through a 29-year nightmare. Frequently, hopes are raised, only to be shattered. At one point, then Lands and Housing minister, Margaret Nasha appeared to have brokered a breakthrough in the matter.

“She called her officials to her office and asked them to go with us and help us secure land. She told them it would be a great embarrassment for Botswana to be found with squatters, failing to give its people land.

“The officials agreed with her and even said our community was a small number that could easily be assisted.

“Nothing came of that however.”

On Tuesday, Mma Sithole made a last-gasp attempt to save her community. She took her appeal to the incoming president’s office and says she received assurances it would be considered.

“I started going to government offices when President Khama was still the Vice President.

“We are not saying we don’t want to move. We are saying give us a place to move to. Help us. We have been asking as children asking a parent for help, but no one has helped.“They say we must go back to where we came from, but we are saying, look how many we are now? How are we going to fit into the former places,” the matriarch says.

A car passes along the dirt road dividing the squatter camp from Mogoditshane. All the residents stop talking and watch it carefully. As the deadline for eviction has drawn closer, every vehicle and stranger evokes suspicion and foreboding amongst community members.

“The other day, a convoy of earthmovers went past the eastern side of the camp and we didn’t know what to do. We just watched in silence. We didn’t know where they were going or if this was the moment they were coming to destroy our homes.

“Perhaps they were practising. Even now, we don’t know.

“When we saw you earlier, we also thought you were part of the officials coming to tell us it’s time up,” Mma Sithole says.

The BDC, for its part, has said it has been patient, tempering civic responsibility and botho with the bigger picture of investing for the nation.

The corporation allowed six years to pass between its 2012 court order and the final February 28 deadline.

This time around, the BDC says it cannot offer residents anything. The time has come to leave, one way or another.

To this the residents are resigned.

“We were on this land before the BDC was allocated. We were here in 1989 and they were allocated in 2002.

“Even then, if you buy a kraal, you don’t chase away the cattle you find there. You give them time to find new homes.”

We leave the camp and turn back to the city, whose skyscrapers dominate our view in brazen ignorance of the scantiness and desperation we are departing from.

By Thursday, a day after the deadline, Mma Sithole and her community report that they are still holding out in their camp. The yellow monster is yet to arrive.“God is with us,” she repeats.




The Return of the Gladiator

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