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PAIA, 2000 (Act 2 of 2000) 

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Orange Farm: Beauty in the land of the poor Print E-mail
11 July 2002
A boy from Orange Farm pushing a self-built wire car. Orange Farm children have learnt to improvise and make their own toys
A boy from Orange Farm pushing a self-built wire car. Orange Farm children have learnt to improvise and make their own toys

THE people of Orange Farm want, and will soon get, a swimming pool. "We want our children to develop into good, competitive swimmers," says Alina Nkongoane, the ward councillor for the area. Her statement encapsulates the prevailing mood of optimism in this sprawling settlement. 

Coming from a community of shack dwellers who struggle daily to put bread on the table, the desire to have a swimming pool may appear misplaced. But then Orange Farm is a land of dreamers - a hard-working kind of dreamers. Day by day, the inhabitants of Orange Farm defy their poverty to testify to the triumph of the human spirit.

Orange Farm has many distinctions, some of them dubious: it is the biggest and most populous informal settlement in the country, home to some 350 000 - mostly living in shacks, mostly unskilled, eking out a living without visible means of subsistence. The settlement also has the highest number of gravel roads in the country.

But it also has one of the highest matric pass rates in the country, is a target for huge amounts of developmental funding and its inhabitants are among the most civic minded in the land, taking pride in their environment and endowed with a strong sense of place and social bonding plus a strong will to survive.

The roads in Orange Farm, some 60km in the far south of Johannesburg, are treacherous, full of potholes and difficult to navigate, even in winter. Only a few arterial roads are tarred.

But socially, the settlement has evolved into a close-knit community. "In our ward, people know one another by name," says Nkongoane, pointing out that meetings of structures such as street committees and ward committees are always well attended. As she walks through the settlement, people stop to greet her and give her an update on some problem or other. "Did you submit the doctor's letter with the application?" she asks a woman pushing a wheelchair-bound boy about the progress of his grant application. "A councillor here doubles up as a social worker, a counsellor - we do all kinds of things; we even intervene in domestic disputes," Nkongoane explains, sensing my bafflement. 

The newly built library in Orange Farm - the first of its kind in the area
The newly built library in Orange Farm - the first of its kind in the area

This strong social bond is further enhanced by a strong sense of civic pride which has developed among locals. Unlike other informal communities, which consist largely of decrepit dwellings, many of the yards in Orange Farm are properly demarcated, neat and colourful, with well-maintained gardens. Although most of the inhabitants stay in shacks, they clearly take pride in their environment. 


To many of us the word "shack" suggests a hovel and in important respects, shacks are indeed ramshackle dwellings. Self-built by their occupants, the state of a shack often reflects the craftsmanship of its owner. They are made of corrugated iron sheets, zinc, cardboard and other accessible forms of building material.

A shack does not always protect its occupants from the elements. "They get very cold in winter and excessively hot in summer. It is difficult to catch sleep inside a shack in summer," says Ntwane Bakiso, who has lived in a shack since 1996. "Right now, many people are down with flu. In August it gets very dusty; you can't stop the wind from penetrating through."

Inside an average shack, you are likely to find bare essentials such as crates which are used as chairs, two-plate stoves - for those who enjoy the luxury of electricity - and, of course, a base and a mattress. Shacks are often partitioned by curtains, wardrobes or some other household item. Sometimes the roof is held down by stones and other heavy objects. Often the floor is not paved or plastered; as a result, the few possessions inside become soiled. 

One of the less comfortable shacks of Orange Farm
One of the less comfortable shacks of Orange Farm

Orange Farm may be a shack settlement, but it is by no means rundown. Many residents of the settlement strive to make their dwellings habitable. For starters, Orange Farm does not have the many backyard shacks which characterise other settlements. 

Many shack settlements don't have electricity and residents often have to rely on coal as a primary source of energy. Fire-galleys can often be seen lining the streets as people brace themselves for the evening. In Orange Farm, the situation is aggravated by the absence of toilets. The entire settlement uses pit latrines which are vacuumed fortnightly by municipal workers. The electricity pylons which run overhead in some parts of the settlement also compromise its aesthetic appeal

But many people still manage to keep their shacks neat - even homely. What makes Orange Farm shacks stand out is their colour. Creative owners have painted their shacks in a variety of colours. Some even manage to build three-roomed structures. More adventurous builders have been known to construct impressive double-storey dwellings. Many of the yards are kept clean and many gardens look tidy, although it is in the middle of winter. There are few playgrounds to speak of, but some children improvise to make their own wire cars and makeshift swings. 

But where did they come from?

The first inhabitants of Orange Farm arrived in 1988 from Wielers Farm, a maize and cattle farm belonging to the Wieler brothers in the Grasmere area. They were settled in the area by the Transvaal Provincial Administration (TPA), which had expropriated the land from local farmers for township development purposes. From then, the relative ease with which land was available in the settlement attracted many homeless people from as far afield as Mshenguville in Soweto, Meyerton, Evaton and even parts of the Free State to the area.

Most of the new arrivals were farm workers who had been laid off; others had been staying in back rooms and needed a piece of land on which to settle. Uneducated and unskilled, many of the settlers of this shackland remain unemployed, often unemployable in the formal sector, but still manage to survive - somehow. To make ends meet, they engage in many informal activities. 

What is their means of income?

One common form of fund-raising in the area is fah-fee, a Chinese game in which players bet on numbers. For long popular with South Africa's urban poor, this cheap form of gambling attracts mainly female players who can be seen congregating around the runner's car to establish the winning number of the day. Many believe that their ancestors visit them in their dreams to tip them off about the winning numbers. All you need is the ability to interpret dreams in the language of the game.

Other people volunteer their services, often in the hope of securing a more permanent arrangement after proving their mettle. Bakiso, for instance, assists in the running of the council's Peoples Housing Process (PHP) and serves as a housing officer for the ward committee. All this keeps him occupied but offers no material rewards. To sustain his unemployed wife and a son, he fixes TV sets, radios and video machines.

Molefi Setanka does voluntary work, tending the garden of the regional office. The 28-year old from Senekal in the Free State says he was brought to Jo'burg by hunger. He has volunteered his services in response to President Thabo Mbeki's call to make this a year of the volunteer. "For the past three months I have come here every day to tend the garden. It keeps me occupied," he says. "There is a need for someone to provide gardening services here. I hope when there is an opening I'll be the first to be considered."

Some survive by sheer grit, depending for their survival on odd jobs, the generosity of others and luck. 

Some of the products manufactured by the women using recycled plastic
Some of the products manufactured by the women using recycled plastic

Others maintain vegetable gardens in their yards. The idea of gardening is advocated by Olga Lutu, a formidable woman who heads a section 21 (not for profit) company called Women's Voice. The company has established a training centre to promote organic farming. "Many of the local people have a farming background and we encourage them to use their skills to make ends meet,l" Lutu says. "We teach them to farm for the market and not just for subsistence." 

HIV / Aids

Notable among the beneficiaries of Lutu's training centre are people living with Aids. With donations from Tikkun, a Jewish charity organisation, the centre runs a feeding scheme which caters for Aids sufferers. "We use vegetables from our centre to feed Aids patients. For those who are bed-ridden and cannot swallow food, we provide soft porridge with the assistance of health care givers who fetch their ration and feed them," Lutu says. Health care givers are locals who volunteer to take care of people living with Aids. "We also take care of Aids orphans by providing them with clothes, paying their fees and protecting them from evictions." 

A vegetable garden dedicated to feeding Aids sufferers
A vegetable garden dedicated to feeding Aids sufferers

Sheila Mphuting, the director of health attached to Women's Voice, describes the incidence of Aids infection in Orange Farm as alarming. "We run door-to-door Aids awareness campaigns in the area," she says. "Recently, we established that in ward 2 only, 175 people out of 1 800 are infected." People have been galvanised into action to form support networks for Aids sufferers. 

Developmental Projects

In recent years, Orange Farm has been a site of some of the most rapid development in the country. According to George Montshojang, the housing operational manager of the region, the following development projects are currently underway: 

A two-roomed RDP-type house
A two-roomed RDP-type house

Through the Peoples Housing Process, 250 housing units are being built in extension 1. A support centre has already been built. 

  • In Orange Farm Extension 9 and Extension 10 and in Driezik Extensions 3 and 5, 4 537 sites with essential services have been developed.
  • In Orange Farm proper, the first extension to be established, shacks have virtually been phased out .
  • Extension 2 boasts brick houses built by the TPA for the first occupants of the area. The houses are however not partitioned inside.
  • A new sewerage system is being set up by Johannesburg Water.
  • Council has approved the construction of a multi-purpose centre which includes a swimming pool .
  • City Power is rolling out street lights and high mast lights.
  • The first library in the area will be opened within two months.
  • A People's Centre is under construction. It will be used as a one-stop shop for information on municipal services.
  • The clinic in Stretford has been extended and another one built in Extension 1.
  • Another water reservoir is being established in Extension 8.
  • The newly renovated community hall is now open to the public.
  • Some RDP structures have also been built in the area. These are two-roomed houses constructed on a foundation large enough to accommodate four rooms. The idea was that the front part of the building would temporarily serve as a veranda, until the owner had accumulated enough money to build the extra two rooms on the foundation. Ironically, many locals have used corrugated iron sheets to extend their houses, giving them the façade of a shack.
Most development projects employ local labour, thus alleviating the problem of unemployment.

Another indicator of progress in this settlement is that local schools have in recent years recorded some of the highest matric pass rates in the country. Aha Thuto Secondary obtained the highest pass rates in the area for four years running, until it was . That was overtaken by Leshata High, just a few kilometres away; Leshata recorded a 99% matric pass rate last year.

You leave the area with a feeling that the people of Orange Farm may live in poverty but are not objects of pity. With the support they get from some private organisations and government departments, they bear testimony to the triumph of the human spirit.



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Last Updated on 25 May 2007