Nomsitho’s story

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In the 1970s, Nomsitho* arrived in Cape Town from the Eastern Cape to live near her husband, who was living in a hostel reserved for working men. Their wives were not allowed to live with them and risked arrest if they visited their husbands, so Nomsitho joined other women and created an informal settlement in a forested area which became known as Crossroads. For five years, Nomsitho slept on the ground under shacks made from plastic. The police came often to burn down the shacks and the women would buy more plastic and rebuild them again and again.

“There was nothing to sleep on in the forest. No matter if it was winter or summer, we slept on the ground. To cook, we would make a fire inside an empty 20 litre paint tin and put a pan on top. We stayed there for five years from 1974 – 1979. Our husbands would come in the evenings and spend the night with us. I gave birth to three of my children during this time and they all grew up there. It was not easy.”

Some of the women looked for jobs in the city but it was risky because if they were found without a pass, they would be arrested. Nomsitho managed to find a job as a domestic worker but it was hard work.

“I was not given a mop, so I had to clean the floors with my bare hands and nails. There was a washing machine in the house but I was not allowed to use it. When I did the laundry, I had to use my hands. The worst part was that I was not allowed to eat inside. The Madam would take my food outside as if I was a dog and I would have to go to a small cupboard outside to eat.”

During these years, Nomsitho joined with other people in the community to contact local lawyers who persuaded overseas sympathisers to buy a large plot of land which could be used to build houses. After a long time, they managed to raise the money and in 1979, the land was purchased.

The old Crossroads community moved to this new piece of land, now known as New Crossroads, and waited for their houses to be built. Whilst they were waiting, Nomsitho was caught up in a political struggle between the ANC and the IFP. Her shack was burnt down and once again, she was in danger.

“I jumped out of the back window and for many days, we ran from one place to another. We did not feel safe anywhere. In the end, we went back to the forest and we sat back under the trees. We could not tell our husbands where we were. I stayed under those trees for six months. We had nothing. No plastic, no clothes.”

Nomsitho lived in the forest again until 1986, when the police came to clear the land by burning down the settlement and shooting anyone who resisted.

“They came every day and sprayed us with tear gas. They were led by a policeman called Bernard. We knew him as the ‘hero of the tear gas’. The police would open the door of the shack, throw in the tear gas and then close the doors. They did not care that there were also children in the shacks.”

One morning in July, the police came early and started shooting.

“They came with a helicopter and shot people from the sky. While I was running, a girl in front of me was shot and killed. It carried on for three days – day and night, day and night. They wanted to finish off everyone. They burnt the whole place down. Many, many people died.”

Nomsitho managed to escape the fighting and took shelter in a church. She was pregnant during this time and began to feel pains in her stomach. The stress that she had experienced had induced labour.

“I gave birth at Somerset Hospital but my baby was not well. I was transferred to the Red Cross Hospital and a specialist came to look at my baby. I was told that there was nothing that they could do. My baby lived for three months. I felt that I was lucky because some people never get to see their babies but I saw her for three months. Whenever I see a girl who was born in 1986, I think ‘that could have been my child.’”

Nomsitho was finally given her own house in New Crossroads in the late 80s. But today, she lives in fear of crime and violence in her community.

“We fought for South Africa – for our children. But today, our children have made a terrible mess. Our hearts are so sore. We thought that after we fought so hard for South Africa, we would rest nicely, in peace. But we have never had peace. Now we just wait for the day that God will take us.”


Nomsitho attends an Ikamva Labantu Senior Club daily, where she is provided with two warm meals, healthcare and counselling services, income-generation projects and recreational activities. She is one of over 1,000 seniors who attend Ikamva Labantu’s senior clubs.

*Real names have not been used.

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