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On 19 December 2007, a small community of South African pavement dwellers illegally occupied unfinished houses in Cape Town. After battling in court, they were evicted on 19 February 2008. Many of them decided to remain across the road from the houses they’d been living in and built shacks along the pavement of Symphony Way. After a further 20 months of dispute, the community was evicted again, to the nearby Blikkiesdorp ‘temporary relocation area’.
This book relates experiences of life on Symphony Way, told by the people themselves in their own words. The text was also edited by them. It is a remarkable and moving volume, charged with emotion and satiated with reasonableness. There is both poetry and prose. ‘Put your shoes into my shoes and wear me like a human being would wear another human being,’ Conway Payn starts his story.
We read of births and marriages on the pavement, of arrests and confrontations with police and cold government officials. One family describes how they occupied a house after living in different backyards for 14 years – compelled to move on by close friends or relatives. A 16-year-old girl describes her disgust at having to go to school with non‑ironed clothes because of no electricity.
Life on the pavement is tough but it is also democratic and collective. One woman describes how her personality changed from introspective and fearful to outgoing as the result of her experiences on the pavement. What shines through is the Symphony Way dwellers’ persistence, their self-confidence and their pride as the result of this struggle. They insist on their human dignity when constantly treated like animals by officialdom.
‘We may be poor but we are not stupid’ is a refrain that runs through the pages. Their continued hope for houses is encouraging and is a sign of their solidarity. Several children born on the pavement were named ‘Hope’.
Voices from Symphony Way is a unique book and a remarkable achievement. Read it for yourselves and learn.
This review was first published in Amandla!, a progressive South African magazine that stands for social justice