Driving into Pretoria from the Ben Schoeman highway, tall trees and a petrol station block the view of a hidden old village that is concealed between the Kgosi Mampuru II and the train station.
The little-known neighbourhood of Salvokop has turned into an obscure black community, plagued by unemployment, poverty, overcrowding and alcoholism.
The area is also home to the Freedom Park Heritage Site and Museum and the state-of-the-art R1.4 billion Statistics South Africa headquarters.
The community, however, portrays the complete opposite of the luxurious government buildings. The nearly 100-year-old free-standing homes, once owned by Transnet, are now precarious dilapidated homes owned by the department of public works and infrastructure (DPWI).
Built between 1890 and 1930, Salvokop was established to house white employees who worked at the railway station and the bus depot. Despite the colonial and racial segregation, the village back then was neat, organised and up to par.
Welhemina Mabitsela, 73, worked as a domestic worker from 1964. Now living in a derelict two-bedroom house in the area, she recalled the tranquillity of the area before the white residents relocated.
“When white people were here, there was no informal settlement or shacks. It was not congested. The only rooms at the back of the house were the maid’s quarters. Now this place is just a mess,” she said.
Salvokop looks like any other poor community now. According to the 2011 census, the small 4.07km² area housed 1,685 households with a population of 7,123.
Most of the two or three-bedroom homes have ceiling leakages, worn-out wall and roof paint, broken doors and windows and show no sign of being maintained since before democracy. Potholes fill each street, while unattended burst water pipes and sewage often floods the roads, a health hazard to children playing in the streets.
An informal settlement called Baghdad quickly developed in the past five years on a hill at the entrance of the neighbourhood. Unemployed residents turned their homes into taverns, spaza shops and crèches. Only a few work at the nearby Stats SA and Freedom Park.
The area is plagued with overcrowding, as each yard is cramped with shacks subleased to mostly Zimbabwean nationals.
“I grew up here and not much has changed. It just gets worse day by day,” says Tony Monama, 29. He is one of the many youths in Salvokop whose parents previously worked for the railway. But he has since lost both parents.
“There is no progress here. We just pay rent to public works but nothing changes. I have three bedrooms and I split the dining room to make two more bedrooms which I rent out. I have 15 shacks in the back which I rent out to try to pay rent. But there is no improvement here.”
There is also an issue of nonpayment of rent to public works, with some renting out the same houses they should be staying in, Councillor Fortune Mampuru says.
“The culture of nonpayment was entrenched back then and public works inherited it. We have been trying to assist them but it was not easy. Some of these houses are run as businesses … There are people who have been paying rent but have stopped because of non-deliverance of services,” Mampuru adds.
Public Works Minister Patricia de Lille last month launched a gender-based violence shelter at one of the unused government buildings in Salvokop.
A week later, she announced the department would implement the first phase of the R18 billion Tshwane Inner City Regeneration Programme, where four government head offices would be built in the area. The project is expected to be completed by 2022.
But plans to improve the Salvokop houses are not yet in place as her department is still to engage with the community on a housing agreement, De Lille told The Citizen.
“Currently there is no established agreement with the existing community about those properties. It is one of the issues as part of the broader consultation of developing this whole precinct that we also have to do in the new year. I have spoken to the councillor and we will start the process in the new year to find some kind of an agreement between public works and existing communities.”
Residents are, however, displeased by the billion-rand project as it does not include their housing issues.
“They don’t say what the plan is for the houses,” says Joyce Mabena, a Salvokop resident who has been living in the area for about 30 years. “But billions of rands and projects come to Salvokop. What do they help us with? Nothing.
“When all these big projects happen, they find us here. After finding us here, they want our support. Once we support them, then they leave us hanging.”
Her daughter Anniekie Maholi admits to not paying rent as the homes have no value and the community remains neglected.
“We used to pay to public works and have decided to stop paying … they do not provide services for us. We repair our own homes whenever they are damaged … These houses have no value … We want to know how the community is going to benefit from these projects. They don’t have plans for the residents.”