3 August 2007
Where apartheid officials once enforced apartheid’s inhumane pass laws, happy children now laugh and sing. The Albert Street Pass Office is now a place where abused and homeless women and children find refuge.
The building came to epitomise the place where blacks stood in long lines to get their passbooks or dompases. With a flick of an uncaring official’s pen, a person could be endorsed out of Johannesburg, and thereby out of a job, a livelihood and security for their family
Those happy children rush at visitors, hugging their legs in excited welcome, then, once seated in their colourful classrooms, happily sing Incy Wincy Spider, with accompanying actions.
It’s the Little Fish Nursery School, with 55 shelter children and others from the immediate surrounds. And despite the fact that the children don’t have a sand pit or green grass to tumble on – they have a small concrete courtyard with a jungle gym and swings under a solitary plane tree – they exude a confidence and exuberance that belies their unfriendly surrounds.
The school is just a small section of the former Albert Street Pass Office, a four-storey red-brick building on the south-eastern edge of the CBD, now the Usindiso Women’s Shelter, run by CEO Jay Bradley. Although the shelter has been running since 1994, Bradley has been involved at the pass office since 2001, when Usindiso Ministries took over the running of the shelter.
Thousands were probably endorsed out of the city from these offices, to the wasted homelands, as officials administered a swathe of apartheid control measures: the Pass Laws of 1952, the Group Areas Act of 1950, and the Population Registration Act of 1950, among others.
The principal means of control was through the dompas – a pass, originally introduced by the British in the Cape in 1809, used to control the movement of blacks to the cities. Under the 1952 act black women and men were only allowed to live in cities if they were born there, or had lived in a city continuously for 15 years, or had worked for the same employer for 10 years.
The Albert Street offices opened in 1954 as the Non-European Affairs Department, and was enlarged in the 1960s to accommodate the intensification of influx control as it became more established.
But by the mid-1980s the system had become unmanageable, and, together with protests and anti-pass campaigns, the Nationalist government admitted failure – pass carrying was abolished in 1986.
The offices closed and remained empty for a number of years before being occupied by the Transvaal Provincial Administration in the early 1990s, before being converted in a shelter in 1994. The building has been listed on the Johannesburg Heritage List, and is to be recommended for inclusion on the Provincial Heritage Roll, so as to be preserved and protected for historical reasons.
The legacy of the pass legislation was broken homes, separating husbands and wives, and leaving children in the distant homelands to be brought up by relatives.
Bradley’s vision for the shelter is that by the time each person leaves, they should have had skills training and counselling, so that they can stand on their own two feet, and be a contributing member of society.
“It does happen,” says Bradley, “but not as much as we’d like.”
The shelter gets funding from the City and the province, and donations help Bradley balance her budget. Usindiso runs as a non-profit organisation and has 25 staff. A retired doctor visits once a week.
Usindiso (“the saving place”) can cater for up to 85 women and children, although at the moment there are around 75 women and children, ranging from 17 years to women in their 60s. Boys of eight years and older are sent to one of several boys’ shelters in Hillbrow and Berea.
Bradley says the shelter ideally aims to keep the women for between three to six months but generally they stay for about a year. “Each individual is assessed on their needs. Six months is just not long enough.” While at the shelter they are given counselling and skills training, which includes workshops on HIV and Aids awareness, parenting and computer training.
The building consists of four floors, with a sick bay, a receiving room (for those just brought in and needing to see a social worker), a clinic, a dining room and kitchen, a lounge and TV room, communal bathrooms, a chapel (previously the pass court), a large hall (the former pass issuing and renewal office with two rows of counters), and several dozen rooms for women and their children.
Bradley is on the brink of opening up the fourth floor for accommodation for teenage girls. Workmen are busy finishing off the painting, creating bright sunny rooms for the girls. A lounge with cheerful purple couches is ready. They’ll have a large rooftop space, which will soon contain potted plants. Bradley is conducting interviews to place a housemother. She wants to take runaway girls off the streets and offer them a temporary home.
One of the major tasks is to help the women get grants and for the women over 60, pensions. This sometimes requires helping them to get their IDs beforehand, assisted by social workers.
Bradley takes me on a walkabout of the shelter. In the receiving room are three women – one is sleeping, another is sitting on a plastic chair, and the third is propped up on a bed, surrounded by her three children. No one smiles. They wait patiently for a social worker.
Down the passage a knock on a door reveals a smiling face. Inside are three young women, one lying on her bed with her baby. I ask: “How old is your baby?” Five months old. “How old are you?” Twenty two.
The walls of the room are covered in large posters and curtains are drawn across the windows. The women are chatting happily and there’s a cosiness in the room. The baby smiles contentedly when Bradley coos him.
Down a floor and another door is opened. A women leaves her 6-year-old child lying on the bed, invisible under a thick blanket. She is in pyjamas, her hair tied back. She says she was beaten by her husband when she went to fetch her ID book and some clothes for her child. He wanted her to sign a letter – the business is in her name and he needs her signature. Her face is swollen.
She says they had something to eat at the house but she thinks he has poisoned them both. “My child hasn’t had anything to eat for 24 hours,” she says, gesticulating to the bundle on the bed, “and I’ve been feeling sick.” She is bent over as she sits on the edge of another bed.
Bradley expresses empathy and says she will come back and speak to her.
Burglaries and patrols
Across the road from the shelter is a miniature squatter camp, with around a dozen shacks. There are no toilets, no taps, no rubbish bins.
Bradley thinks the burglaries the shelter has had recently emanate from the camp. Or perhaps from the two chop shops alongside. Or from the many factories that surround the shelter. The chop shops were recently raided by the police, but were back in business within a week. The shelter now has electric wiring along that side of the wall.
Bradley says that she is discussing with the police a proposal to train some of the shelter women to patrol the streets in the area. The police will train the women, who will pass on information to them, but they won’t confront anyone. They will be paid R50 a day.
“Once they have a job, they can take responsibility for their lives,” explains Bradley.
She says that she has observed that some women don’t take responsibility for their own lives, seeing the position they’re in as “everyone else’s fault”.
This creates problems for her. “It’s difficult to get them to move on,” she says, “we will never put them out on the street but we have rules and regulations.”
What is means is that some women move from shelter to shelter, or eventually, move back to their families in the rural areas. Some just don’t want to be helped.
Bradley says her aim is to get them to have their own homes, eventually, once they have secured jobs. Around 15 women have got jobs in the upholstery sector, after receiving training through the shelter.
“We hope that something has happened here,” she lifts her hand to her chest, with a smile.
We go up a floor and visit the two resident social workers, Betty Mabunda and Rosinah Hadebe. They sit at a desk, their expressions a combination of conscientiousness, warmth and concern.
They have re-unified 36 teenage girls with their families over the past three years. Mabunda and Hadebe know when they’re going to re-unite the girls – the parents phone and ask after them.
They say they often find themselves in the invidious position of becoming the brunt of a boyfriend’s anger – he will phone and threaten them. He sees them as taking his girlfriend away from him, even though he’s abusing the girl. But then the girl will go back to the boyfriend at payday, to make sure he buys her clothes and food.
One of their biggest challenges is that the girls often won’t disclose the whereabouts of their families – they don’t want to trouble their families who have rejected them once they have disclosed their positive HIV status, says Mabunda.
Another challenge is getting the girls to realise that the shelter is a temporary home. “They don’t want to move – it’s very, very comfortable here, they fight you to stay, saying ‘I want my place, room 101’,” says Hadebe.
But it’s not all negativeness. Bradley’s PA and receptionist came to the shelter as teenagers. They now both own their own flats. There is a low staff turnover. She says that when things get her down, she keeps her spirits up because it’s a Christian ministry. “My heart is here, my experience can help these ladies. Without the Lord, this is not possible.”
Update, 6 September 2023
On Thursday, 31 August 2023, a devastating fire swept through the rundown building, killing 77 homeless people who had been living illegally in appalling conditions. It was a hijacked building, controlled by criminal syndicates who collected monthly rent which they pocketed, not paying it to the council. The former Albert Street Pass Office marginalised thousands of people during apartheid by rejecting their applications to live in the city. Similarly today, thousands of marginalised people are living on the edge of society and are forced to live in squatter-camp conditions in derelict buildings. It is estimated that there are several hundred abandoned buildings in the inner city.