Ghosts of the past linger between the walls of 18 Norman Street
From being a home for a family then a spaza shop frequented by neighbours, then an inconspicuous brothel to becoming a popular drug den, 18 Norman street has ghosts of the past lingering between its walls.
At 18 Norman Street, a father opened his gate on a Sunday morning dressed in his shirt, tie and polished shoes. The squeals and excited banter of his young children carried from the backyard. In early 2013, the corner of Victoria and Norman streets was quiet. Neighbours knew each other by name. They looked out for each other.
The area was dominated by elderly people, says a 64-year-old neighbour to Number 18.
Now, his house is surrounded by reinforced palisades and electric fencing, the perimeter monitored by closed-circuit cameras. “The Nigerians” lingers on fearful lips like a bogeyman. The neighbour refuses to reveal his name for fear of reprisals.
Rosettenville residents talk of “the Nigerians” as the ringleaders of the drug and sex worker rings that have mushroomed in the suburb — whether they are Nigerians could not be verified by the Mail & Guardian.
The people who moved in after the family left the house were all young men. It didn’t take residents long to realise they were now living near a brothel.
When the neighbour emerged from behind his security cordon, the taunts started: “Get out! Get out!” or “You better sell your house!”
The pavement outside his house became a no-go zone after nightfall. In his letterbox, he routinely found threatening notes demanding he sell his house.
“I have picked up condoms and tissue paper from people having sex against my fence at night. It’s happened so many times. I can’t even walk the streets anymore,” he said at his gate, appearing eager to return to the safety of his yard, behind his 2.5m reinforced steel gate.
At 18 Norman Street, the yard is littered with condoms — there are dozens, used and unused — empty alcohol bottles and items of women’s clothing.
The neighbour carries pepper spray at all times and asked his brother to move in with him. Every trip out of his home is accompanied by a thorough security check.
Another neighbour, a 20-year-old woman, said, “everything changed when the Nigerians came three years ago”. Her father raised their wall soon after their arrival, only to have their house burgled anyway.
Now, a sense of fear dominates her attitude towards the neighbourhood. “My mom is terrified to walk out the front door. They deliberately target the school kids. They look for the uniforms, give them nyaope and get them hooked. They give them freebies and demand payment later,” she said. “A friend of mine got involved with them. When she didn’t pay up, they cut her face,” she said.
Kadir Kasem (46) opened his general dealer “Saad tuck shop” in the garage of 18 Norman Street in August 2015, selling bread, milk and nonperishable food, fresh vegetables, cleaning products, cigarettes and airtime. He named the shop after his son and got one of his Ethiopian countrymen to live in the room adjacent to it, in the corner home’s yard.
For six months business continued smoothly. Kasem paid R3 000 rent to a man who had already occupied the house. He never asked who he was or whether he owned the house. While delivering stock every week, Kasem said he received no reports of “crimes” happening in the house.
Kasem hired locals to paint advertisements of items for sale on the outside walls soon after it opened: rice, washing powder, sunflower oil, brown sugar and maize meal.
Two years later, these painted adverts are the only signs of a time when the house did not stir up controversy or hatred among its neighbours.
“Everything went fine when I opened, business was very good,” Kasem said this week. “The street was quiet. Mothers and children came to the shop all the time to buy sweets. Children played in front of the shop.”
But, by December 2016, residents of Rosettenville had grown impatient with law enforcement’s inaction about their complaints over brothels and drug dens, and Kasem had noticed a marked increase in the number of men loitering at street crossings.
“There used to be many people standing on corners and women coming to cars,” he said. “I wanted to close it that time but people were still buying from the shop.”
The dealers who lived in the house had an established system, known to their customers, to sell the drugs.
“One of the guys would stand at the bottom of the road and, when you pass there with the car, you give him the money,” said one Rosettenville resident. “At the top, here at the corner where the house is, there will be another Nigerian guy with big muscles waiting. He gives you the drugs, then you drive off.”
Two months later, in February, 18 Norman Street was one of the Rosettenville residents’ first targets in fighting the drug scourge. Frustration erupted into vigilante justice. The house was attacked with petrol bombs and the furniture carried outside and torched on the pavement. Kasem’s shop was looted.
“They took everything, everything. They didn’t even leave one packet of food or soap. Only shelves [were left],” he said. He lost nearly R25 000 to looting that day.
When the M&G visited the house the day after the attack, five men were cleaning up and repairing the electrical box in Kasem’s shop.
Residents of Victoria and Norman streets this week said for years they suspected the house was occupied by sex workers and their pimps. But it was the sale of drugs that started six months after Kasem opened his shop that confirmed their suspicions and turned the corner into a vibrant market for the sale and consumption of illegal substances.
“Once they started selling drugs, it made it easy for the addicts, because the girls were also addicted,” said Caldrin Johnson (20), who is unemployed and hangs around the neighbourhood. “Because they would go inside to smoke and stay there with the girls until they were done, so it was convenient.”
From residents’ accounts, things escalated visibly. The sex workers started advertising themselves to passing motorists without fear.
This was not the only drug den and brothel in the suburb. Their proliferation was so apparent that it ignited the Rosettenville’s residents to take action.
Johnson said the brazen attitudes of drug dealers and sex workers astounded him. “Every single night, 10 to 15 girls stand out on the corner. Cars come up, park for a minute and then drive away. Everyone knows what’s going on.”
He said there were attempts to rescue the women staying in the brothel. He recalled walking up the road and passing the house with his mother, when they spotted one of the women standing outside. “My mom did try to help them and told her, ‘You don’t have to do these things,’ but the girl just laughed,” Johnson said. “I told her [mom] the [women] stay here because they get the drugs for free and [they] like the money.”
Kasem has now moved his spaza shop to a new location further up Norman Street. Another resident, while helping the grocer offload fruit and vegetables, said, when the sale of drugs started, most of the neighbours stopped leaving their homes at night.
“We were instantly afraid because now it wasn’t just girls, it was these big guys on each corner as well. I couldn’t go out at night anymore, I would get robbed,” the man said.
He, too, is afraid to give his name, claiming the dealers take note of who speaks to the journalists who have visited Rosettenville since the residents started protesting against the drug dens and brothels.
The electrical box and shelves left by the residents in the looting spree were found and stripped from the walls by the “nyaope boys”, as they’re called by Johnson and his friend, Simphiwe Tsele, a 22-year-old who is also unemployed.
“It’s their house now. They have taken it for smoking drugs and stripping anything left inside. The people that buy [sex] also use the house,” Johnson said.
“They stay here because it looks abandoned. At night they can do whatever they want and people won’t think anything’s happening because it’s dark,” Tsele added.
The most prized possession stolen by the nyaope boys after residents launched the arson attack was the 4m-wide steel gate, Johnson said. “They stole that before anything else.”
The metal meant a big payday for scrap dealers.
Any item of plausible value was looted; the pipes and wiring were taken in the days and weeks following the attack on the house. Below the front porch, the home’s earth cable has also been dug out and stripped for its copper, a valuable metal that earns R50 a kilogram at scrap dealers. The handle on the back door and its hinges are the only metal items left in the house.
Between February and June, the presence of people smoking drugs in the burnt-out building merged with brothel activity. Used and new government-branded Max condoms lie next to the plastic used to package nyaope inside the room that Kasem’s employee once called home.
The room’s window was boarded up after its glass was broken and the frames were stolen. An old mattress and dirty sheets fill the floor space in what Johnson called the “fuck room”.
A narrow alley separating the property’s exterior wall from its garage and outbuilding is littered with rubbish and fresh human faeces.
A blooming pink rose bush grows in the corner of the front yard, staring down at the broken windows and walls of what was once a home.
18 Norman Street no longer has a front door; only four wooden side panels with glass fogged by the stain of smoke still intact. The wooden floors in the entrance and lounge have been ripped out and three pieces of paper remain pinned up on its walls; a Drum magazine cover, a love letter and a drawing that appears to have been done by a child — all of them faded by the smoke that engulfed the rooms when the house was torched.
“Yeah she is one of my crazy [girls], but she is a simple, talkative, funny little girl I’ve ever been around/ Hey it’s just a metre of time, till she realises how much I love you,” the poem reads. It’s signed “Lolo loves Kim” and dated January 25, 2017. The house was torched a month later when Rosettenville residents, tired of the sex and drugs trade, meted out their own form of justice.
A green overall jacket lays between the concrete rubble and charred wooden panels that held up the ceiling. Next to it, more evidence that the room is still being used to either smoke drugs or as a shelter: empty bottle-neck pipes with foil, small bankies with residual white powder and other detritus from lives being lived after the fire. As a brothel, the lounge acted as the reception area for the Johns. The wooden chairs that were torched when residents attempted to shut down the brothel would have seated its customers and a table outside kept the drugs for the night.
The cupboards in the hallway, too, are torched and ripped out. A recently placed empty two-litre plastic bottle stands upright on one of the remaining shelves.
To the right is the master bedroom, it’s wooden flooring also ripped out, its carpets still folded into a corner and the windows broken out, frames and all. The beds in this room were carried out along with the other furniture by protesting residents and set alight.
In the corner, between broken up pieces of concrete, lays a green worn-out identity book of a 24-year-old woman. In her picture, the woman appears smiling with a bright pink shirt. In the back of the book, hidden between the pages, a brown piece of cardboard is found with her name and another date; August 24, 2016.
The meaning of the identity book or its place in the brothel and drug den, will remain a nearly unsolvable mystery. What is known, is that the master bedroom played host to a revolving client base in the brothel, and was the throne-room for the head pimp.
The two other bedrooms are smaller and appear to have been home to children. Their floors are missing and there is little evidence that they have been used after the house was torched and its roof collapsed. But these are the rooms that the majority of the sex-workers appeared to call home — a number of the neighbourhood’s residents described seeing more than five women living there at a time.
The electrical wiring that connected the stove and plug points in the kitchen have all been stripped, this is the only room in the house where the concrete floors are still covered in tiles. On top of a half broken cupboard is a R2250 BetXchange lottery ticket dated May 30, 2017. On the back of the ticket are combinations of numbers.
Inside and out, the pipes and wiring have also been torn from the walls. Mounds of broken glass and black soot serve as a replacement for the house’s burned flooring in the kitchen.
From being a home for a family then a spaza shop frequented by neighbours, then an inconspicuous brothel to becoming a popular drug den, 18 Norman Street has ghosts of the past lingering between its walls. But soon, it could be reduced to nothing at all, if the fate of completely destroyed brothels in Rosettenville is a sign of things to come.
The eviction of an elderly couple from a house owned by a Nigerian on February 2, 2017 prompted an urgent community meeting in Rosettenville. It was called by local structures of the ANC, Economic Freedom Fighters and civic organisation Sanco. The couple had been kicked out after refusing to pay rent and when the community tried to force them back into the house, the Nigerian owner called the police, and they were arrested.
At the community meeting, complaints about drug dens and prostitution in the area dominated the discussion and Nigerians were blamed. Organiser of the protest Simphiwe Hlafa told the M&G this is when they decided to organise a march to rid the community of the “unwanted” presence of Nigerians.
“We stood up for ourselves and decided to do something about it. The community is doing things for itself. We never burnt any property, so to speak. We cleaned it, that’s how we view it. We cleaned the very same property that’s used as a brothel,” Hlafa said.
On Sunday hundreds of people marched through the neighbourhood searching for drug dens, escorted by the Johannesburg metro police. Despite the presence of the authorities, an eyewitness who took part in the march said the police were powerless to stop the attacks on the Nigerians’ property.
“They couldn’t do anything. Our crowd was way too big. The cops just parked across the road and watched,” the eyewitness said.
Maxwell Izumbu owns the De Cruze nightclub in Rosettenville and said he was in church when it was looted and set alight. De Cruze has been open for two and a half years and has earned a reputation as a drug haven in the community. But Izumbu believes these claims are unwarranted and the attack on his business was fuelled by a hate for Nigerians.
“It’s lies, there aren’t any drugs being sold here. I’ve been here for so long and this is the first time they attacked my club and it’s only Nigerians being attacked. The [sports bar] upstairs was also open but they didn’t touch it because it’s owned by a South African. So I can say it’s xenophobia. Nigerians are under siege here,” Izumbu told the M&G.
But Hlafa disagrees. “They are not under siege. What is under siege is their actions. And we are not going to apologise for that.”
The club has hosted well-known South African musicians such as Ishmael and is tightly secured by locks and reinforced steel doors. Outside, a man welds pieces of the door back together while across the street, a passer-by also claims that drugs can be bought inside the club.
The attack cost Izumbu upwards of a million rand, he claims. The tiny club’s music system, five television screens, and all of the alcohol for a month was stolen. His snooker table, furniture and fridges were damaged.
“Next time they come we’ll be ready.”
Two streets away, Izumbu’s countrymen had started repairing the front wall and electricity connection at a house that community members said was used as a brothel. Mostly unused government issued condoms lay scattered across the yard and furniture torched in the protest is piled up outside. One of the men, Marshall Abeogo (not his real name), suspected the house was targeted because of the clients seen frequenting it and said it wouldn’t happen again.
“Next time they come we’ll be ready. We can’t just leave them to destroy us again,” he warned.
“The same people who came to burn our place know these girls here. They know them very well. So it could just be the community or family is angry, because the men here visit the girls,” Abeogo said.
Hlafa denied this – and insisted their intention was to bring an end to drug peddling and the degradation of their community. Visibly upset about the threat, Hlafa issued one of his own: “If they become violent and try to kill one of us; we are going to go for them…
“We know where their children go to school, we know where their wives are running their salons, we know where their churches are, the Nigerians. So we are not worried about that (threat),” he said.
By the end of the week, Rosettenville remained on a knife’s edge. Mayor Mashaba set up a specialised task team to conduct regular raids on alleged drug dens, while appealing to the community not to take the law into their own hands.