Hundreds of thousands of informal dwellers in Johannesburg are at high risk in the African epicenter of Covid-19. South Africa’s most populated city, Johannesburg, accounts for over 60,000 infections, with numbers on the rise.
Hostel squatters face an incredible hazard, resulting from the combination of dire health conditions, looming criminality, and overpopulation.
In the city center, the surroundings of the Jeppe Hostel are a crime hotspot, which locals prudently avoid. About 10 thousand male residents occupy the run-down complex, which has barely undergone any maintenance since the 1950s. Among informal workers such as trash collectors and queue marshals mingle petty criminals and – rumor has it – dangerous murderers.
A delicate equilibrium of power maintains the peace inside the hostel, under the leadership of Nduna (chief) Manyathela Mvelase.
“Since they banned gatherings of more than 50 people, I can no longer speak to everyone at once,” points out Nduna Mvelase. “I and my staff are no longer in control of what’s going on and we are becoming more concerned.”
Inside the hostel, the Nduna is an undisputed leader. The residents acknowledge his authority, having chosen him for his strength and capability to maintain order. But the pandemic could loosen his grip on his people, whom he hasn’t addressed in months and who are starting to feel the heat of an increasing social crisis.
“Some people died in a fight a few days ago,” Nduna Mvelase said. “Others were taken away when they tested positive”.
Life isn’t easier inside the Madala Hostel of Alexandra, where an estimated 10 thousand people overcrowd the complex. Kitchens and bathrooms are shared and brake fluid puddles the entrance to the dorms. The fifth floor was destroyed by a fire in 2013 and was never rebuilt. Most inhabitants never leave the hostel, but the many taxi drivers could bring the virus inside its walls, dreading an unstoppable spread.
“Let Covid come,” laughs ‘doctor’ Dladla lighting a smuggled cigarette on a kitchen flame. “I’m not afraid. If this virus hits us, we will deal with it. Like we deal with everything.”
Young Nokwanda (12) is fetching water for the mother at a communal tap nearby. “I haven’t been in school since I came from our home village in Kwa-Zulu Natal, two years ago,” she admits, “and I hardly leave the hostel. My friends are my neighbours, I play with them when I’m not busy with home chores.”
The hostel families try to avoid most contacts with the outside world. They avoid taxi drivers, who transport up to 20 passengers in one ride on their overloaded minibuses thus making themselves unaware carriers of a sneaky ill. They also shy away from the outside world and point at the ‘intruders’ uttering “Corona!”.
Health activist Charles Mphepho explains why their concerns are more than justified: “We are so afraid that the peak will go up and people will pass away. Things in the hostel are worse, people are not wearing masks and there is no social distancing. The behavior of the people is totally out of control.”
Mphepho lives in the Nobuhle Hostel in Alexandra. He, too, fears for his future: “My contract with the Gauteng Province ends next week. There are no more funds. All I can do now is to try and spread awareness with my neighbors, tell everyone to wear masks.”
Most informal workers who live in the Nobuhle Hostel have lost their source of income. Mkhuliseni Mtshali used to earn his daily bread as a trash collector, and could never make provision for a rainy day. “I was making some small money before,” he says, “but since lockdown I have been stuck here. I hope to start again soon, but I’m also scared of covid.”
A third complex in Alexandra hosts a community of women. At the Alexandra Ladies’ Hostel, some women have taken a stand to help others.
“Our running water comes through tanks built in 1972, it’s unhealthy and they drip like a waterfall every night,” complains Violet Mfobo, the chairperson of the hostel resident’s committee. “Nobody cares for us. We always go to the highway and toyi-toyi [protest]. This time we must go to the highway and pray.”
Lebo Ramabele, who works for the non-profit organization Friends for Life, is scared for the safety of the girls affected by HIV and for their access to healthcare. She tries to look after the vulnerable adolescents and young adults, but the pandemic overshadowed her usual optimism.
In the Jabulani Hostel of Soweto, the oldest residents still have memory of the fratricide violence which smeared the anti-apartheid movement with bloodshed and crime in the ‘90s. At Jabulani and other hostels of the township, south of the city center, the denial of a lurking tragedy is only as accentuated as the incidence of other deadly diseases and social ills, which cost tens of lives in the past few months.
“Six people lost their life in a shooting two weeks ago. Another resident just committed suicide,” mourns Sehluko Dladla, operation manager at the Jabulani Hostel and right hand of Nduna Mbekiseni ‘mamba’ Vilakazi. “We are working with the government to make this a better place, but some are taking advantage of Covid-19 to grab land and commit crimes. People also became more violent. We are tired of this.”
As the pandemic limbo accentuates poverty and purposelessness, the people’s morale is at its lowest. A young adult committed suicide two weeks after becoming a father, leaving his family in grief and disarray. “We don’t even have money for his funeral,” says one of the brothers. “The insurance won’t pay us out because he killed himself.”
Not far from the Jabulani Hostel, another community awaits the resumption of normal life. It’s the Merafe Hostel, where the municipality employed some residents to run a maintenance program. While their duty keeps them going, their marginalization and the state of their housing continue to worsen, at a time when unemployment in South Africa has passed 30%.
Both adults and the youth feel abandoned. “My children go out to play and I only see them in the evening,” confesses Hlengiwe Sibiya. “I can’t tell them to avoid the other children, but I’m scared for their safety. The other people at the hostel don’t understand how dangerous this virus is.”
Mjananda’s life is hardened by the addiction to nyaope. “I want out, but I need money for rehab. I wash cars and sometimes I’m forced to steal, but that’s only enough to buy another dose. The pandemic? It only makes things worse.”
Like Mjananda, many addicts received care and a helping hand from the volunteers of the Musawamaswazi Community Organization. They come to the hostel to receive support and stay away from ‘bad companies’. “We all have a past in jail,” comments Mjananda. “We belong to different gangs but we all live together.” His gang is called 26. A tattoo marks his allegiance to the fraternity, which he joined during his time behind bars. “I was convicted of murder, but I was innocent. Somebody stole my gun and set me up. Eventually I came out clean, but I had also taken on this drug addiction.”
An informal crèche safeguards the children of the hostel and orphans. The elderly matron Thandi Mgaga is doing all she can to teach them about social distancing and health measures, but the underlying state of her home makes it difficult for her to comply with these measures. “I was promised an RDP [subsidy] house about ten years ago,” she complains.
Even in such trying times, some people do not lose hope. The children of the Sgkihsiwe Production keep practicing inside Nobuhle Hostel, awaiting better days. Like them, guitarist Philani Mtembu uses his music to chase away the blues: “I am a maskandi artist. I can cheer up others with my guitar and love songs,” he says and smiles away.
Alessandro Parodi is a Johannesburg-based reporter with a passion for cultural studies and urban ethnography. He is a regular contributor to the Italian-South African weekly publication La Voce del Sudafrica and the travel magazine Nomad Africa. (Twitter: @apnews360)
Manash Das is a freelance photojournalist based in South Africa and India. His work mainly focuses on humanitarian issues, conflicts, and daily life. (Twitter: @manashdasorg)