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Xawela, Carletonville. Sweeping dust in the streets of the township. ©Manash Das.
Xawela, Carletonville. Sweeping dust in the streets of the township. ©Manash Das.

They say money doesn’t grow on trees. Well, sometimes it’s just under your feet! A community of Mozambican migrants in Carletonville, in the South African province of Gauteng, found gold dust in the soil of the informal settlement of Xawela.

A long and complicated process allows the zama zamas (informal miners) to produce and sell pure gold without leaving their home. A day of hard work is enough to feed a family for a week, fuelling the informal economy of the township.

A nifty operation

The process begins at dawn, when some adolescents of the informal settlement start sweeping the streets of Xawela. “They need to bring 15 barrels of soil to make around one gram of gold,” explains John D (42), the marshal of the operation.

The youths sweep the precious dust early in the morning, before preparing for school. Neo (20) and Zweli (18) work tirelessly to gather the loot for their seniors. “This is our life, but our education is also important,” admits Neo.  One day, they will also be zama zamas. Born and bred in the settlement, they have already enrolled in the Delta, the local gang which runs surface and underground mining in the area.

While the boys are gathering the raw dust in an unforgiving soggy day, another group is setting up the sieve. On the outskirts of the settlement, they dig large pit holes which they use to extract the mineral.

“Out here is the wilderness,” comments LSG, a general in the Delta gang. “Sometimes we find buffalos, antelopes or hyenas roaming around. When there is no food at home, people will go out there and hunt.”

Next to each pit hole is a ramp, covered with cloths where the gold will stick. The miners placed a large bucket made into a sieve on top of the ramp and started filling it with the metal dust. A hose pipe inside the container provides running water throughout the process.

From dust to grof

After some hours spent processing the soil under the pouring rain, the cloths on the ramp glitter with gold. The operation now moves into John D’s home and spaza (convenience) shop, where the men are sitting around a fire and having drinks. While John D washes the mineral from the cloths inside a bucket, West, Castro, Samson and Metlo burn some soil with a high concentration of gold.

One last step, then the precious loot is ready for moulding. John D drops some mercury in a plate and then starts sieving the water full of the shining dust. “You can find the mercury in any pharmacy or hardware store,” he says.

The liquid element is a useful magnet, which starts turning yellow as it incorporates the gold. He puts aside the bigger grains mumbling “point one gram... point two grams...”

Once the sieving is done, one last capable move separates with a cloth the liquid mercury from the solid gold.

Inside a shack, John D lights a blow torch to mold the metal inside a plate. He knocks it with a spoon to make it into a small nugget. “Here is the grof,” he demonstrates proudly. The grof (Afrikaans for “coarse”) weighs approximately one gram.

“In town, we can sell it for seven, eight hundred rand [just under $50] if we’re lucky,” concludes John D.

“Here is the big deal!” exclaims in excitement West (37), while pouring some beer on the grof. The men amass around the raw nugget to witness the result of their hard work.

The golden legacy

The township of Xawela is in the outskirts of Carletonville, a mining town located on the north-western part of the Witwatersrand Gold Reef. Mining operations in the area began in the late 1800s, when settlers from the Cape laid the first stone of Ferreirarsdorp, the oldest suburb in Johannesburg.

Not far from the South African metropolis, Carletonville was built in 1937 in a location considered as the richest gold-mining area in the world. Mining companies such as Anglo Gold, Sibanye and Impala scrambled for a piece of land, digging in the depths of earth to extract the precious mineral.

The gold rush attracted migrant labor from across southern Africa. Shortly, informal and illegal miners began plundering gold-rich soil and ore from the shafts.

The oldest residents of Xawela remember a time when smugglers hid huge quantities of gold in the township. They looted nearby mines with some inside help and used Xawela as a hideaway.

“I made a lot of money with gold in my youth,” said Virginio (53) from Maputo. “I used it to support my family and start my panel beating business.”

Many years later, a generation of young migrants found gold nuggets inside pit toilets and discovered a concentration of gold dust in the soil under their shacks.

A journey to hell

While the community of Xawela feeds off the gold deposits hidden in the soil, the group of zama zamas also works underground.

To reach the tunnels of the buried city, an abandoned wing of an old mine, they climb down a 300-meters deep shaft with a complex system of ropes and pulleys.

“There are strict regulations in place to avoid illegal mining in active shafts, but it’s almost impossible to keep zama zamas away,” admits Nyko, an employee of the National Union of Mineworkers. Furthermore, the companies have no interest in preventing illicit activities in abandoned shafts.

Hundreds of people cooperate in the underground tunnels, using military hierarchy and martial law to maintain order.

As one of the generals of the Delta gang, LSG oversees the appropriation of gold, platinum, and copper cables in mines where his subjects spend up to three months without seeing the light of the sun.

“The Shangaan people from Mozambique are the most skilled gold diggers,” he says. “Instead the baSotho [from Lesotho and the Free State province in South Africa] are the guardians of the shaft. Some of them are vicious, in smaller shafts they would take advantage of the zama zamas, make them work like slaves, rob them and even rape sometimes.”

Many of the illegal miners are skillful former mine contractors. They know the tunnels inside out and carry out blasting operations and routine geological checks with professional precision. The refining of the gold happens directly underground, where wealth is diffuse and goods sell in out-and-out underground stores at ten times the market price.

Nonetheless, accidents disrupt the operations from time to time. During an interview, a general picks up the phone. After a heated discussion, he explains: “somebody broke his leg in a blast. They’re taking him out tonight”.

Far West, far South

One of the gangsters pulls out of his pocket two large pieces of raw gold. “This one is about 20 grams, this is 15,” he remarks. Some of the miners sent them up from the shaft. After selling them, the gang will deliver a share of the proceeds to the miners’ families.

“When the zama zamas come back to surface,” laughs LSG, “the whole township is abuzz. People have a lot of money and the parties last for days.”

In the shacks of Khutsong, a larger township near Xawela, gangsters hide explosives, guns and AK-47 rifles. Several gangs contend illicit markets regulating smuggled gold, copper cables, drugs, prostitution, and firearms.

“Our gangs are different from the ones you find in jail,” elaborates LSG. The main criminal clans of Carletonville are called Delta, Casanova, Vandal and Creature. Their rivalry accounts for several murders and regular shootouts over control of drug and prostitution hotspots. The law enforcement may stop the most striking incidents, but generally colludes with the gangsters to maintain peace in town.

Jail time is a temporary punishment for serial murderers and mobsters. Somebody in the gang reminisces of his time behind bars, after a heist at a petrol station: “two people were killed in my cell, right in front of my eyes. But there is a code, you won’t speak up otherwise you’ll be next. On record, they both committed suicide.”

One of the zama zamas was arrested for house robbery. “I killed a lot of people before coming clean. I have a family to feed back home.” After some years in jail, he decided to give up violence and work in the mines. “You can call this illegal, but for me it’s just a job,” he admits.

When the sun goes down over Khutsong, it’s time for a group of zama zamas to “shoot down” in the mine. They enter the shaft, buckle up and leap into darkness. Their game is on.

 

Xawela, Carletonville. Leftover soil will wash away in a large pit hole. ©Manash Das.
Xawela, Carletonville. Leftover soil will wash away in a large pit hole. ©Manash Das.
Xawela, Carletonville. Underground, the zama zamas produce gold nuggets as big as a fist. ©Manash Das.
Xawela, Carletonville. Underground, the zama zamas produce gold nuggets as big as a fist. ©Manash Das.
Xawela, Carletonville. The whole community supervises the extraction of gold. ©Manash Das.
Xawela, Carletonville. The whole community supervises the extraction of gold. ©Manash Das.
Xawela, Carletonville. Old cloths on a mud ramp will capture the gold dust. ©Manash Das.
Xawela, Carletonville. Old cloths on a mud ramp will capture the gold dust. ©Manash Das.
Xawela, Carletonville. Sieving 15 barrels of soil will produce a gram of gold. ©Manash Das.
Xawela, Carletonville. Sieving 15 barrels of soil will produce a gram of gold. ©Manash Das.
Xawela, Carletonville. Young manpower working tirelessly under a heavy rain. ©Manash Das.
Xawela, Carletonville. Young manpower working tirelessly under a heavy rain. ©Manash Das.
Xawela, Carletonville. The first grains of gold start shining on the muddy cloths. ©Manash Das.
Xawela, Carletonville. The first grains of gold start shining on the muddy cloths. ©Manash Das.
Xawela, Carletonville. The process of sieving the mineral-rich dust can last a few hours. ©Manash Das.
Xawela, Carletonville. The process of sieving the mineral-rich dust can last a few hours. ©Manash Das.
Xawela, Carletonville. Several pit holes are used daily to process the soil. ©Manash Das.
Xawela, Carletonville. Several pit holes are used daily to process the soil. ©Manash Das.
Xawela, Carletonville. The adults supervise the first part of the process. ©Manash Das.
Xawela, Carletonville. The adults supervise the first part of the process. ©Manash Das.
Xawela, Carletonville. Once the cloths are full of gold dust, John D washes them carefully in a bucket. ©Manash Das.
Xawela, Carletonville. Once the cloths are full of gold dust, John D washes them carefully in a bucket. ©Manash Das.
Xawela, Carletonville. Another bucket contains mineral rich soil, which will be burned. ©Manash Das.
Xawela, Carletonville. Another bucket contains mineral rich soil, which will be burned. ©Manash Das.
Xawela, Carletonville. Burning soil and gold on the communal fire. ©Manash Das.
Xawela, Carletonville. Burning soil and gold on the communal fire. ©Manash Das.
Xawela, Carletonville. Liquid mercury is a useful magnet to isolate gold. ©Manash Das.
Xawela, Carletonville. Liquid mercury is a useful magnet to isolate gold. ©Manash Das.
Xawela, Carletonville. Finally, John D melts the grof using a blow torch. ©Manash Das.
Xawela, Carletonville. Finally, John D melts the grof using a blow torch. ©Manash Das.
Xawela, Carletonville. The final produce is a small nugget worth around $50. ©Manash Das.
Xawela, Carletonville. The final produce is a small nugget worth around $50. ©Manash Das.
Khutsong, Carletonville. A gangster showing off his arsenal. ©Manash Das.
Khutsong, Carletonville. A gangster showing off his arsenal. ©Manash Das.

 

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)

MDA_200815-01 – Kosmos, Tshwane. Thys is preparing mieliepap for the animals. “I couldn’t live more happily.” ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Thys is preparing mieliepap for the animals. “I couldn’t live more happily.” ©Manash Das.

A few hundred dogs barking, the grunt of pigs and the squeaky screech of marmoset monkeys welcome the visitors of an unusual settlement north of Tshwane (formerly Pretoria), the South African capital city. Kosmos, a Boer community was created almost twenty years ago by local handyman Ian Jansen van Vuuren and now houses about seventy dwellers and a wide range of country animals.

“In Kosmos, everyone lends a helping hand to the other”, explained Ian. In the ‘90s, he settled in a patch of veld, a word describing the South African open field in Afrikaans. Ian is one of the descendants of the European colons who first set foot in Southern Africa in the 1600s.

When Ian first established Kosmos, his home was a double-decker bus which embodied the dream of self sustainability and independence. When his children and grandchildren joined him, a few free-spirited people followed their example. The settlement soon turned into a small town in the outskirts of the big city.

With time, Kosmos welcomed homeless and retired people. Ian started managing the residents’ pensions, using their small but fundamental income to buy necessities such as food and medicines. The community grew stronger when the animal shelter was built, giving everyone a purpose and attracting donations from animal lovers.

Today, the residents of Kosmos are organized in a self-sustainable micro-society, where each plays their part for the communal good. They embody the Afrikaans concept of helpmekaar, mutual aid; some looking after the animals or the shared borehole, some cleaning and washing, some preparing food, others building or repairing the facilities of the village.

“All I can do is work with cast iron, but I have someone who cleans and cooks for me”, explained Rudolph, who is in charge of the communal boiler for hot water. His basset hound is an inseparable friend, who keeps company to him and his neighbors. Rudolph is affected by epilepsy, but medical treatments don’t concern him. “When I feel a bit bad, I just go to my house and let it pass. When an attack gets worse, our benefactor, Ian, looks after me,” he concluded.

Thys, another denizen, is preparing mieliepap to feed the animals. “I used to work in Kempton Park, at the airport. When the contract ended, I had to make another plan and I found myself here.” Cooking is his job in this unique time bank. “I couldn’t live more happily,” he reflected.

At the center of the settlement, several enclosures host the canine population of the Paws Love Animal Shelter. The community of Kosmos feeds and looks after the rescued animals, waiting for a family to adopt them.

A brick house at the entrance of the animal shelter has become a makeshift bakery, where some ladies prepare trademark eet-sum-mor, rusks, scones, shortbread and many other boer treats. Boxes of fresh eggs pile up on one of the shelves: “our chickens produce enough to sustain us and to sell,” explained one of the ladies.

The village also has an outdoor area, with a swimming pool and games for the children, which the residents built or brought in across the years. 

At lunchtime, everyone gathers inside the canteen to receive their ration of food. Some of them just finished a tiring shift, while others are ill or disabled.

“We try to accommodate all those in need,” said Ian. He found Paul, a disabled senior, begging in the street and took him under his wing. “Ian took me with his bakkie [pickup] and brought me here, where everyone looks after me,” affirmed Paul. Other residents were abandoned at Kosmos by their families. Among them, 59-years-old Denise joined the community after a serious injury in a motorbike accident.

“I used to be a stripper,” said Denise. “I performed with a snake around my neck and scared troublemakers away with my reptile. I was part of a biker gang, the ‘Black Widows’!” Her youth days are long gone. In their place are the scars and permanent chills resulting from a life on edge. The other dwellers are like a new family to her, as a consequence of many years living together. “I see my blood sisters sometime, but because of Covid I haven’t met anyone in the last few months.”

The less fortunate inhabitants of Kosmos move around in a wheelchair, while Piet (40) cannot leave the room where his oxygen mask is plugged. In the place of a nurse, he has a whole adoptive family to give him treatment and keep him company.

“I wish I could assist more people,” said Ian with a sense of regret, “but this is the most that we can do.” The past few months have been especially hard for the increasing homeless population of Tshwane. “During the lockdown we cannot take anyone in, but the requests are ever-growing,” he said. “I get calls from desperate people every day.”

With the rise of poverty, abuse is becoming a constant feature across the capital city's destitute neighborhoods. “Women came to us to escape from their abusive husbands, and all I could do was to give them some money and send them to the police station. But I know the police won’t do enough to help them,” continued Ian.

Many women and children live in Kosmos, where they are protected by a caring community. Elsewhere, the most vulnerable are everyday victims of atrocious abuse and complicity. 

In fact, while gender-based violence has become a priority challenge for the South African government many spheres of society underestimate the entity and seriousness of the social ill. Law enforcement agents often turn a blind eye to rape and femicide in their communities, leaving no option for most women but to endure abuse. Gender-based violence escalated during the pandemic, pushing President Cyril Ramaphosa to define it as “another pandemic that is raging in our country – the killing of women and children by the men of our country”.

With thousands of Covid-19 cases daily, South Africa has not yet removed its lockdown regulations, six months into a state of disaster. This paralysis, however, has not had any direct effects on the residents of Kosmos. They don’t need to wear masks or apply social distancing, since the community hardly receives any visitors. However, the sense of solitude is on the rise, as most of them have lost any contacts with the outside world since March.

That’s why a small but dedicated group of philanthropists took up the initiative to support Kosmos, as well as other communities across Pretoria. They bring clothes and food every Saturday and cook for the residents on special occasions. One of them, an amateur hunter, often shares buckets of game meat to prepare the traditional potjiekos stew.

“When the pandemic started, we realized how tough this would have been but we also understood how lucky we are,” explained Giovanni Maiorana, who owns a restaurant nearby. “We took the responsibility to assist those who are less fortunate. By doing so we also understood so much about ourselves.”

Like Kosmos, several communities and caravan camps in Northern Pretoria are home to thousands of unemployed and elderly residents. Their stories, not often told, describe a transition from colonial conquest and oppression to democratization. They were ideologically opposed to the totalitarian apartheid regime, people like Ian, Rudolph, Denise, and many others are once more marginalized by a democratic political order, which inherited much of  the corruption and social ills of the same apartheid regime it replaced. 

Ian’s wit and capability to create such an elaborate microcosm is best described by the Afrikaans expression 'n boer maak 'n plan (a Boer makes a plan). Descendant of the Huguenot fugitives who left the Netherlands over 400 years ago, the Boers spread across Southern Africa during the gold rush and learned to survive through hardship in a foreign land. The pioneering attitude of the Boer people allowed many of them to resist in these trying times, without losing hope. “You have to laugh it all out,” smirked Denise.

On leaving Kosmos, volunteer Eddie Germena concluded, “Meeting this community in such a remote place has taught us how important it is to help each other and be creative, especially in a moment like this. It is a lesson which will change our lives.”

 

Kosmos, Tshwane. Denise, 59, used to be a stripper and a biker. “I performed with a snake around my neck.” ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Denise, 59, used to be a stripper and a biker. “I performed with a snake around my neck.” ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Everybody gets a ration of food at the communal canteen. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Everybody gets a ration of food at the communal canteen. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Ian Jansen van Vuuren built Kosmos with his own hands. In the settlement, everyone looks up to him. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Ian Jansen van Vuuren built Kosmos with his own hands. In the settlement, everyone looks up to him. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Rudolph is boiling water with his geyser. The hot water circulates through showers and taps in the community. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Rudolph is boiling water with his geyser. The hot water circulates through showers and taps in the community. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Every Saturday, some volunteers bring food parcels and cook for the residents of Kosmos. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Every Saturday, some volunteers bring food parcels and cook for the residents of Kosmos. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Paul used to beg on the street. The people of Kosmos found him and welcomed him in their odd family. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Paul used to beg on the street. The people of Kosmos found him and welcomed him in their odd family. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Ian’s children and grandchildren live with him in the settlement, which started with his double-decker bus. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Ian’s children and grandchildren live with him in the settlement, which started with his double-decker bus. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. The resident’s chores include cleaning and washing, which everyone is assigned in rotation. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. The resident’s chores include cleaning and washing, which everyone is assigned in rotation. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Many of the dwellers were abandoned by their families and now live on their own. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Many of the dwellers were abandoned by their families and now live on their own. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Disabled men and women contribute with their pensions to the sustenance of the community. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Disabled men and women contribute with their pensions to the sustenance of the community. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Shared toilets and a septic tank guarantee hygiene and are washed regularly. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Shared toilets and a septic tank guarantee hygiene and are washed regularly. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. The young and the old enjoy a moment or rest and leave their troubles behind. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. The young and the old enjoy a moment or rest and leave their troubles behind. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Animal lovers are at ease at the Paws Love Animal Shelter, where dogs are safe and looked after. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Hundreds of dogs populate the Paws Love Animal Shelter waiting for a family to adopt them. ©Manash Das. 
Kosmos, Tshwane. Hundreds of dogs populate the Paws Love Animal Shelter waiting for a family to adopt them. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Hundreds of dogs populate the Paws Love Animal Shelter waiting for a family to adopt them. ©Manash Das. 
Kosmos, Tshwane. Some of the residents are in charge of feeding the dogs, cleaning them and making them play. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Some of the residents are in charge of feeding the dogs, cleaning them and making them play. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Paul (40) needs his oxygen mask to fight a pulmonary disease. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Paul (40) needs his oxygen mask to fight a pulmonary disease. ©Manash Das.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Lunchtime can be a social moment or an opportunity to catch one’s breath after a morning of work. ©Alessandro Parodi.
Kosmos, Tshwane. Lunchtime can be a social moment or an opportunity to catch one’s breath after a morning of work. ©Alessandro Parodi.

 

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)

 

 

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.

 

MDA_20200630_01 – Alexandra, Johannesburg. Inside a communal room at the Madala Hostel. ©Manash Das.
Alexandra, Johannesburg. Inside a communal room at the Madala Hostel. ©Manash Das.
MDA_20200630_02 – Alexandra, Johannesburg. Nokwanda (12) hasn’t been in school for two years.  All her friends live inside the Madala Hostel. ©Manash Das.
Alexandra, Johannesburg. Nokwanda (12) hasn’t been in school for two years. All her friends live inside the Madala Hostel. ©Manash Das.

 

MDA_20200630_03 – Alexandra, Johannesburg. Residents of the Nobuhle Hostel during a police raid. ©Manash Das.
Alexandra, Johannesburg. Residents of the Nobuhle Hostel during a police raid. ©Manash Das.

 

MDA_20200630_05 – Soweto, Johannesburg. Nyaope is a low grade concoction of heroin, cannabis and antiretroviral products. ©Manash Das.
Soweto, Johannesburg. Nyaope is a low grade concoction of heroin, cannabis and antiretroviral products. ©Manash Das.

 

MDA_20200630_06 – Soweto, Johannesburg. Nyaope addiction creates a community of drugs, from which it’s impossible to evade. ©Manash Das.
Soweto, Johannesburg. Nyaope addiction creates a community of drugs, from which it’s impossible to evade. ©Manash Das.

 

MDA_20200630_07 – Alexandra, Johannesburg. Bongomusa Mdletshe (58) is  using a gas stove to fight the cold in the cement kitchen of the hostel. ©Manash Das.
Alexandra, Johannesburg. Bongomusa Mdletshe (58) is using a gas stove to fight the cold in the cement kitchen of the hostel. ©Manash Das.

 

MDA_20200630_08 – Soweto, Johannesburg. Doris (59) and Isac (65) Mdletshe are scared for the wellbeing of their children. ©Manash Das.
Soweto, Johannesburg. Doris (59) and Isac (65) Mdletshe are scared for the wellbeing of their children. ©Manash Das.

 

MDA_20200630_09 – Soweto, Johannesburg. An informal crèche houses the children of the Merafe Hostel. ©Manash Das.
Soweto, Johannesburg. An informal crèche houses the children of the Merafe Hostel. ©Manash Das.

 

MDA_20200630_10 – Soweto, Johannesburg. The aerial view of the Jabulani Hostel, which once used to be home to the mining immigrant force. ©Manash Das.
Soweto, Johannesburg. The aerial view of the Jabulani Hostel, which once used to be home to the mining immigrant force. ©Manash Das.

 

MDA_20200630_12 – Alexandra, Johannesburg. Long and dark corridors connect the sections of the hostels. ©Manash Das.
Alexandra, Johannesburg. Long and dark corridors connect the sections of the hostels. ©Manash Das.

 

MDA_20200630_14 – Jeppestown, Johannesburg. Food shops and butchers allow residents to be self sufficient. ©Manash Das.
Jeppestown, Johannesburg. Food shops and butchers allow residents to be self sufficient. ©Manash Das.

 

XPA_20200630_01 – Soweto, Johannesburg. A woman hanging her laundry in the hostel’s backyard. ©Alessandro Parodi.
Soweto, Johannesburg. A woman hanging her laundry in the hostel’s backyard. ©Alessandro Parodi.

 

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)

 

South Africa

 

South African energy company Renergen, which currently produces compressed natural gas, has opened bids for a share of a liquefied natural gas (LNG) project in the Free State province, the first of its kind for South Africa. Bidders must submit their interest in the project by August 27, with a formal auction date to be announced shortly thereafter.

The company’s Virginia Gas Project, which comprises exploration and production rights of 187,000 hectares of gas fields, is expected to start producing LNG in the third quarter of 2021.

The natural gas in these fields contains almost no higher alkanes (such as and butane), so it is relatively easy to liquify. It also contains rich helium concentrations, amounting to roughly half of the United States’ reserves – and the US is the world leader in helium production. Renergen plans to start producing helium in 2023.

 

Renewable Energy

Should the LNG project prove successful, it will make a huge difference in diversifying South Africa’s energy portfolio, which is dominated by coal for domestic use and for export. Renergen will partner with Total South Africa to distribute the LNG through Total’s filling stations, mainly for use by logistics companies’ trucks – the LNG will replace diesel.

The source of the Virginia Gas Project’s natural gas is primarily microbial, so it’s a sustainable resource. Producing a carbon-negative fuel is critical if South Africa is to move away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy.

 

Eskom
Eskom’s Hendrina power plant in Mpumalanga province came into operation in 1970. (Photo via AFP)

Once a global leader and the continent’s leading energy producer, in a little over a decade South Africa’s electricity public utility has fallen into a pattern of disrepair that was once unimaginable.

The country saw its first blackouts in 2007, at a cost to the economy of just under US$1 billion. By 2019, the electricity lost to load shedding* had escalated to 1,352 gigawatt hours (GWh) and a total of 530 hours, up from the 176 GWh shed in 2007.

Load shedding is structured incrementally, increasing from Stage 1, where 1,000 megawatts (MW) are removed from the grid, up to Stage 8, where up to 8,000 MW would be shed. South Africa hit Stage 6 in 2019, its highest stage yet, with 6,000 MW taken off the grid at a time.

These losses come at a cost. Energy analyst Chris Yelland has calculated that each stage of load shedding cost the South African economy R1 billion (US$60 million) per day, per stage. For example, a day spent at Stage 3 load shedding would lead to a loss of R3 billion (US$180 million) over the 24-hour period. In 2019 alone, South Africa’s electricity instability cost the country somewhere between US$3.6 billion and US$7.2 billion.

 

South Africa still accounts for nearly a third of the continent’s installed capacity

 

The paradox of the South African case is that the country has increased its shortages tenfold over the past decade and increased its energy insecurity, yet it still accounts for nearly a third of the continent’s installed capacity, with about 52 gigawatts (GW). Relative to its local neighbors, South Africa is still doing fairly well with regard to government-provided energy supply. However, that’s not the neighborhood it’s trying to compete in, and that’s also not the system its economy was designed for.

The South African economy was built on an alliance between cheap energy and mining. Eskom’s initial model of operation prioritized the security of energy supply at all costs. This changed in the 1980s when the National Party government removed the organization’s internal capital development fund and increased Treasury’s oversight of new investments. Reforms introduced in the 1990s created further confusion in the decision-making process around new capacity, and the problem remains unresolved more than twenty years later. So, while there has been awareness since 1998 of the impact of Eskom’s ageing infrastructure, to date, no credible plan has been provided to address it.

The public utility is now characterized by ageing, poorly maintained infrastructure and severe delays in the construction of its new power plants.

 

COVID-19 has provided some relief in terms of demand 

 

Eskom started 2020 in poor form: by the end of January, it had already shed 143 GWh, nearly as much as the 2007 total. The COVID-19-induced lockdown, introduced in late March, reduced electricity demand significantly and led to a decline in outages. This trend began to change as the economy started opening up in June, leading to a series of blackouts.

Although COVID-19 has provided some relief in terms of demand, it has also thwarted some of the long-term maintenance plans set out my Eskom. The public utility had previously scheduled to take 2,000 MW off the grid for nine months to do a full rebuild from July 1. However, travel restrictions caused by the pandemic have limited access to scarce technical skills and resources to pursue the detailed maintenance.

In mid-July, the German Embassy, working together with the Ministry of International Relations and Cooperation and the South African–German Chamber of Commerce and Industry, chartered a Lufthansa flight to bring a team of German technical experts to South Africa. The experts, invited by German businesses operating in South Africa, are expected to provide technical expertise that cannot be found locally, such as upgrading high-tech production facilities in the Eastern Cape, and supporting Eskom in the maintenance and upgrade of its power plants.

According to the first issue of the 2020 OECD Economic Outlook—a biannual analysis of major economic trends and prospects—South Africa’s economic trajectory in a post-COVID-19 landscape will be heavily impacted by its ability to address the structural issues of its economy, notably the rising costs and instability of electricity supply.

Over the past few years, Eskom has flirted with a number of technologies in an attempt to stabilize the grid, including nuclear, but it is uncertain where the country’s next major energy investment will be. Thus far, the only independent producers to provide power to the grid are those under the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement (REIPPP) program: 6,329 MW of renewable energy has been procured to date, of which 3,876 MW is currently connected to the grid.

South Africa faces a choice in the near future: either feed more power into the grid, or create an economic system less reliant on a centralized electricity provider.

 

* Load shedding describes the process of strategically cutting power to specific areas in order to stabilize the grid when demand outstrips supply.

 

Nchimunya Hamukoma is an economist and policy strategist (@N_Hamukoma).

 

Dior artistic director Kim Jones acknowledges the applause at the end of the Dior Winter 2020–2021 men’s fashion show in Paris on January 17, 2020. (Francois Guillot/AFP)
Dior artistic director Kim Jones acknowledges the applause at the end of the Dior Winter 2020–2021 men’s fashion show in Paris on January 17, 2020. (Francois Guillot/AFP)

Kim Jones, artistic director for Dior Men, has partnered with Ghanaian artist Amoako Boafo to design the Spring/Summer 2021 menswear collection. Jones first encountered Boafo’s work at an exhibition at the new Rubell Museum in Miami, Florida, and at the Art Basel Miami fair. Taken with the Ghanaian’s unique finger-paint approach to portraiture, the designer traveled to Accra, Ghana, to visit Boafo’s studio. Jones himself spent many years of his childhood in various African countries, including Ghana, where his father worked as a hydrogeologist.

The two creatives worked around the current suspension of regular fashion shows by creating a short film to show the collection and the inspirations behind it.

 

There has been a notable change in the popular perception of African fashion

 

Boafo’s collaboration with Dior demonstrates high fashion’s changing attitudes toward creatives of African descent. In 2019, more than 1,700 young fashion designers from 100 countries entered the competition for the prestigious LVMH Prize—and the winner was South African designer Thebe Magugu. He is the first African to win the prize since its launch in 2013. Initiatives such as Industrie Africa, a digital showcase for contemporary African design talent, also reflect a notable change in the popular perception of African fashion.

 

A man rests on the octagon surrounding the destroyed plinth upon which a colonial era statue of H.M. Queen Victoria had stood in memoria since it's unveiling in 1906, at the Jevanjee gardens in Nairobi on June 13, 2020. The statue was removed following a vandalism incident a few years ago.  Statues of controversial historical and political figures are under scrutiny worldwide. TONY KARUMBA / AFP
A statue of Queen Victoria stood on this plinth in Jevanjee Gardens in Nairobi, Kenya, from 1906 to 2015, when it was removed after it had been vandalised. (Tony Karumba/ AFP)

The murder of George Floyd, an African American man, by police officer Derek Chauvin for the alleged crime of spending a $20 counterfeit note has resulted in widespread anti-racism protests under the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement across the United States and the globe. One aspect of this movement has been the reconsideration of public monuments to historical figures connected to the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

In Bristol, England, BLM protesters brought down a statue of slave trader Edward Colston and dumped it in the nearby harbor. In Oxford, calls to remove a statue of colonialist Cecil John Rhodes have gained renewed interest, reviving a 2015 campaign modeled on the #RhodesMustFall student movement in South Africa.

 

Newer memorials dedicated to Kenyans include a monument in honor of Tom Mboya

 

Similar sentiments have bubbled over in Kenya, which is dotted with its own assortment of statues, hotels, parks, and street names honoring former colonial figures such as Queen Victoria and Hugh Cholmondeley, an influential British settler and landowner in then British East Africa Protectorate, now Kenya.

Newer memorials dedicated to Kenyans include a monument in honor of Tom Mboya, one of the founding fathers of the independent Republic of Kenya, in the Nairobi CBD; a UK-funded memorial to Kenyans killed by British forces during the Mau Mau Uprising in the 1950s in Uhuru Park in Nairobi; and a recently unveiled statue of Dedan Kimathi, the spiritual leader of the Mau Mau Uprising, in Nyeri.

 

IAEA
Empty chairs are seen in front of the logo of the International Atomic Energy Agency prior to a meeting in Vienna on August 1, 2019. (Hans Punz/AFP)

Ghana recently completed phase one of a three-part process to develop the infrastructure for producing nuclear power in coordination with the International Atomic Energy Agency. The focus of the first phase was on conducting a series of studies on the rationale for and feasibility of introducing nuclear power to the national and West African energy grid, a tall order considering the steep costs of constructing and maintaining nuclear reactors.

Ghana’s current installed generating capacity of 4,132 MW comprises hydroelectric power (38 percent); thermal power fueled by oil, natural gas and diesel (61 percent); and solar power (1 percent). Actual availability, however, rarely exceeds 2,400 MW due to various factors, including inadequate fuel supplies. To meet the energy demands of its growing population, currently at about 28 million, requires the country to rely on the broader West African energy grid to supplement the shortfall.

Phase Two of the nuclear plan will include meetings with potential stakeholders, developing a government financing scheme and a framework for nuclear waste disposal protocols, and determining suitable sites for construction. Dr. Robert B. M. Sogbadjie, coordinator of the Ghana Nuclear Power Program, confirmed during a press conference that four sites have already been picked out, but did not disclose their locations. Phase two is anticipated to begin in 2024, with construction to be completed by 2030.

 

South Africa has had a nuclear power plant since 1984

 

Should Ghana succeed in this endeavor, it would make it only the second country in Africa to have nuclear power, alongside South Africa, which has had a functioning nuclear power plant—providing 5 percent of the country’s total energy output—since 1984. Furthermore, Ghana’s initiative on nuclear power could incentivize other African nations to do so as well, moving the continent away from fossil fuels while meeting the energy needs of a growing population.

 

Cabo Delgado
Muzasufar Abakari, chief of the coastal village Guludo in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province, photographed during Ramadan in May 2019 (Zinyange Auntony/AFP)

Valige Tauabo, the governor of Cabo Delgado province in northern Mozambique, announced on Monday that the country’s Defense and Security Forces (DSF) had reclaimed control of the town of Macomia. The town had been under attack by unspecified armed insurgents since Thursday, May 29. This comes on the heels of a declaration by President Filipe Nyusi that the DSF had killed two “senior officers” among the insurgents after Thursday’s attack on and occupation of the Macomia district headquarters.

Images and video clips of the destruction left behind by the insurgents—suspected of belonging to a violent local jihadist group with possible connections to Islamic State—were circulated on social media.

Private military contractors were part of the offensive to reclaim Macomia, although reports about the operation have not yet divulged the identity of all the entities involved. Separate engagements in Mozambique have suggested the presence of South African contractors as well as the Wagner Group, the infamous Russian mercenary outfit that has also been active in Libya and the Central African Republic.

 

President Nyusi has admitted that unemployment and poverty are behind the insurgency in the province

 

Since the insurgency in Cabo Delgado started in 2017, more than 1,100 civilians have been killed and thousands more displaced. The discovery of significant natural gas reserves off the province’s coast has attracted interest from multinational energy companies like ExxonMobil and Total. But despite billions in investments to extract the gas, the local people have not derived any benefit from them. And President Nyusi has admitted that unemployment and poverty are behind the insurgency in the province.

 

Johannesburg
Alexandra, Johannesburg. The township awakens to the galloping pandemic. ©Alessandro Parodi

Over the past two weeks, the incidence of COVID-19 cases in South Africa has almost doubled, and now there’s a testing backlog because of a global shortage of test kits. While the race to develop a vaccine continues apace, local healers are striving to produce indigenous remedies based on herbal wisdom and plant-derived active compounds known to alleviate symptoms of diseases such as flu, malaria, cancer, and HIV/AIDS.

South African media described the first two months of the pandemic as “the quiet before the storm.” When lockdown was imposed in late March, shutting down the country’s economy, hospital staff buckled up for a rocky ride and citizens impatiently waited for the first opportunity to resume business as usual.

Now, the southern tip of the continent prepares for a relaxing of the lockdown restrictions. Level 3 will allow most of the workforce to resume activities, schools to partly reopen, religious gatherings to take place, and shops to recommence selling alcoholic beverages from June 1.

However, a surge in the number of COVID-19 cases and an increase in daily deaths have created a dilemma for South Africans, who will return to their offices, schools, and places of worship amid fear and uncertainty.

 

Making a Case for Artemisia and Other Herbs

Since the beginning of May, African governments have scrambled to produce or buy herbal mixtures based on the artemisia plant.

Madagascan president Andry Rajoelina grabbed international headlines when he endorsed a local herbal tea named COVID-Organics, made of sweet wormwood (Artemisia annua). He went on to question the impartiality of the World Health Organization with regard to testing, and criticized the alleged Western polarization of the pharmaceutical industry.

In South Africa, the artemisia plant more commonly used in traditional medicine is Artemisia afra, known as wild wormwood, wilde-als (Afrikaans), mhlonyane (Zulu) or lengana (Tswana).

While scientists prepare to carry out clinical trials to test the potential of artemisia in the treatment of COVID-19, some people have already turned to traditional remedies.

 

“I drank wild dagga and sutherlandia three times every day and got better very quickly”

 

“I went to the clinic with high fever and COVID-19 symptoms,” says Irvin Mothibe from Soweto, south of Johannesburg. “They told me to quarantine myself, so I spent two weeks in a hut at Credo Mutwa Village. The great healer [Credo Mutwa, who passed away in March] had planted many medicinal herbs in the village. I drank wild dagga [Leonotis leonurus] and sutherlandia [Lessertia frutescens] three times every day and got better very quickly.”

Indigenous healers recommend a variety of natural solutions to their clients.

“When the pandemic arrived, we consulted among healers and we prayed to our ancestors,” says Sheila, a sangoma, or traditional healer, based in Alexandra, Johannesburg. “My recipe against the virus? A mix of sihawuhawu [nettle], isiphephetho [wild ginger], umavumbuka [Sarcophyte sanguinea], mayisaka [Thesium multiramulosum], and intolwane [Elephantorrhiza elephantina].”

“We are working on a product combining different local herbs and Artemisia annua, which is more potent than the indigenous Artemisia afra,” says Willem Bronkhorst, a director at the African National Healers Association. “I don’t know yet how effective this will be against COVID-19, but I can say for sure that it will help.”

Many healers from Johannesburg suggest they use artemisia in combination with valerian, mint, garlic, moringa, African potato, and cayenne pepper, ingredients that can easily be found on the shelves of a supermarket or pharmacy. “You can boil them and drink them hot or cold,” says Mmapelle Khunou. “Some sangomas prefer to mix them with porridge, to make it easier for patients to take the medicine.”

“It’s important to use the right quantities, depending on the person and how bad the disease is,” she clarifies. “If you are advised by the wrong healer or take herbs without prescription, you could harm yourself.”

 

What Standards for Herbal Remedies?

It is risky to believe in the existence of a miracle cure against an unknown disease. The World Health Organization does recognize the importance of traditional medicine and its achievements, but there are rigid requirements in place to ensure the quality, safety, and efficacy of a product.

“There are many therapeutic options that are being suggested as possible treatments for COVID-19,” says Stavros Nicolaou, a senior executive at Aspen Pharmacare Group and a key contributor to South Africa’s medical response to the pandemic. “At his point in time, there are no registered treatments that cure COVID-19. Whilst there might be many candidates or established medicines under investigation, none of these have been proven under clinical trial conditions.

“The pharmaceutical industry will continue investigating these candidate medicines under appropriate clinical trial conditions, and would only be in a position to make them available when they have been proven effective and safe in clinical trials, and when the necessary medicines regulatory agencies have approved them for specific indications.

“This approach is for all medications, including indigenous and herbal medicines,” Nicolaou says.

 

“The medical profession is trying to engage with indigenous healers, because they do a tremendous job in communities and provide health to the people”

 

“Artimisinin [a compound derived from Artemisia annua] is a powerful active ingredient,” says another pharmaceutical expert. “However, one needs to apply rigorous controls in the production chain to guarantee its standard quality. The medical profession is trying to engage with indigenous healers, because they do a tremendous job in communities and provide health to the people. But the healers also have to adhere to the conditions required of the medical profession.”

These requirements, however, raise suspiciousness among many healers: “We also took an oath,” Mmapelle Khunou says. “The problem between us and Western doctors is that we put the people first, instead of profit.”

 

Doctors, Psychologists, and Community Leaders

Indigenous healers do not just provide medical advice. Their input ranges from psychological to religious factors, while tightening the social fabric. Two months of lockdown tore families, villages, and townships apart, forcing a transformation in everyone’s life.

“Men are no longer able to provide for the family,” says Khunou. “If my man can’t do his job, I will question him and ask him to make a plan. But he is also human and has his weaknesses. His manhood is questioned: some men snap and become violent, and households grow apart.”

The recognition of traditional healers as essential workers would facilitate the diffusion of health practices and create awareness about the rising costs of the epidemic.

“I don’t believe in this virus,” says Violet, a resident of Alexandra. “Have you met anyone who has it?”

In the streets of the township, people walk and commute casually. Even where social distancing and the use of masks are possible, habits prevail. Small crowds gather in front of spazas (small shops). To buy a kota (a meal of a quarter loaf of bread, processed meat, and chips), you have to close your eyes to basic hygiene requirements.

“What about masks?” asks another local. “They tell us to wear them, but we don’t know why. Cloth masks become dirty and can also carry diseases.

“When the government makes announcements,” he adds, “they speak a language many people don’t understand. We heard no vernacular in the news; old people don’t even know what’s going on.”

 

A Rainbow Jigsaw Puzzle

When the first COVID-19 case was reported in South Africa, the nation was already on the verge of a financial crisis, while afflicted by profound inequality. President Cyril Ramaphosa has repeatedly called on his fellow citizens to embrace cohesion and brotherhood in facing the pandemic. However, despite the spirit of ubuntu (humanity towards others) that unites South Africans, there are visible discrepancies when it comes to the same residents taking practical action.

It is difficult, for a government, to answer to the business world while supporting millions who live in extreme poverty. Similarly, it is challenging for people with completely different upbringing and heritage to live shoulder to shoulder and understand each other.

It is also difficult to bridge the gap between private and public health, international standards and tradition. Equality in South Africa is long due. It is too late now to try to bridge tremendous gaps while the pandemic is raging on. COVID-19 is killing thousands in far better prepared countries, with state-of-the-art healthcare and cohesive populations.

What South Africa can do—and has done in many past instances—is to accept its uniqueness and take advantage of its complexity. If businesses and informal traders can sit at the same table, if medical experts and traditional healers could abandon prejudice and stigma to enter the same lab or the same ndumba (sacred hut or shrine), they could find a shared solution that speaks many languages: a medical, psychological, and cultural approach to be followed in all South African cities, townships, and villages for the benefit of all.

 

MDA202005-01
Soweto, Johannesburg. Mkhulu Mahlasela’s ndumba, where he consults with patients. ©Manash Das

 

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Alexandra, Johannesburg. Traditional healers discuss health measures against the pandemic. ©Manash Das


 

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Alexandra, Johannesburg. “I am ready to help anyone with COVID-19,” says Sheila (62), a sangoma. ©Manash Das

 

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Soweto, Johannesburg. “Joe Mashifane (59) spent two weeks at a quarantine facility. ©Manash Das

 

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Soweto, Johannesburg. Shops and informal traders have adjusted to new health regulations. ©Manash Das

 

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Soweto, Johannesburg. A sangoma keeps a wide variety of medicinal herbs in his ndumba. ©Manash Das

 

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Midrand, Johannesburg. Gogo Majola practices holistic medicine and other spiritual cures. Her ritual tools are herbs, bones, crystals, and beads. ©Manash Das

 

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Blairgowrie, Johannesburg. Clinical psychologist Dr. Zana Marovic encourages her clients to use traditional medicine for holistic healing. ©Manash Das

 

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Alexandra, Johannesburg. At a clinic, all entrants must undergo screening for COVID-19. ©Manash Das

 

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Alexandra, Johannesburg. Questions about people’s health can be compounded by testing for symptomatic patients. ©Manash Das

 

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Alexandra, Johannesburg. A private laboratory carries out COVID-19 testing at the Pan Africa Shopping Centre. “Too few come forward for testing,” says manager Sifiso Mbatha. ©Manash Das

 

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Montgomery Park, Johannesburg. Westpark Cemetery has been allocated as a COVID-19 burial site in a worst-case scenario, according to Johannesburg City Parks. ©Manash Das

 

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Soweto, Johannesburg. Irvin Mothibe (32) self-quarantined in a hut for two weeks. ©Manash Das

 

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Midrand, Johannesburg. Gogo Majola prays to her ancestors to welcome her guests and receive advice. ©Manash Das

 

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Midrand, Johannesburg. Gogo Majola shows her repertoire of remedies, which includes mhlonyane (Artemisia afra). ©Manash Das

 

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Midrand, Johannesburg. Traditional and modern ways are compatible. “When I consult, I make sure my ndumba is clean and sanitized,” says Gogo Majola. ©Manash Das

 

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Midrand, Johannesburg. The weapons of a healer may include ritual tools and divination devices. ©Manash Das

 

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Soweto, Johannesburg. Lebogang Sello is a disciple of the late sangoma Credo Mutwa. “Our Khoekhoen ancestors were experts in herbal medicine.” ©Manash Das

 

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Soweto, Johannesburg. The Khoekhoen people drank an infusion of wild dagga and smoked it to protect themselves against respiratory diseases. ©Manash Das

 

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Soweto, Johannesburg. Wild dagga (Leonotis leonurus), or lion’s ear, is native to South Africa. ©Manash Das

 

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Soweto, Johannesburg. Mkhulu Mahlasela (32) asks his ancestors about the health of his patient, who has just left quarantine. ©Manash Das

 

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Alexandra, Johannesburg. The herbs of Southern Africa represent a precious source of active ingredients. Local healers preserve the vast ancestral knowledge. ©Manash Das

 

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Alexandra, Johannesburg. A group of healers prepare to consult with patients. ©Manash Das

 

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Soweto, Johannesburg. “Our past is still with us.” People in the township do not forsake the memory of local martyrs. ©Manash Das

 

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Inner City, Johannesburg. In the market of Kwa-Mai Mai, herbs and animal body parts are on display for customers. ©Alessandro Parodi

 

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Inner City, Johannesburg. Animal parts on sale at Kwa-Mai Mai market. Some parts are said to bring good luck, entice a lost lover, or chase away a curse. ©Alessandro Parodi

 

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Soweto, Johannesburg. The pahla prayer evokes local and foreign spirits. The burning of mphepo (wild sage) creates a mystical aura in the ndumba. ©Alessandro Parodi

 

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)

 

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