8 August 2012

South Africa: Johannesburg's Cold and Desperate

Photo: Jaspreet Kindra/IRIN
The overwhelming adversity that comes with living in an informal dwelling felt "like a mountain fell on me", said one participant.


Johannesburg — Some Gauteng residents delighted on Tuesday when snow began to fall across Johannesburg, Pretoria and Vereeniging. They rushed to take pictures on their camera phones and joked on Twitter. For others, the cold ushered fear, sickness and the chance of dying from exposure. GREG NICOLSON spoke to those unable to stay warm.

Brothers Zonibonile, 24, and Siyabonga Mdiya, 28, remember enjoying the snow. They grew up in Queenstown, Eastern Cape, and said they've seen it many times. When they were kids it was fun to watch the flakes fall. "At least you're safe in your home, in your blanket," said Zonibonile, a piece of wire tied around his waist to close his jacket.

The brothers huddle around a fire in a lean-to on the demolition site where their shacks have been turned to rubble. They lived on the corner in Marlboro until the Johannesburg Metro Police evicted residents last week. "There are our blankets," points Siyabonga at the rubble.

Somewhere under mounds of bricks, splintered timber, and sheet metal lies all their possessions-clothes, blankets, IDs and more. The brothers are in their only set of clothes.

"When I see snow I just see death," said Zonibonile. "We're going to die. I don't even care. I don't know where I'm going to stay. It's hard." He puts another piece of timber on the fire.

"We're going to stay here. We've lost out jobs. We've lost everything.

We will stay until we have the right answer," he added. A debate begins between the brothers and Thulani Ndlovu, 30, and Lunga Thomas, 25, over how they'll survive when they can't find anymore mealie meal under the rubble. An ice-cream container is passed forward. They have half an onion and a quarter of a green pepper. "There is no food, nothing."

The shack-dwellers

Cindy Mlotshwa, 42, lives in an adjacent street. The block is crammed with the cold steel of the zozos. Tunnels weave through the settlement, each few meters another padlocked door. "It's very bad. It's very, very cold. There's nothing we can do. I don't even have a bed," said Cindy, waving her hand towards blankets neatly folded on the concrete floor.

A candle lights part of the room. Above where Cindy stands, a light bulb is fitted to a plank that runs across the ceiling. But they've never had electricity on the plot. Without heating, Cindy has had to send her three children to her sister's house. "It's hard to sleep. Yesterday I just turned to wake up and make some tea."

Her neighbour, Maggie Nyama, has been staying in the next shack for two months. "It's too cold," said the 35-year-old. "I'm not okay. I'm sick," she coughed. She said she used to stay in a shack on 1st Avenue, which was better because it had electricity. She uses blankets to stay warm but said they're never enough. "I'm not happy just because I'm getting cold."

She struggles to convey her feelings to General Moyo of the Informal Settlement Network, adding, "We shack-dwellers, we are not happy because that's sickness."

The beggar

He said he wanted to be called Levi Strauss. At 19:00, he stood in between two lanes of Oxford Road, Rosebank, with a rubbish bag. It was barely above zero degrees Celsius. He was illuminated by the cars' headlights, but a scarf covered his face like a bandit. "Today was rough, especially because people don't give nothing because they don't want to open their windows."

A lady held out a coin and seemed impatient when he explained the photographer. "Sometimes I can make R40. Today I didn't make R20," he said afterward.

He stays on a street-corner nearby with other homeless beggars. Metro cops came last week to confiscate their blankets and chase them from the spot. It's worse for those in town, he coughed, where the police come down on them more often.

He's seen what the cold can do to his friends and he shook his head when the snow started falling. He found shelter and watched. "I was thinking maybe this was our last day. I was thinking tomorrow one of us wouldn't wake up."

He stopped, turned and ran. He sprinted, whistling for 100 metres after a red hatchback. Before he caught the car at the next traffic light it drove into the night. "They were giving away blankets," he said, his face strained when he returns. "I missed it."

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