I am at home, this is my verge: Why it's hard to stay inside when living in a township

09 April 2020 - 08:30 By Alex Patrick and alex patrick
A soldier speaks to four men in Alexandra township who are adamant they are following the rules because they are still inside their house.
A soldier speaks to four men in Alexandra township who are adamant they are following the rules because they are still inside their house.
Image: Alaister Russell

Despite the lockdown order, Katlego Ngwato, 20, was standing on the pavement outside his home in Alexandra Township last week.

He lives in a shack made of board and corrugated metal, in amongst other similar rooms in what was probably once a garden to one of the original 40 houses established in 1913.

Ngwato greeted friends and neighbours as they hustle up and down the street.

Although the streets have been notably emptier, highly populated townships in Johannesburg were still experiencing a large amount of foot traffic, despite the stay-home order.

Over 700,000 people live within the 800 hectares that is Alexandra.

Ngwato explained that he was just getting some air away from his stuffy shack.

“I am abiding to the lockdown rules – this is my house,” he said as he motioned behind him. “I’m not lonely during this period because my friends stop by on their way to the shops and we talk – but we don’t talk too closely.

“But as you can see, there are just kids running all over the street,” he added, pointing to a large group of young children playing nearby.

“It’s not their fault, their parents just don’t know [about the lockdown] ... [and] are not taking it seriously. I worry about these young children getting infected,” he says as he greets another friend walking past.

“I used to work as a cashier [before the lockdown] but now I have to claim UIF. It’s difficult for people to stay at home when they must still walk to get food and money. We are going to lose a lot after this virus.”

A few blocks away on 15th Avenue, friends James Thobejane, 36, and David Malukelu, 38, were chatting on a street corner. The men both make a living doing piece jobs in Sandton, but for the next couple of weeks they will go hungry.

Both live in a compound just behind the wall they are sitting on. They said it's OK for them to be on the street as they live nearby.

“Space is the problem here,” said Malukelu. “We need fresh air. I live with eight people in one bedroom. A lot of the people you see on the road just need some fresh air.

When metro police and Saps vehicles drove past, the friends suddenly disappeared, along with other pedestrians, 

When they re-emerged, they explained that they were scared of the enforcement.

Said Thobejane: “Police have been shooting rubber bullets to disperse the crowds. We see the metro and police and army doing laps here daily and we hide when they come.”

Malukelu added: “We know they are trying to help us, but if it wasn’t for the [lack of] space we would be inside.”

Just then a BANG – followed by three more gunshots, as law enforcement teams fire rubber bullets to disperse a large group of people.

The interview ends as young children and pensioners run up the road to get to safety.

Thirty kilometres to the north of Alexandra is Diepsloot, an area of 1,200ha that accommodates around 400,000 people. Like Alexandra, the township is near one of SA’s wealthiest suburbs, Steyn City, but is home to some of the country’s poorest.

TimesLIVE entered Diepsloot West Ext 7 on 1st Avenue, a main road usually full of taxis that leads past the Diepsloot Mall and into the township.

Upon entering, to the right was a snaking queue leading into the mall to the Checkers and the banking facilities. The size of the line was notable: it snaked outside the mall, past the parking lot, past the barrier of the mall and around the enormous building.

But most obvious was the fact that people in line were standing only about a foot apart. We were told that leaving a bigger gap would leave space for others to “push in front”.

A shopper said earlier that day there had been a sudden movement in the line and they were able to make up a bit of ground. This was because shoppers closer to the mall had seen a delivery vehicle exit the back of Checkers and around 100 people forced their way into the shop through the back entrance.

Along 1st Avenue were empty permanent stands usually used by vendors.

Earnest Sombine, 30, was still selling his vegetables when TimesLIVE visited. He said the lockdown “is no good for small businesses like me – I cannot afford to stay indoors”. 

He continued to cut plastic bags for tomato packs with a large knife as Thabo Monyamana, 33, joined the conversation.

Monyamana runs a fast food business and employs one other staff member to help him serve customers.

“I’m not sleeping at the moment. I’ve tried to register my business so I can still provide cheap meals to customers, but I can’t even get hold of any of the officials and my [online registration form] hasn’t worked. The majority of the people still selling aren’t registered,” he said, pointing to other sellers on the street.