The forgotten people of Joburg's Wembley Stadium

For four years, people moved from inner-city buildings have lived at Wembley Stadium without proper sanitation, security or privacy

02 October 2020 - 07:00
By Jan Bornman and Madelene Cronjé
Makhosonke Gumede, 38, was sleeping outside until tents were put up at the shelter behind Wembley Stadium in Johannesburg.
Image: Madelene Cronjé / New Frame Makhosonke Gumede, 38, was sleeping outside until tents were put up at the shelter behind Wembley Stadium in Johannesburg.

After running away from home 10 years ago, Lerato Mapena, 27, dreams of getting off drugs and moving back to her family in Soweto.

For the past four years, Mapena has been living in squalid conditions at Wembley Stadium along with dozens of people. Drug abuse and violence among residents has become the norm. Behind the Johannesburg Metro Police Department’s mounted unit and Turffontein Racecourse, where the thundering sound of racehorses can be heard on Saturdays, Wembley Stadium was meant to be Johannesburg’s temporary housing solution.

There are three shelters: containers, tents and the building. The containers mostly house South Africans, while a mix of locals and migrants live in the other two shelters.

But now, four years later, many residents feel they have been forgotten by the city. Basic services have been sporadic and the premises have deteriorated into disrepair. Down a narrow alley off Turffontein Road, leading to the entrance, is a scribbled notice that warns visitors: “Enter at own risk.”

Mapena, like many of the other residents, was moved there by the city after a devastating fire at the Cape York building in Hillbrow in July 2017. Seven people died and seven others were seriously injured.

Later that July, residents who were violently evicted from Fatti’s Mansions and left on the side of the road with their possessions were moved at gunpoint and dumped at Wembley.

In the years since, some of the residents have left as conditions worsened, while there has been a constant inflow of new arrivals, many of them drug-users. The city has failed to maintain the outbuilding at the stadium, which housed many of the first arrivals, with water, electricity and sanitation barely meeting minimum standards.

Mapena, her sister Nthabiseng, 28, and their friend Nombulelo Monywabe, 28, share a tiny room in the dilapidated building, while many others live in tents in front of the building. All three women share Mapena’s dream of getting off nyaope and reconnecting with their families.

“This is not a place I can stay at any longer,” Mapena said in July. “I want to go into rehab and then I can leave here and go stay with my family and start a new life.”

A two-plate stove heats up the room that four women share.
Image: Madelene Cronjé / New Frame A two-plate stove heats up the room that four women share.

Tears welling in her eyes, she described how she became hooked on nyaope after the death of her mother. “I was feeling alone. When my mother was alive, we used to sit and talk. We would talk about everything,” she said. “But since my mother passed away, I don’t feel like I have anything. We were very close. When you are close, you will never be fine when that person passes away.”

A dream deferred

On a more recent visit at the end of August, Mapena was found in her bed shivering. She was thin and weak, and had a worrying cough. The bedside table next to her was littered with used needles, syringes and the green plastic bags the drugs come in.

“We are just coming to suffer here. I ran away from home. I don’t know why I ran away,” Nthabiseng said, sitting on the bottom bunk bed. “I need to stop smoking [nyaope] first so I can start looking for a job.”

Sitting next to Nthabiseng, Monywabe added: “With the situation I am in, I need rehabilitation, first, for me to go forward. I can’t go forward when I am still like this. So first I would like them to help me to quit the drugs, and then after that I would like to go back home.” 

Most of the people living at Wembley Stadium are unemployed, with many saying they rely on “hustling” during the day to survive. Mapena, Nthabiseng and Monywabe all said sex work was common among the women living there, but none of them worked as sex workers. They all received money and drugs from boyfriends.

The three women had recently occupied the room they were living in after the previous occupants moved elsewhere. Before that, they were living in the tents that had been supplied by the city when the stadium became a temporary shelter.

“They just left us here, the city. They don’t care about us ... Instead of giving us rooms, they gave us tents and those tents we sleep many inside. It is not good. So you can’t stay nicely. There are guys, and we are women, you don’t have any privacy. It’s not nice and it’s not good,” Nthabiseng said.

Besides having no privacy, the premises have become unsafe — especially for women. Nthabiseng said: “They wanted to rape one woman. They beat her and tore up her clothes. But the perpetrator ran away after that.”

Residents said a security guard hired by the city used to be stationed at the stadium, but he left about two years ago. City of Johannesburg spokesperson Nthatisi Modingoane confirmed the city had hired a guard.  

“[But] due to the nature of the illegal activities in the area, the security guard’s life was at risk as they are not trained to handle the sort of criminal activities that occurred. That would be the police's responsibility,” Modingoane said.

Asked whether he was aware of the attempted rape and numerous reports of assault and theft, Modingoane said: “All criminal activities and theft are reported to SAPS.”

A resident at Wembley Stadium gets a haircut.
Image: Madelene Cronjé / New Frame A resident at Wembley Stadium gets a haircut.

‘They just don’t care about us’ 

The violence at Wembley reached a peak on June 19 this year when fighting broke out between two groups of residents. A group of mostly South Africans living in the better-kept containers fought with those living in the building and tents.

The clash started after the people living in the containers were accused of stealing cables, which led to power outages at the building. Residents from the two sides attacked each other with knives, machetes and petrol bombs. Many of the tents burnt down.

Naboth Madoro, 48, originally from Zimbabwe and also known as Donovan, is one of the self-styled “leaders” at Wembley. He scoffed when asked about the violence. “Fighting? Eh, it’s daily. We’re all from different nationalities so it happens on a daily basis,” he said. “It’s not safe here, not quite. There is no security and it has been two or three years without a security guard. There is lots of stealing, people breaking through the ceilings and so on. It is not easy here.”

Unlike other residents at the stadium, Madoro thought the city was well aware of what was happening at the site. “It’s not that they’ve forgotten about us but, at the end of the day, we are still here,” he said. “It doesn’t feel that they forgot about us. This is just negligence. They just don’t care about us.”

Earlier this year, as the Covid-19 pandemic forced SA into lockdown, Madoro said residents asked the city to fix the sanitation. “We have no working toilets. Our feeling is that we are neglected,” he said.

The tents at the Wembley Stadium shelter in which former residents of the Cape York building have been living since 2017.
Image: Madelene Cronjé / New Frame The tents at the Wembley Stadium shelter in which former residents of the Cape York building have been living since 2017.

“Even before the coronavirus came, we asked for renovations and to fix the toilets,” he said. Inside the building is a mess, with toilets completely unusable, garbage all over the floors and discarded needles and syringes regularly found both inside and outside the building. Children play freely in the dirt on the property.”

Residents said at least two people died at Wembley in recent months, with the most recent case being a woman only identified as “Gugu”. Madoro and Nthabiseng Mapena both said the woman died as a result of tuberculosis, while another man was found dead on a cold morning during winter.

During the height of the Covid-19 lockdown, many of those living at Wembley were still not wearing masks or unable to properly sanitise their hands. Community support led by Amir Sheikh from the African Diaspora Forum, with donations from Afrika Awake, meant residents at Wembley received blankets, food packages and, for a while, had a soup kitchen on the property.

Alternative accommodation

The Socio-Economic Rights Institute of SA (Seri), a law centre that has helped residents at Wembley and advocated for better living conditions for people in SA, said the city had neglected Wembley as a shelter despite numerous attempts by the institute to get it to deal with maintenance and security.

“These living conditions have worsened in the past two weeks since the shelter does not have electricity and, once again, the city has failed to assist despite various e-mails requesting it to do so,” said Seri attorney Khululiwe Bhengu.

Bhengu said the city “has failed and to a large extent refused” to provide shelter to the former residents of Cape York. Many of the people who came from Cape York were those living in the tents at the shelter.

A resident of Wembley Stadium smokes nyaope in his bed in what used to be the kitchen of the building. Drug abuse is rife at the shelter.
Image: Madelene Cronjé / New Frame A resident of Wembley Stadium smokes nyaope in his bed in what used to be the kitchen of the building. Drug abuse is rife at the shelter.

Bhengu said: “It seems that [the city’s] refusal to do so is because they are mainly not South African nationals and they do not have [legal] representation.” A number of the migrants living at Wembley had lost their legal documentation, while the documents of others had been destroyed in the fire that ravaged the Cape York building.

In a policy brief published in July this year on adequate temporary alternative accommodation, Seri said: “As it stands, alternative accommodation in Johannesburg is supplied haphazardly in relation to evictions in the inner city and in informal settlements, indicating an absence to plan. In both situations, residents are generally relocated into buildings or shacks that are poorly structured.

“Others face a life post-relocation in incomplete new builds, such as Wembley, where the city allocated occupiers to unfinished facilities due to the pressure of emergencies or contempt of court proceedings. Generally, access to communal space that is child-friendly is limited.”

The city’s Modingoane, however, said it spent more than R1.2m on repairs and maintenance of the facility in the 2019/20 financial year. “However, the city finds itself having to respond to damages that are as a result of negligence and vandalism by the residents, for instance blockages that are caused by foreign objects thrown into ablution facilities, electrical trips as a result of illegal connections and broken taps due to vandalism.”

He said the city was in the process of acquiring buildings that would form part of the city’s temporary emergency accommodation programme that will accommodate most of the people living at Wembley. As a solution in the meantime, Modingoane said the city had provided residents at Wembley with alternative accommodation.

The alternative accommodation he was referring to were the tents. Modingoane said the tents were used as “a temporary solution” while the immigration status of many of the residents at Wembley was being determined.

This article was originally published on New Frame.