They nibble through anything near the ground – rubbish and cars – and even bite sleeping children’s fingers.
The area provides all the conditions rats need to thrive. The sewerage system and taps leak, dumped food keeps them fat and piles of rubble give them space for palatial rat homes. At night, still-warm car engines provide them with heat. With human overcrowding and a huge growth in Alexandra’s population, the rat population has been booming and locals are now terrified of the rodents.
Leo Ndabambi who was born in the century-old district, said rats were a topic of conversation at any gathering. “The place comes alive at night. People come home and start cooking in the evening. When they throw the leftovers away with their rubbish the rats stream out of their holes.”
A favourite among the rats are condoms and some of Ndabambi’s friends believe that the biggest rodents eat them after they have been used, to gain humans’ knowledge. “This is why some people think they are maybe so clever,” he said.
Pikitup picks up rubbish in every neighbourhood at least twice a week. But this is done during the day, leaving the rats undisturbed at night to come out and eat.
Killing them has evolved into a sport for many locals. Ndabambi has photos of children attacking rats in a bag of rubbish with sharpened sticks.
Showing off their catch
Local non-governmental organisation Lifeline is running a new project from the local athletics arena that rewards people for capturing rats. With their sponsorship from cellphone company 8ta, Lifeline gives a phone to people who catch 60 rats.
Heading for the stadium were William Malothane and Joseph Mothapo, who were eager to show off their catch. Each had a big cage with rats inside.
“It’s easy. You put your left-over food inside and the rats climb inside, getting caught as the trap door closes,” Mothapo said with a hint of pride. His haul for the night was 23. Near the flats where he lives is a maze of rubble and timber where rats run riot.
Mothapo said he had already got two cellphones and was planning to get one for everyone in his family.
Malothane is happy to be getting rid of rats, even if he is still far from getting a cellphone. “They are so dangerous for our community. You hear of children getting bitten, and when you walk at night you always step on them. So anything to kill them helps,” he said.
Ashford Sidzumo gases the rats at the sports centre. In the few months since the scheme has been operating, he has killed thousands. On October 19 he receieved a total of 106 rats. “We record all the people’s details so we can see where the rats are causing the biggest problem,” he said. “We use this to send fumigation teams there.”
Undermined by rats
Further down the steep tar road, Trevor Modiba runs a shop from a shipping container. It has rubber along its big metal doors that seals everything when the doors are closed.
“I still put a trap outside to catch the rats, just in case, and I get two or three rats every night. If I didn’t have this and the rubber they would eat my stock,” he said.
He is 26 rats into the 60 he needs to get a cellphone.
The area around his container is being undermined by rats. They have burrowed under every slab of cement and building, forming a vast network. The ground is like beach sand and one sinks into it because everything underneath is hollow. Parts of walkways and pavements have collapsed because of the burrowing.
Councillor Julie Moloi, responsible for the ward where the preventative measures are being taken, said something had to be done because people were so scared. “We are afraid that these rats will take over Alex and it will become a city of rats,” she said.
This is why her ward has introduced the rat traps as well as owls at three local schools. Owls are magnificent rat hunters, she said, but people kill them because local belief systems dictate that they must be feared.
Never really be eradicated
“We need to educate people about this and about how the food they dump causes the rats to grow.”
Legora Marawa, matron of the local clinic, said she does not often see rat bites. “We have had a few cases where the little ones are sleeping and their fingers are bitten when their hands fall out of the blanket, but these are rare and we get maybe one or two cases a month.”
But the clinic itself has a big problem with rats and employs pest controllers.
Nkosinathi Nkabinde, spokesperson for the Johannesburg city council, said it did rodent control every month that targeted the worst affected areas. “We use owls, rat cages and fumigation to fight the rats,” he said.
Councillor Lungiswa James, a mayoral committee member for health in Cape Town, said that city also had a big rat problem and targeted the areas where rats bred.
But rodents will always be a problem: “In the presence of dense human settlements, a steady supply of food waste and the absence of predators, they will never really be eradicated.”
*This article was changed to reflect that the incentive programme is run by Lifeline, using cellphones provided by 8ta.