Paperless tent dwellers live in fear

Struggling to survive: Life is tough for Abdullah Sulieman and other residents still stuck in tents at Wembley Stadium. (Madelene Cronjé)

Struggling to survive: Life is tough for Abdullah Sulieman and other residents still stuck in tents at Wembley Stadium. (Madelene Cronjé)

When the sun that pierces the tents at Wembley Stadium wanes, the biting cold takes over. When that cold and the growling bellies and the bodies that press against each other become too much, Abdullah Sulieman encourages the camp to join him in prayer. “This is just a challenge because life is a game,” he tells them.

It has been a month since his apartment building, Cape York in Jeppe Street in Johannesburg’s city centre, caught fire, claiming seven lives.
After the fire, more than 200 residents were moved by the city to a temporary camp at the stadium on Jo’burg’s southern outskirts. Now, they’re down to 73. Many have left of their own accord and others have received help to move elsewhere.

On a midweek afternoon, a group of men are deep in conversation as one of them cleans a pair of takkies in a bucket of water. The scent of smoke fills the air as little boys run barefoot around the tents, dodging broken glass.

The camp represents a new normal for Sulieman, the self-proclaimed leader of the Tanzanians living in Wembley. Wiping water from his face, Sulieman finds his way to his tent stuffed with four mattresses.

“I’m trying to change my mind and be like a normal person,” Sulieman explains, sitting on the edge of his mattress, unfolding a pair of socks. He says it’s a fight for him every day to survive and give people around him hope because in a situation like his “you either live or die”.

Sulieman praises religion and music for keeping his mind intact. Walking away from a row of 24 mobile toilets, he mumbles Tupac Shakur’s Better Days lyrics: “Lookin’ for these better days/ Better days, hey, better days/ Got me thinkin’ about better days.”

Walking around in the camp, Sulieman greets everyone in sight by their names. “Jamal, Jamal!” some children shout as he steps over the guy-ropes that anchor the tents in the ground, eventually making his way over to a man slicing meat to share among the camp residents.

“This is what we have to do to share food because it’s never enough,” Sulieman says, pointing to the small parcel of meat on a block. “This is one of our biggest problems: food is never enough and we have to go easy because supply doesn’t come by often.”

Besides the insufficiency of food, Sulieman says his problem is not having an ID because it was destroyed in the fire. His wife lives in Durban and is unaware of his status. He hasn’t seen his three children in months out of fear of moving around the city undocumented.

“Everyone needs a document to go to town, to get work,” Sulieman says.

If he wants to leave the camp, Sulieman has to get permission from the on-site security guard. Going beyond the safety of the premises is a risk he and others take with trepidation.

“We don’t have IDs and the police can easily arrest us if we don’t have any form of identification or work permit,” Said Sinde, Sulieman’s nephew, explains.

The soft-spoken football player, who once played in the Premier League in Tanzania, has been afraid to make the trip to play with his Tshwane-based team of late. He recalls being stopped by the police and having to pay R200 to escape going to prison. Worse still would be being sent back to Tanzania.

With no source of income, they depend on the hospitality of the City of Johannesburg and donors who provide food and sanitary products. Not only do residents complain that food is scarce, but also that living conditions are a growing concern. A family of five or sometimes 10 strangers share space on two foam mattresses in a single tent.

But for Sulieman, he’s content with where he is and has accepted the tent as his new home.

“If I’m not working, how am I going to pay rent? You can’t employ me if I don’t have documents, so I have to sit down [and remain in the camp],” he explains.

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