Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

Paperless tent dwellers live in fear

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.

Subscribe for R500/year

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them and get a 57% discount in your first year.

Related stories


If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here


Subscribers only

R350 social relief grant not enough to live on

Nearly half of the population in South Africa — one of the most unequal countries in the world — is considered chronically poor.

More top stories

Popularity will not guarantee mayoral selection — Ramaphosa

ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa has promised a more rigorous mayoral selection process, which will involve the party’s top six

Nowhere to turn for abused bakery workers

After being chased away for asking for minimum wage, Gqeberha bakers who endured racism turned first to the CCMA, then to a political party, then to a union. None helped

Health director general suspended for alleged involvement in Digital Vibes...

After initially defending Sandile Buthelezi’s personal leave, the health department has announced that he has been placed on precautionary suspension

For many SA women, home is hell

Gender-based violence often takes place at home or in intimate relationships, taking a traumatic toll on victims, their families and friends

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…