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Covid-19 lockdown chaos for homeless people left in limbo

With the national lockdown in full effect since midnight on Thursday, the streets of Johannesburg are already in a quieter, more sombre mood than usual. Police are patrolling in vans to ensure that people adhere to the rules and don’t wander around town.

On the first day of the lockdown, members of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), the Johannesburg metro police department (JMPD) and the South African Police Service (SAP) were already  stationed near Johannesburg’s Park Station, one of the main transport hubs in the city. They were loading displaced people into vans and taking them to designated shelters.

Nearby, security personnel seemed to be taking advantage of the situation, firing rubber bullets at commuters making their way home. 

Winnie Ndlovu was on her way from work and still waiting for a taxi home, when she was shot in the face with a rubber bullet. She sobbed while running towards the JMPD vehicles stationed near the area.

“I will not die for nothing,” she screamed. 

“I just came back from work. I am a cleaner for a medical doctor in Lawley, so I was going back home and still awaiting a taxi. Since this lockdown, taxis only take seven people and leave, so I was left behind and told to wait for four o’clock. [Then] this bakkie approached and those sitting at the back started to randomly shoot at us,” she said.

Another commuter, Zintle Monasi, came to town to buy groceries, but was also shot with a rubber bullet in her ear and arm.

“I came here around 6am to buy food. So by the time I got to the rank all taxis were already gone and we were told to wait for four o’clock,” she said. “Even the police saw us and we told them we are waiting for the next taxi home, then the next thing we were just randomly shot at.”

When asked about the security company, one JMPD official said he believed the security company worked with the police, although he does not know how that situation arose. 

When addressing the nation about the lockdown on Monday, President Cyril Ramaphosa specifically advised against security personnel using this lockdown crisis to abuse their power; a point he reiterated in televised addresses to the SANDF and SAPS on Thursday evening.

Early on Thursday morning, police gathered at Mary Fitzgerald Square in Newtown, Johannesburg and were assigned to different parts of the city. Some of them were designated to deal with the multitude of homeless people living in the inner city.

Mlungisi Mabaso, a member of the mayoral committee for housing in Johannesburg, says the City has released a number of buildings to the department of social development to help accommodate displaced and homeless people.

“Already we have placed a significant number of people in a shelter in the city centre. The City has released three buildings as well, [which] are being cleaned right now to ensure they are in a good condition for people to live in. Social development will oversee that process. We are trying to make sure the spaces are clean and the people will not be crowded into them,” he said.

“Currently we are focusing on the CBD [central business district] and will make sure that we reach out to every displaced person.”

An activist from Youth for Human Rights International, Brian Mluleki Kondile, said the organisation’s aim is to ensure that the government upholds the rights of displaced people while handling the move.

“We are advocating for the displaced groups to be sheltered properly. Some of these people are addicted to substance abuse, therefore, we need to be assured that they will get medical attention so that they cope with the withdrawal during the period of being on lockdown. So far we have collected over 400 people,” said Kondile.

“The government has not given us the exact number of shelters that are ready to take people in. We feel like vulnerable people are just being dumped now. There was no proper planning for this,” he said.

Sibusiso Gqogqa, who originally hails from Ezibeleni, Queenstown, said he is worried about staying in the same shelter as people who abuse drugs.

“You know, since I lost my job last year I couldn’t pay rent anymore. So, I have been sleeping around Park Station and looking for piece jobs. Sometimes I would sleep in night clubs around the CBD until the morning. I don’t think it’s okay that, as people in sober senses, [we] will be put in the same spaces as the people hooked on drugs. It is just going to be a disaster,” he said.

In Auckland Park, homeless people are still on the streets and sitting near robots without knowing where they will go.

“We were told to go to Parktown Boys High School, as that is where we have been prepared to stay during this lockdown. However, the security chased us out of there yesterday and told us to go to a police station,” says Veli Makhenzi, who has been living on the street for more than eight years.

“So for us, it’s back to the street and sleeping under the bridge we normally sleep at…”

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Chris Gilili
Chris Gilili is a climate and environmental journalist at the Mail & Guardian’s environmental unit, covering socioeconomic issues and general news. Previously, he was a fellow at amaBhungane, the centre for investigative journalism.

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