Life in lockdown: stories from inside a township
The coronavirus — and SA’s lockdown in response to it — throws the fault lines in SA society into sharp relief. Staying in your own home is easy in Sandton but a very different story in Alexandra
The richest square mile in Africa has come to a standstill. In the Joburg suburb of Sandton, where men and women dressed for power usually throng the streets, only security workers are out and about. Under the 21-day lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus, they are considered essential workers.
The government’s aim in banning all unnecessary movement is simple: to save lives in a country where most people are poor, and where the health system will not be able to sustain the type of pressure that has seen even developed countries’ medical systems buckle in recent weeks.
In Sandton, home to the JSE and many multinational firms, there is almost no police or military presence on the streets. But the stillness is far from normal on this Monday morning.
Of course, people in Sandton have the luxury of space and money — both crucial when you’re told to stay in your home and sit tight for almost a month. In the neighbouring and densely populated township of Alexandra, however, life for the most part continues as usual.
On this, the fourth day since the lockdown took effect in the early hours of Friday morning, the streets in Alex are bustling with people, some moving in groups. Social distancing — one of the main requirements in combating the spread of the pandemic — seems nonexistent.
Monday is also the same day the Gauteng department of health confirms the first coronavirus case in Alexandra.
But the "invisible enemy" SA is fighting is evident only in a law-enforcement roadblock; the protective face masks some people are wearing; a mural that provides information about the coronavirus; and a controlled queue into the Alex Mall, where residents have gathered to buy food and collect social grants.
Nomthandazo Maseko, 28, is in the queue at Alex Mall, where shoppers have been directed to stand 1m apart. She tells the FM she faces big challenges with her small business — she sells clothes on credit. Getting paid requires her to go to her customers’ homes on the first day of every month to collect the money they owe — something that seems impossible now, given restrictions on movement.
She doesn’t yet have a plan for when the money doesn’t come in this month — and she’s worried about how she’ll survive.
"I do understand [why the lockdown has to be done], even though it is so painful for me," she says. "We have to operate and follow the rules, even though the hunger will be too much."
Standing a few metres behind her is Zandisile Phuteni, 45, who has lived in Alexandra since 1990. He says he has never before had to queue like this in the township.
Phuteni doesn’t believe everything will be OK — there are just too many people in Alex, he says. But he does think the government "has done right".
He’s keeping his children indoors during the lockdown, but it’s become clear in just the first few days that this is much easier said than done in SA’s highly populated and poorer areas.
On Monday, the FM sees children moving around in groups in Alexandra, playing on the streets, while people walk about in pairs and groups as they go about their lives.
Lethabo Aphane, 35, an essential services worker, sits about 3m away from her colleagues while they have lunch together.
"I try to tell them about social distancing," she says, but points out how they are still "very close".
For her, Alex continues to function much as it did before the lockdown.
The situation is uncharted territory in democratic SA. When the lockdown took effect on Friday, there were concerns over the possible violation of people’s rights.
Over the weekend, the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) and law enforcement were placed in the spotlight as reports and videos of heavy-handed tactics did the rounds. Pictures circulated of soldiers — deployed to assist the police on the ground — and police officers making people do push-ups, and forcing them back into their homes, even though they had been within the bounds of their own properties.
A video also emerged of security forces allegedly firing rubber bullets at people queuing outside a supermarket in Yeoville, Joburg.
The Independent Police Investigative Direc torate has reportedly confirmed that it is inves tigating three cases — in Gauteng and the Western Cape — in which people died, allegedly as a result of actions by law enforcement.
The outcry prompted defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula to condemn any such actions on the part of the deployed soldiers.
She reiterated the message delivered to the armed forces by President Cyril Ramaphosa ahead of the lockdown: desist from using excessive force. This, he had said, is not a time for "skop, skiet and donner".
Mapisa-Nqakula said she had instructed the chief of the defence force to monitor the situation and to deal with members found to have used excessive or unnecessary force.
"Such heavy-handedness is not in the interest of safeguarding our people," she said. "It would be in the best interest of the SANDF to empower the public about the dangers of the virus, therefore people are urged to remain in their homes at all possible times. This will help curb the spread of the virus in our communities. We appeal to all to play a positive role in ensuring that the spread of the virus is curbed."
The police have also said people should lay charges against officers who step outside the ambit of their powers.
National police spokesperson Brig Vishnu Naidoo tells the FM that thousands of people have been arrested for breaching lockdown regulations.
He says the big challenge in the first few days was to get people to comply with the regulations and remain within the confines of their own premises. He says people were still running taverns, gathering in groups and walking the streets.
The other issue, he says, is that people do not maintain social distancing when buying their groceries.
In areas where this is a particular problem, extra security personnel have been deployed, says Naidoo, listing townships such as Alexandra and Diepsloot in Gauteng, and Khayelitsha and Gugulethu in the Western Cape.
"Everybody realises that the environmental design [in these areas] is not conducive to social distancing," he says, but adds that people have to comply with the regulations.
Naidoo says while compliance is improving, the lockdown will not work if the rules aren’t followed to the letter.
"It’s a virus. We need 100% compliance. Not 99.99%," Naidoo says. "If we don’t want to become like Spain or Iran or the US and France, we need 100% compliance."
On Monday evening, in his third address to the nation in as many weeks, Ramaphosa emphasised the classless nature of the virus.
Looking back at the first four days of the lockdown, he said the decision to confine people to their homes was absolutely necessary to save the lives of thousands, "even tens of thousands" of SA’s people.
He said South Africans have, for the most part, responded responsibly to the decision by staying at home and observing the regulations. But he added that the government was concerned about people who do not appreciate the seriousness of the Covid-19 pandemic.
By Monday evening, there were 1,326 confirmed cases in SA and three people had died from Covid-19.
Ramaphosa reiterated the call that each and every South African should stay at home over the next 17 days, and venture out only for food and essential provisions, to collect a social grant, buy medicine or get urgent medical attention.
"If you do have to go out, make sure you do everything you can not to get infected and not to infect anyone else. Some people may think this disease is something that doesn’t concern them and will never affect them — that it is something they only read about in newspapers or see reports about on TV," Ramaphosa said.
"But it is very real, and it poses a great danger to every one of us and to our society. It infects the rich and the poor, the young and the old, black and white, those who live in the cities and those in the villages.
"Let us not make the mistake of thinking this is somebody else’s problem."
But while the virus does not discriminate in its spread, it is the poor and marginalised who will be most hard-hit. In crowded and poor areas such as Alexandra, the government’s lockdown requirements seem to be near-impossible to achieve.
The first days of lockdown have illuminated SA’s fault lines in the harshest of lights. The legacy of apartheid is far from dealt with; local government is missing in action (and has been for years); and people remain poor or destitute, and so are left without options when disaster strikes.