Picture a collection of flimsy tents strewn across a disused site, with flies invading the faces of beautiful but struggling children.
No, this is not one of those Western news channel reports chronicling suffering in a faraway place.
It’s an old industrial site in Turffontein, south of Joburg, where people are placed after being evicted from derelict buildings, mostly in the CBD.
Inhabitants of this temporary shelter told The Star of the harrowing conditions they have to contend with after being “discarded” on land adjacent to the indoor Wembley Stadium.
Some went as far as saying they would rather be returned to the hazardous and putrid smelling buildings they were evicted from than to have to grapple with their current circumstances.
Last month, when announcing his intention to pursue legal action against the Department of Home Affairs for what he said was its failure to remedy the “serious challenge of illegal immigration”, Joburg mayor Herman Mashaba said there were “more than 120 allegedly undocumented immigrants housed (at Wembley), in line with the city’s obligation to provide temporary emergency accommodation”.
This followed a fatal fire at the Cape York building on the corner of Rahima Moosa (formerly Jeppe) and Nugget streets in the Joburg CBD on July 5, Mashaba added.
When The Star visited the shelter, there were South Africans being housed there too.
Among them is Wendy Buthelezi, who was evicted from Cape York with her grandchild and nine children, one of whom is a 9-year-old boy with a severe disability who spends most of his days slumped on the floor of the family’s tent.
Buthelezi said life was better for her and her family when they stayed in Cape York, as she was able to earn an income as a hawker and could afford to educate her children.
She cannot earn an income anymore as it would be cumbersome and expensive for her to travel into the city to trade, she said.
“What pains me is that my children are not schooling - only my first-born daughter is at school. She is 14-years-old and is in Grade 9, but the others are not getting an education,” Buthelezi said.
In their former building, they were a community - regardless of nationality - she said, pointing out that what she called the unfair treatment by the city was also meted out to South Africans.
“I have an identity document and birth certificates for my children, but that has not helped me in any way,” Buthelezi said.
Ali Abdul, a Malawi national who said he arrived in South Africa in 1991, was evicted by Red Ants security guards with his three children from Fattis Mansions on the corner of Rahima Moosa and Harrison streets on July 19. The eviction was the result of a court order.
Abdul stays in a tent with his two daughters - aged 15 and 7. His 12-year-old son lives with his Malawian compatriots in Lenasia and attends school there.
He said his daughters had never been to school because of his struggles to obtain legal documents for them from Home Affairs, but he used to pay for a tutor to educate them when he stayed in the city and worked.
Abdul’s 15-year-old daughter, who is not being named at the request of her father, dreams of becoming a doctor.
She said her mother deserted them after Abdul had a stroke in December.
“I’m always crying because of the hurt I feel for not being able to go to school. I hear of my peers dropping out of school, doing drugs and abusing alcohol.
“Here I am, I don’t abuse any substances and yearn for an education, but I can’t get one. It’s extremely painful,” she said with a level of maturity that belies her years.
Buntukazi Xuba, spokesperson for the city’s Housing Department, said the tents were not an indefinite solution, adding the city was planning to move people to more “structured temporary accommodation” in the form of “container shelters” before the end of the year.
“Depending on meeting the qualification criteria of the different housing programmes, people will be moved gradually, whether to other suitable housing opportunities or deportation - if (they are) undocumented foreign nationals,” Xuba said.
Asked whether the city was satisfied the tents met basic standards, she emphasised that at the time when her department and emergency management services set up the tents, they were deemed habitable.
Residents who spoke to The Star bemoaned the condition of the tents, saying they flooded when it rained, destroying their belongings.
“These were meant to be a temporary measure dealing with the emergency that arose. So, they were not meant to be a long-term arrangement as tents cannot be deemed as such,” Xuba said.
She said it was not the city that was evicting people from run-down buildings, but the owners of the flats. The city was compelled by law to provide temporary accommodation for the evictees.
Edward Molopi, research and advocacy officer at the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa, said the public interest law organisation visited Wembley Stadium earlier this year and determined it was “not suitable for human habitation”.
“The accommodation needs to provide shelter from the elements. What you find in those tents is that when it rains, those tents absorb water,” Molopi said.
He said that, in terms of the country’s laws, “there isn’t any stipulated time as to how long people need to be in temporary alternative accommodation”.
However, he did find it “problematic” that the evictees had been at Wembley Stadium for a number of months and that they had no prospects of moving to permanent and suitable accommodation.
The Gauteng Department of Education said it required more information on individual cases in order to intervene and make sure children’s education was not being disadvantaged by the evictions.
* This story is a result of the collaboration between The Star and Track My Mayor, which keeps track of mayoral promises in the interest of increased accountability at local government level. Reporting was supported by Code for Africa's impactAFRICA fund.