A day on the coronavirus frontline in Alexandra

In the calm, community members have been central to readying townships for Covid-19. But only the storm will tell if their efforts have been successful.

When 2 April 2020 dawned grey and chilly in Joburg, Keith Nthite’s day started much the same as many others. His warmest leather boots. A brown denim jacket. A thick black beanie pulled down over his ears.

But in one important way, Nthite’s morning was very different. And it had to do with a blue Meridian overall slung over the door of his bedroom cabinet.

Meridian Hygiene is the company the Gauteng Department of Health hired to sanitise Alexandra as part of the effort to mitigate the spread of Covid-19. But without first-hand knowledge of the mazy township’s geography, or buy-in from the people living there, the task would be unfeasible.

1 April 2020: Residents queue outside the Alex mall.
1 April 2020: Residents queue outside the Alex mall.

Enter Nthite and the other community workers who make up half of Meridian’s workforce. They are the ordinary residents of Alex spending their days on the frontline in the fight against the virus.

Zipping the blue overall up over his jacket before stepping out into the cold, he joked morbidly, “I am afraid of getting the flu.”

Readying Alex

A short walk from his home, Nthite joined a gathering crowd clad in Meridian blue in the parking lot of the People’s Centre on 8th Avenue. With the day’s work delayed by the steady morning rain, the sanitation workers milled about, smoking cigarettes or making uneasy social distancing jokes under the parking covers where they were forced to gather. Others used the chance to buy bread at the Brothers Supermarket spaza shop, whose bright, Niknaks-yellow walls were the only interruption of a prosaic sky.

The virus has yet to claim a life in Alex, but the otherwise deserted People’s Centre was a sign of how it had started to suck at the township’s lifeblood. The centre’s usual hive of crucial community services – from job application assistance to hosting customary courts – had evaporated under lockdown.

Once the rain cleared, Nthite joined his team – one of 13 – on the back of a white bakkie that groaned under the weight of 1 000 litres of poly dimethyl ammonium chloride. The bubblegum blue-coloured sanitiser is a watered-down version (so that it is safe to apply topically) of what Meridian usually uses to fog large factories.

2 April 2020: Meridian Hygiene sanitation workers make their way through Alex.
2 April 2020: Meridian Hygiene sanitation workers make their way through Alex.

Using high-pressure backpack sprayers, the team set out to sanitise homes and distribute the sanitiser to the people living in them. They began their work across the road from the padlocked Kings Cinema on 2nd Avenue, another social victim of the lockdown in Alex. Nthite slung a sprayer over his shoulders, stepped into the mist of sanitiser being sprayed over the workers, and walked into the first of the many homes he would visit that day.

If sanitisation was Nthite and his colleagues’ main aim, their secondary task was data collection. Every Alex resident who received sanitiser was required to fill out a form designed to profile household vulnerability, including their access to income and food. The form, which included questions about sick family members, also served as a crude way to identify any possible Covid-19 cases. (None had been identified the day before, when the team sanitised three Alex hostels.)

1 April 2020: The Madala men’s hostel in Alex.
1 April 2020: The Madala men’s hostel in Alex.

The team encountered some resistance. One young man, upset by the team’s invasion of his privacy, kept his home locked and grumbled, “You know what they say, God sets the time. And if it is your time, it is your time. Who are you to fight that with masks and sanitiser?” But Alexandrans were overwhelmingly relieved at the sanitisation efforts, often queuing down the road to have their bottles filled.

While the day was steeped in the gravity of the work, it was also littered with reassuring moments of normality. Lengthy discussions about the importance of social distancing among queueing residents usually ended in raucous jokes about why, even here, work meetings had to drag on for so long.

A town by the river

Having sanitised Alex’s hostels and many of the yards around which “old” Alex is built, the next challenge for the Meridian team will be shack settlements, including Stjwetla, where the township’s first case of Covid-19 was confirmed. With a population density of around 40 000 people per km², Stjwetla is almost twice as dense as Alex.

There has always been something grim about the settlement’s layout. Flanked by the Jukskei River in the east, Stjwetla’s density is contrasted by the scattered Alex graveyard on its western border. The only barrier between Stjwetlans and the dead – and in many places it is no barrier at all – is a long, snaking line of portable toilets.

Now, the settlement is to be de-densified. It is one of five shack settlements that the Department of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation has earmarked to undergo de-densification in the coming days. But speaking to residents, you wouldn’t know it. Most seemed unaware of the plan and had more immediate Covid-19 concerns. Many sternly refused to answer questions, for instance, unless they were given sanitiser and masks.

1 April 2020: A Meridian worker records the details of one of the many Alex residents provided with sanitiser.
1 April 2020: A Meridian worker records the details of one of the many Alex residents provided with sanitiser.

Small messages

But while Stjwetla may be Alex’s best-known shack settlement, it is by no means the township’s only one. Residents in need of water have long built their homes alongside rivers and there are three main tributaries to the Jukskei running west-to-east through the township. The streams have been driven underground since, but each gave rise to a series of shack settlements beginning in the early 1980s.

What he sees as the government’s focus on Stjwetla at the expense of other densely populated and poorly serviced shack settlements in Alex and elsewhere has led Thabo Mopasi to label the efforts to stave off Covid-19 in Alex “a campaign of glamour”. Born there in 1972, Mopasi has become something of an organic historian of his home township, playing a role in setting up the Alex Heritage Community Centre and contributing to films and academic accounts of Alex.

1 April 2020: A sanitation worker fogging the Madala men’s hostel in Alex.
1 April 2020: A sanitation worker fogging the Madala men’s hostel in Alex.

When asked what chapter Covid-19 might one day take up in the township’s history, he said: “An eye-opening moment to never underestimate a small message. Covid-19 arrived as a small message. Its big messages are still to come.”

Mopasi is the kind of person who, with little effort, speaks in sophisticated policy, breezing over recommendations that the government should be providing free data – one of the recent suggestions by Trade & Industrial Policy Strategies senior economist Neva Makgetla – or the necessity of delivering food packages in Alex, something touted by two University of Massachusetts Amherst doctoral economics students.

But he remains sceptical of the effects of the government’s most important coronavirus intervention. “It’s not a lockdown in Alex. It’s partial,” he said. “There is no such thing as a lockdown in Alex.” As if to emphasise the point, taxis operating well outside of the times designated by Minister of Transport Fikile Mbalula hooted outside to call passengers throughout our conversation.

1 April 2020: The Stjwetla shack settlement on the banks of the Jukskei River.
1 April 2020: The Stjwetla shack settlement on the banks of the Jukskei River.

For all his doubts, Mopasi is hopeful that the coronavirus will see Alex rediscover its progressive voice. Decades of broken promises have doused the township’s famous history of political activism, he said, but the coronavirus “might bring about a revolutionary, active society”.

Up the road from Mopasi’s home, Nthite’s day was coming to an end. He and his colleagues on the Meridian sanitation team had dispensed 26 000 litres of sanitiser. They would do the same again tomorrow, and the day after.

After unlacing his boots, Nthite unzipped his blue overall and folded it carefully over his cabinet. It had started the day as another layer against the cold, but had since transformed into something of a ghoul. Nthite stared at it for some time, contemplating his likely exposure to Covid-19 in the days ahead. As he turned, he pointed at the overall over his shoulder and said, “I don’t even know if that is the thing that will infect me.”

2 April 2020: Nthombi Theys has her hands sanitised in her bedroom.
2 April 2020: Nthombi Theys has her hands sanitised in her bedroom.
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