Photo Essay | Joburg inner-city struggles

Migrants living in Johannesburg’s inner city have been hard hit by the Covid-19 lockdown, which has made their struggle for survival even more difficult than it already was.

The Johannesburg inner city is home to a large number of migrants, many of whom have left homelands caught in either poverty or conflict, or both. Some have fulfilled the elusive dream of a better life, but for many others the struggle for survival continues in South Africa. Xenophobic violence towards migrants has become an ever-present threat that simmers just below the surface as South Africans also move to cities to reclaim the space from which they were excluded during apartheid. 

Onerous requirements and institutional failure coupled with bureaucratic red tape result in many being unable to acquire legal residency status, which effectively excludes them from the formal economy and government social support programmes. These undocumented migrants are relegated to the fringes of urban existence and have to survive on the scraps of the city’s wealth. 

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The vertical slums in which they live are often dilapidated and lack sanitation and electricity. Informally referred to as “Emnyama ndawo” (isiZulu for “dark place”), this is not only a literal reference to their dark interiors but also, on a deeper level, the spiritual vulnerability and insecurity they represent. 

The Covid-19 lockdown in South Africa is pushing these already vulnerable communities to the brink of survival. Without access to social grants or food aid, they are being left to fend for themselves under extreme conditions of financial and emotional insecurity, which also threaten their health. 

5 May 2020: Enoch Mukanhairi, 58, from Masvingo in Zimbabwe, is blind and survives by begging on the streets of Johannesburg. He needs to pay rent, feed his family and pay school fees, but income has dwindled to nothing since the lockdown began.
5 May 2020: Elias*, from Zimbabwe, makes a living collecting and restoring discarded beds that are sold at informal markets. Johannesburg’s informal economy plays a vital role in the survival strategies of many migrants, who often cannot work in the formal economy. Lockdown regulations have severely curtailed the functioning of the city’s informal economy, placing many like Elias at risk of hunger and eviction.
5 May 2020: Elizabeth*, 39, came from Harare in 2009, when living standards in Zimbabwe had fallen sharply and the public health system had collapsed. She is a cleaner in an inner-city block of flats, but has not worked since the lockdown began. Elizabeth has been brewing and selling traditional beer from her small room so that she can buy food and pay her R800 monthly rental.
5 May 2020: Zimbabwean Admire Makondo has lived in Johannesburg since 2009. He is diabetic and came to South Africa to access the medication he needs. Makondo makes a living begging in the affluent northern suburbs, but he has been unable to do so since the lockdown began. His medication requires that he eats three meals a day, and he relies on help from acquaintances in the building where he lives.
5 May 2020: A woman does her washing at a communal tap in a dark building in the inner city. For those living in these spaces, life was extremely hard before the pandemic, which has made their struggles more difficult.
5 May 2020: A resident climbs the stairs of an inner-city building. These vertical slums lack basic infrastructure such as sanitation and electricity and are often utterly derelict. Many of their inhabitants are migrants who are unable to access the safer and more secure accommodation provided by the city’s urban regeneration schemes.
6 May 2020: Prisca Paketi, 49, from Zimbabwe, stands outside her wooden shack located inside a dark building in New Doornfontein. She is employed at a factory in City Deep that was closed at the start of the lockdown and has not received an income since. As a migrant, she is not entitled to relief from the Unemployment Insurance Fund, even though contributions are automatically deducted from all workers’ salaries.

*Not their real names

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