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.
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.
*Not their real names