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‘We have nothing, no hope’ — the plight of residents at a ‘temporary’ shelter provided by City of Joburg

‘We have nothing, no hope’ — the plight of residents at a ‘temporary’ shelter provided by City of Joburg
An aerial photograph of the Wembley Shelter near Turfontein on 10 September 2023. The shelter has been here since the Cape York building in Hillbrow, Johannesburg, burnt down in 2017. The Cape York building has been refurbished at a cost of R100m. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

The fire that claimed 77 lives in Johannesburg’s CBD has once again raised the issue of hijacked and unsafe buildings — and the need to provide alternative accommodation for residents of these buildings. However, for some of the former residents of the Cape York building, gutted by fire in 2017, the city’s idea of ‘alternative accommodation’ means squalor.

Residents at “temporary emergency accommodation” at Wembley Stadium, Turffontein have only a small, open space in which to relieve themselves. It’s just a few metres from the tents they have called home for the past six years.

When the dilapidated Cape York building in Hillbrow, Johannesburg, caught fire in 2017, leading to seven deaths, the City of Johannesburg provided hundreds of residents with “temporary emergency accommodation” by moving them into tents at the stadium. 

joburg cape york

Smoke from the fire at the Cape York building in Hillbrow, Johannesburg on 5 July 2017. (Photo: Gallo Images / The Times / Alon Skuy)

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An aerial photograph of the Wembley Stadium shelter near Turffontein. The shelter has been here since the Cape York building in Hillbrow burnt down in 2017. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

Following the 31 August 2023 fire at 80 Albert Street, which claimed 77 lives, the city has faced renewed pressure to clear out buildings in the inner city where residents live in unsafe conditions, with little or no services, while occupying the buildings or paying rent to “landlords” who have hijacked the properties.

“We have tried several options to solve the problem of the hijacked buildings, but we always get stuck in legislation,” said city manager Floyd Brink after the Albert Street fire.

He suggested the city couldn’t act on Joburg’s most dangerous buildings as that would mean evicting residents, legally requiring the municipality to provide adequate alternative accommodation for residents who might otherwise be rendered homeless.

Brink said the city wants to go to court to clarify the alternative accommodation requirements, but the plight of the former residents of the Cape York building shows what can happen when the city relocates its most vulnerable residents.

‘Nothing, no hope’

Naboth Madoro, known as Donovan, is a self-appointed caretaker at Wembley Stadium, where accommodation consists of the tents set up by the city, a dilapidated outbuilding that residents have occupied and a couple of shacks.

joburg shelter

Some people living at the Wembley Stadium shelter are forced to sleep outside because there is not enough space in the tents. (Photo: Bheki Simelane)

Madoro lives in the outbuilding with others who were evicted in 2017 from Fattis Mansion in Johannesburg’s CBD. After being moved to Wembley, some of the residents from Fattis were later given accommodation at an official, permanent shelter that neighbours the stadium, and at refurbished shipping containers at the site.

Some victims of the recent 80 Albert Street fire in Johannesburg have been moved to the nearby official shelter, the Wembley Stadium Homeless Centre.

joburg shelter

Communal water taps at a nearby shelter where residents sometimes get water. (Photo: Bheki Simelane)

“We are not in the city’s alternative accommodation plans. Some people have been moved but we have remained here. The only interaction with the city is when they raid this place,’’ Madoro said. 

The backyard has been used as a toilet. (Photo: Bheki Simelane)

Residents are forced to live among the rubbish. (Photo: Bheki Simelane)

The residents in the tents and outbuilding have no access to water, sanitation facilities or electricity. Garbage is strewn across the site. Many of the residents are unemployed and drug abuse is rife.

The residents in the tents and the outbuilding did not initially see eye to eye. They fought over the few resources which existed in the outbuilding, resources which declined over the years.

“We are now a united front because we live together, and besides we have a common enemy in the people of the nearby shelter. As I tell you, there is nothing here. We have nothing, no hope,” Madoro said, pointing to piles of rubbish.

joburg shelter

The toilets have been full for months, and residents now use the back yard. (Photo: Bheki Simelane)

“The fact that many children have been born over the last few years does not make our situation any better, because you cannot raise a decent human being under such conditions. But we have around 40 children here now,” Madoro said.

Kid Baloyi (37) was one of the Cape York residents who was moved to Wembley in 2017. 

Residents were supplied with a Jojo tank, but it was slashed open during a squabble for resources with residents of a nearby shelter. (Photo: Bheki Simelane)

“We have had enough of the poverty and suffering but we have nowhere to go and seemingly no one to turn to,” Baloyi said. 

A fight for resources

The residents constantly fight for resources such as water with residents of the Wembley Stadium Homeless Centre. A JoJo tank supplied for use at the tent camp was allegedly slashed open by residents of the homeless centre. And accusations of theft of electric cables led to a fight between residents of the tent camp and people living in the shelter. 

The homeless centre has a handful of communal water taps but its gates are locked daily at 7pm, which means the tent camp residents have no access to the water overnight.

The abhorrent conditions and hostility at the tent camp have led many residents to look elsewhere for a home.

According to former mayor Herman Mashaba, who led the city when the tent camp was established and championed unlawful raids on inner-city buildings, more than 600 people, whom he said were from Tanzania, were originally moved to the Wembley tents. In 2017, Mashaba said that number had reduced to 120. It’s unclear how many people currently live in Wembley’s tent camp.

Police raids

Last week at Wembley, residents said the police had raided the area the previous night looking for drugs.  

“They kicked my door and demanded drugs. I told them I don’t handle drugs but they beat me up and kicked me,” Baloyi said. “I don’t sell drugs, I sell candy and cigarettes in town.”

A few metres from his tent was another victim of alleged police brutality. A middle-aged man who could barely move lay on a makeshift bed in a tent he shared with six other people.

“I was also beaten by the police when I told them I did not have drugs,” said a Tanzanian man who gave his name as “Tony Montana”.

The residents said the officers who beat them up were wearing masks.

Gauteng MMC for Safety Mgcini Tshwaku, the political head of the Johannesburg Metro Police Department, told Daily Maverick that he had no knowledge of the police raids.

“It must have been other entities,” he said.

The SA Police Service did not reply to a request for comment.

City spokesperson Nthatisi Modingoane said, “The city is not aware of any raid that took place on Monday evening.”

When asked why the Cape York fire victims were not provided services such as sanitation and water, Safety MMC Tshwaku said, “I will find out why they are still in the tents and I will assess their safety.”

‘Illegal foreign nationals don’t qualify’

Responding to Daily Maverick’s questions of why people have been living in squalor in Wembley since 2017, Madingoane said, “The department has housed all qualifying fire victims from Cape York. The remaining people are illegal foreign nationals that do not qualify in terms of the policy for transitional housing.

“The Department of Home Affairs (DHA) even went as far as getting the Tanzanian and Zimbabwean embassies to come through and assist those that claim they lost their documents in the fire. They refused any form of assistance from their embassies and chased them away. We have been requesting [the] DHA immigration [department] to deal with the illegal immigrants.

“The DHA immigration must deal with the deportation of illegal foreign nationals.”

City’s ‘piecemeal efforts’

Edward Molopi, a senior research and advocacy officer at the Socio-Economic Rights Institute (Seri), said the city’s efforts to tackle Johannesburg’s “hijacked”, occupied and dilapidated buildings failed to address the problem.

“There have been piecemeal efforts made in times past but none that were sustained long enough to make a significant difference,” Molopi said. 

The city has for years struggled to provide its rapidly growing population with decent housing opportunities.

Seri has more than 20 active cases in which it is assisting communities to resist unlawful evictions and secure basic services in inner-city buildings.

Seri and other NGOs have been the subject of strong criticism by government officials over their perceived hindrance of evictions.

Read more in Daily Maverick: City of Johannesburg points finger at NGOs and foreign nationals after deadly fire

In 2020, Seri released a policy brief that stated: “As it stands, alternative accommodation in Johannesburg is supplied haphazardly in relation to evictions in the inner city and in informal settlements, indicating an absence to plan. In both situations, residents are generally relocated into buildings or shacks that are poorly structured.”

Molopi said, “The conditions of the city’s shelters and transitional housing are in a state of disrepair because of the city’s neglect of its buildings.

“This unfortunately places residents in TEA [temporary emergency accommodation] facilities in a similar situation as those who live in occupied buildings across the inner city. With the provision of alternative accommodation, the city has an opportunity to alleviate the housing crisis in Johannesburg, but the city’s mismanagement of TEA undermines those efforts.”

New Cape York

joburg cape york

Once, derelict, the Cape York building in Hillbrow has been completely rehabilitated at a cost of around R100-million and earmarked to accommodate 540 students. The refurbishment was completed in January 2020. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

joburg cape york

The Cape York building caught fire on 5 July 2017. (Photo: Gallo Images / Beeld / Wikus de Wet)

While residents of the Wembley tent camp live in squalor, their former home, the Cape York building in Hillbrow, has been revamped into decent student accommodation and renamed Focus 1.

The building on Rahima Moosa and Nugget streets was completely rehabilitated at a cost of around R100-million and earmarked to accommodate 540 students. The refurbishment was completed in January 2020. 

The previous owners of the building, the Bank of Mozambique, abandoned it, making it vulnerable to hijackers and fraudsters whose sole aim was to make money.

It gained notoriety as an epicentre of crime, drugs and prostitution. It became severely overcrowded and remained in the control of the building hijackers until it was rescued and transformed.

“I know Cape York is heaven now and what a difference it would make if the same was done to all the [hijacked] buildings,” Baloyi said. DM


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