Winter in Johannesburg: “The only thing anyone ever does is chase us”

Johannesburg’s cold and desperate

by Greg Nicholson

Some Gauteng residents delighted on Tuesday when snow began to fall across Johannesburg, Pretoria and Vereeniging. They rushed to take pictures on their camera phones and joked on Twitter. For others, the cold ushered fear, sickness and the chance of dying from exposure. GREG NICOLSON spoke to those unable to stay warm.

The homeless

Brothers Zonibonile, 24, and Siyabonga Mdiya, 28, remember enjoying the snow. They grew up in Queenstown, Eastern Cape, and said they’ve seen it many times. When they were kids it was fun to watch the flakes fall. “At least you’re safe in your home, in your blanket,” said Zonibonile, a piece of wire tied around his waist to close his jacket.

The brothers huddle around a fire in a lean-to on the demolition site where their shacks have been turned to rubble. They lived on the corner in Marlboro until the Johannesburg Metro Police evicted residents last week. “There are our blankets,” points Siyabonga at the rubble. Somewhere under mounds of bricks, splintered timber, and sheet metal lies all their possessions—clothes, blankets, IDs and more. The brothers are in their only set of clothes.

“When I see snow I just see death,” said Zonibonile. “We’re going to die. I don’t even care. I don’t know where I’m going to stay. It’s hard.” He puts another piece of timber on the fire.

“We’re going to stay here. We’ve lost out jobs. We’ve lost everything. We will stay until we have the right answer,” he added. A debate begins between the brothers and Thulani Ndlovu, 30, and Lunga Thomas, 25, over how they’ll survive when they can’t find anymore mealie meal under the rubble. An ice-cream container is passed forward. They have half an onion and a quarter of a green pepper. “There is no food, nothing.”

The shack-dwellers

Cindy Mlotshwa, 42, lives in an adjacent street. The block is crammed with the cold steel of the zozos. Tunnels weave through the settlement, each few meters another padlocked door. “It’s very bad. It’s very, very cold. There’s nothing we can do. I don’t even have a bed,” said Cindy, waving her hand towards blankets neatly folded on the concrete floor.

A candle lights part of the room. Above where Cindy stands, a light bulb is fitted to a plank that runs across the ceiling. But they’ve never had electricity on the plot. Without heating, Cindy has had to send her three children to her sister’s house. “It’s hard to sleep. Yesterday I just turned to wake up and make some tea.”

Her neighbour, Maggie Nyama, has been staying in the next shack for two months. “It’s too cold,” said the 35-year-old. “I’m not okay. I’m sick,” she coughed. She said she used to stay in a shack on 1st Avenue, which was better because it had electricity. She uses blankets to stay warm but said they’re never enough. “I’m not happy just because I’m getting cold.”

She struggles to convey her feelings to General Moyo of the Informal Settlement Network, adding, “We shack-dwellers, we are not happy because that’s sickness.”

The beggar

He said he wanted to be called Levi Strauss. At 19:00, he stood in between two lanes of Oxford Road, Rosebank, with a rubbish bag. It was barely above zero degrees Celsius. He was illuminated by the cars’ headlights, but a scarf covered his face like a bandit. “Today was rough, especially because people don’t give nothing because they don’t want to open their windows.”

A lady held out a coin and seemed impatient when he explained the photographer. “Sometimes I can make R40. Today I didn’t make R20,” he said afterward.

He stays on a street-corner nearby with other homeless beggars. Metro cops came last week to confiscate their blankets and chase them from the spot. It’s worse for those in town, he coughed, where the police come down on them more often.

He’s seen what the cold can do to his friends and he shook his head when the snow started falling. He found shelter and watched. “I was thinking maybe this was our last day. I was thinking tomorrow one of us wouldn’t wake up.”

He stopped, turned and ran. He sprinted, whistling for 100 metres after a red hatchback. Before he caught the car at the next traffic light it drove into the night. “They were giving away blankets,” he said, his face strained when he returns. “I missed it.”

Jozi’s cold comfort between the cracks

As shelters struggle to help the homeless endure winter, the only warmth many of Jo’burg’s outcasts are finding is in crack pipes and wine bottles.

Alfred Skolisa has spent five years on the streets of Hillbrow, selling scrap metal to survive. He says life is tough but bearable – except in winter. That’s when the crack pipe comes out. Nothing or no one else is going to help. At least, that’s what Alfred believes.

“The only thing anyone ever does is chase us,” he says.

“The police come, threaten us with arrest and we scatter but we come straight back after about 10 minutes,” he coughs from the comfort of his mattress perched on a disused flower bed adjacent to Pullinger Kop Park.

Skolisa is a drug addict and an alcoholic. He says the crack he smokes and wine he drinks every day helps him endure the freezing temperatures at night.

“My friends have died here on the street from the cold, but I can’t do anything about it.”

Skolisa’s tale is mirrored by Sipho Dladla, who sleeps on a basketball court in Pullinger.

“The city used to come regularly to help us and say they’ll take us some place safe, but now they don’t come back, they just leave us here. Sometimes the police come and burn our blankets and chase us away – but where must we go?” Dladla asked.


Mzungeni Ngcobo rubs his hands together as he stands outside his shack, shivering in what little of the weak winter sun that makes it down to the Mangolongolo informal settlement along Main Reef Road in Denver, Johannesburg.

Ngcobo says he’s been living here for 20 years.

“We try to make fires to keep warm in winter,” he says. “It’s not healthy to breathe in smoke in our shack but blankets are not enough. Every year fires get out of control, shacks are destroyed and people die.”

“I am not angry – why must I be? I take what I can get. I survive on my pension and try keep warm in winter. I see people die here every year. It’s normal.”

This is the general mood among the many homeless and residents of informal settlements in inner Johannesburg who feel abandoned by the city’s administration.

Sifundo Dlamini, a community leader in Mangolongolo, says they receive little in the way of help from officials. “The city and local government do nothing for us, even though we protest all the time, nothing happens. The most help we have gotten is from Wika – a local business. They give us blankets and some soup when it’s really cold.”

The cold is bad enough, but Ngcobo and Dlamini say people also die in fires every year. In the worst case of the past few years, a fire that ripped through Mangolongolo in 2010 destroyed 238 shacks. And four people died.

Their tale – along with those of other residents – is far from unique, similar stories can be heard across the city, as temperatures and spirits drop.

Common theme

A common theme of helplessness and abandonment runs through the stories recounted by those struggling to stay warm as highveld temperatures plummet.

But, according to city authorities, a lot is being done to assist the poor in winter.

“You should come and see what the city does for people living and working on the streets. This first-hand experience is important in the same way that you were able to go and meet the people who live and work on the streets to inform to your article,” says Gabu Tugwana, Johannesburg city spokesperson.

Tugwana says the City of Johannesburg established a displaced persons unit in 2009 to “respond to the challenges of people who live and work on the streets”.

“It is a team that is staffed with social workers and community developers who divide their time between outreach work and running care centres in association with NGOs. The city programme runs throughout the year and the services are consistent,” he says.

But the problem of homelessness is widespread, according to Jacob Modise, assistant project manager at Immaculata shelter in Rosebank.

The shelter, which is set up in a converted hall, accommodates about 100 people a night and runs a soup kitchen during the day for about 200 people.

Sleeping on the streets

Space at the shelter is provided on a first come, first serve basis each evening. Modise distributes blankets to those who arrive too late to get a place to stay overnight.

“Some sleep at Zoo Lake, or in parking lots, or in bus stops,” says Modise.

“The people we can’t accommodate, they’re sleeping on the streets or in abandoned houses,” he says. Every now and again, they’re discovered by police and have to abandon their belongings and run. Still, it’s not the worst that Modise knows of.

“Some people in town are sleeping with [pieces of] plastic,” he says.

The shelter tries to help get people off the street and into employment but it’s difficult.

“It’s very difficult. A piece job you can get, but a permanent job is very difficult,” he says.

Dying of exposure

In spite of the attempts by both the city and NGOs, more and more of Johannesburg’s poor and homeless are dying every winter.

Netcare 911’s Jeffrey Wicks says it’s hard to track exact numbers because cases of hypothermia are often logged as different conditions.

Many are logged as “unconscious collapse” because the people calling can’t actually articulate what has happened – they may describe it based on the symptoms and complain that the patient is having breathing difficulty or abdominal pain.


Lungiswa Mvumvu, public relations officer for Charlotte Maxeke Hospital, says two patients with hypothermia came in for treatment last week Tuesday. “They were homeless people from Hillbrow … brought in by paramedics,” she says. The pair were treated and discharged after two days.

Helen Joseph Hospital’s Lovey Mogapi says that while the hospital always anticipates a slight increase in the number of cases of exposure seen in winter, this year the number of cases seen was about 10% higher than last year.

Dr Melanie Stander, spokesperson for the Emergency Medical Society of South Africa believes the plight of the homeless and poor in winter is indicative of a failure by the authorities to honour their social contract to protect the vulnerable.

“Winter puts a big strain on people, suddenly those cracks in the system start to show … the environment becomes more extreme and the coping mechanisms for people are not there.”

In spite of an overwhelming sense among the needy that the state has failed to care for them, Allan Beutter, Hillbrow resident since 1988 told the M&G that “hand-outs” were not the answer.

“I don’t pay taxes so maybe I can’t complain. There should be some support but instead of simply helping people, there should be jobs.

People are willing to work and help themselves – that’s the best way to keep warm,” he added.