“The army is in Alexandra,” read the WhatsApp message from a colleague on Friday afternoon.
Earlier in the day, we had taken a drive through the Alexandra township near Sandton as Day One of the 21-day national lockdown to help stem the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus in South Africa began.
Residents in the area were going about their day, washing clothes, talking to each other, children chasing one another while some adults smoked and drank on the side of the road.
The SA Police Service vehicles we saw were sparsely scattered, with officers seemingly waiting for more colleagues to arrive.
The residents didn’t care and carried on as normal.
However, there was a distinct lack of the usual hustle and bustle that is associated with a busy street like London Road.
In the afternoon, we caught up with the army convoy that was led by the SAPS vans and the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department vehicles with private security as support and the media in tow.
We moved through the suburb of Marlboro whose streets were completely deserted. But less than 2km away in Alexandra, the situation was completely different.
Marlboro is a typical middle-class residential area with brick and mortar homes.
Some are elaborately designed with high-glass windows, green grass, high security fencing and even a few brightly coloured driveways.
It would takes at least 25 steps to walk from the start of one average house to the end of it.
In Alexandra, the next house is less than 10 paces away and is either built using wooden beams, boards, zinc and all manner of material.
There are no gardens, the narrow alleyways are used for rubbish disposal and a driveway – you must be kidding me.
“The Alex environment is very difficult,” Chris Mabunda, the chair of the community police forum of Alexandra says before stating that he estimates 700 000 people live in the area.
The 2011 census reveals that there were more than 200 000 people in Alexandra.
Mabunda, who was on the ground helping the police and the army trying to get people off the streets and back into their houses, says that overcrowding and overpopulation are their biggest concerns.
“The population of Alex is too high and now that the schools are closed and people are not going to work means that there are more people in such a small area,” which makes it hard to stem the spread of Covid-19.
Mabunda says that in some houses up to 10 people stay in a “shack”.
He and his team of about 50 volunteer patrollers have been given permission by the police to act as their eyes and ears.
“If we see anyone on the streets [not abiding by the national lockdown rules] or see shebeens and taverns still selling alcohol and they don’t listen to us, then we call the police to assist.”
As we passed Florence Moposho and John Brand Streets, residents come out to see this “parade” of one army vehicle, two police vans, two metro police cars, a host of private security and media vehicles.
From shouts of “Look at them go” to “Aye, aye, the military is here” and even a makeshift nickname for the convoy: “amaCorona patrol”, could be heard from the residents as the army vehicle filled with about 10 military personnel looking like rifle-carrying Meerkats with masks and gloves stuck on their heads out the top of the Casspir.
Excited residents took pictures and videos of the scene on their phones, while some children ran alongside the convoy visibly jubilant that they were able to witness such a scene.
Some even waved and cheered the convoy, with the army officers waving back before pointing and shouting that they must get back into their houses.
A few army and police members were on the ground asking people where they were going, if they had the relevant documentation or to close shops and stop standing around in groups and go back inside.
One man who was drinking a lager from a bottle was saddened when a police officer took his bottle from him and emptied it in front of him as punishment for drinking in public.
A woman, who said she was on her way to fetch her children, was asked to turn around.
She kept hurling insults at the police before a soldier stepped in with a rifle at the ready and told her to stop arguing or face the consequences.
Another man, who was told to go back to his house, said “it’s too hot inside,” before getting the retort that it’ll be hotter if he doesn’t abide.
“People just don’t listen,” Mabunda says, urging for more education within Alex.
Police and army alike emptied cars that had more than three passengers, while some spaza shops and shisanyama places were ordered to close.
On Saturday, Mabunda said they were still having problems with shebeens and taverns sneakily selling alcohol through windows.
However, he said that over the past two days there has been a noticeable drop in crime cases reported to the police.
“The crime in Alexandra went down,” he says with pride.
“Usually on a Friday, Saturday and Sunday we open more than 500 cases, mostly assault and gender-based violence. But over the past two days we have only had about 20 cases,” he says, attributing this to the work they have done to shut down the area.
With regards to the over-crowding Mabunda suggests that maybe a temporary quarantine facility should be opened, while another option is for government to allocate more land to the people of Alex – “maybe near Linboro Park,” he says.
Does he think that more force is required?
“To move people by force, for me, that is not OK. We have to educate our people [about Covid-19] and make sure they have the information they need. Maybe then it’ll be OK.”