How immigrants tough it out in Joburg’s 'dark buildings'

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Inside one of the “dark buildings” in central Johannesburg where thousands of immigrants live. (Photos: Kimberly Mutandiro)
Inside one of the “dark buildings” in central Johannesburg where thousands of immigrants live. (Photos: Kimberly Mutandiro)
  • Many buildings in Johannesburg's inner city are in a terrible state, but thousands of immigrants live in them.
  • They face many hardships, such as being raided by the police at night and extorted for rent, but few have any other option but to live in them.
  • We photographed some of the residents, who talked about their living conditions and how they survive.

They are known as mnyama ndawo (Swahili for dark places) in central Johannesburg. To many locals, they are notorious places, dens of vice and blamed for all manner of crimes and social ills. But for thousands of vulnerable immigrants they are a refuge.

The "abandoned" buildings in Ellis Park, Faraday and Jeppe streets in Marshall Town as well as Nugget Street in Hillbrow/Jeppestown are home to people from Zimbabwe, Malawi, the DRC, Mozambique, Tanzania, Nigeria and other countries.

Among them are asylum seekers, refugees, people with expired passports and undocumented immigrants.

Most are unemployed and survive hand to mouth, finding piecemeal work or selling things on the street. Some are blind or have other disabilities which have left them struggling to make an independent living which would have allowed them to rent formal accommodation.

During his term as mayor, Herman Mashaba tried to empty these buildings.

Raids and searches by police and immigration officers in the dead of night became commonplace. Over the years, residents sought help from human rights lawyers and immigration organisations.

Similar action led to the Constitutional Court striking down a section of the Police Act last month, which allowed for warrantless searches in cordoned-off areas.

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The buildings are dilapidated, without electricity, water or proper sanitation. Rubbish is strewn about; there is stagnant water and the stench of sewerage is pervasive.

Syndicates extort rent from residents. Robbery and theft are constant hazards.

Immigrant children living with their parents in these buildings are used to this unstable life of serial evictions from one building to the next, hearing gunshots and seeing their homes being raided by police in the middle of the night.

The children are often out of school due to a lack of documentation or simply because most parents are unable to afford the fees charged by schools in the city centre. Children often help their families by begging on the streets. Some have been taken into care by social workers.

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“At least we have the buildings to call home, but the life we lead is a gamble,” says Caroline Chitupa, a Zimbabwean immigrant who lives in one of the dark buildings in Ellis Park. (Photos: Kimberly Mutandiro)

"At least, we have the buildings to call home, but the life we lead is a gamble," said Caroline Chitupa, a Zimbabwean immigrant who lives in one of the buildings in Ellis Park, where families have been fighting off eviction since 2019.

Chitupa survives by selling beer, though she often loses her stock when the police raid and confiscate her merchandise.

"This is the life we live and sadly our children have also adapted to it. At least, we have the buildings to call home, but the life we lead is a gamble," she added.

"Any time of the night, while we are sleeping, police voices come screaming into our homes, our doors are kicked open. We can't remember how many times we've fixed doors or changed locks."

Consequently, her building has been nicknamed Baghdad.

Just last week, the building was raided by the police.

"They look for anything - drugs, alcohol, anyone living in the country illegally. But we are not criminals. All we want are better lives for ourselves and our children," said Chitupa.

Inside, makeshift boards and curtains divide the space for more than 400 families, mostly Zimbabweans. People rely on illegal electrical connections and pay R2 to use toilets outside the building.

Chitupa said Mashaba came to the building and "expressed concern over our living conditions and wanted us to leave".

"We have been told that the building was sold. But we will continue fighting because this is the only home we have known for years," she added.

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“There is nowhere else we can go, because we cannot afford to pay for better accommodation,” says Lazarus Chinhara, who is visually impaired. (Photo: Kimberly Mutandiro)

"There is nowhere else we can go, because we cannot afford to pay for better accommodation," said Lazarus Chinhara who is visually impaired.

Chinhara, who is a representative of Zimbabwe People with Disabilities living in South Africa, begs for a living. When he can, he sends money home to his family in Chivhu.

When the Covid-19 pandemic struck, he was repatriated to Zimbabwe.

Chinhara said would like to remain there, but conditions back home were so bad he returned to South Africa.

"There is nowhere else we can go, because we cannot afford to pay for better accommodation," he added.

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“When they finally evict us from this building l don’t know where l will go. It’s not easy to find a place where one can pay R250 a month,” says Cresenzia Puzi. (Photo: Kimberly Mutandiro)

"When they finally evict us from this building, l don't know where l will go. It's not easy to find a place where one can pay R250 a month," said Cresenzia Puzi who lives with her five-month-old baby and four-year-old child.

Puzi has a small sewing business and struggles to pay R250 rent to the owner of her room. She sometimes begs at the traffic lights, especially at month-end when her rent is due.

Also facing eviction are more than 200 residents in a crumbling building in Marshall Street. Many were evicted from other buildings around Johannesburg.

ALSO READ | ‘The enemy is not foreigners, but govt's failure to realise we need borders' - ActionSA

They said over the years, they have been forced to pay rent to various people who claimed to own the building.

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“Besides the police raids, thieves break into our homes at night and steal from us while we are sleeping,” says Shelina Marimo. (Photo: Kimberly Mutandiro)

"Besides the police raids, thieves break into our homes at night and steal from us while we are sleeping," said Shelina Marimo.

Marimo shares a single room and splits the R700 rent demanded of her with her roommate. She begs at traffic lights, looks for piecemeal jobs and collects second-hand clothes to send to home in Chitungwiza.

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Inside the building where Amanda Macholo lives with her two children. (Photo: Kimberly Mutandiro)

"Besides the police raids, thieves break into our homes at night and steal from us while we are sleeping. We do not dare to step into the corridors even to go to the toilet [at night] because many people get mugged. Even so, we cannot move elsewhere because rent out there is expensive," she said.

Amanda Macholo from Malawi has two undocumented children, aged 10 and 12. The pandemic put an end to her job as a domestic worker.

"We are only happy to have a roof over our heads. My wish is to send my children to school here in South Africa one day. I know the day will come," said Macholo.

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“Being immigrants is not easy because we struggle to find work,” says Fungai Fachi. (Photo: Kimberly Mutandiro)

In another building, Faraday Chambers, up to five families share a room. Homeless people also sleep in the passages. The residents were evicted but later returned after legal action.

"Being immigrants is not easy because we struggle to find work," said Fungai Fachi.

Fachi, originally from Zimbabwe, added: "We are only happy that the landlord agreed to keep us here. Being immigrants is not easy because we struggle to find work. We struggle to even put food on the table and many children are not going to school. But there is nothing we can do because going back home with no money is not an option."

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Beauty Chuma sells beer and operates a tuck shop inside one of the “dark buildings”. (Photo: Kimberly Mutandiro)

Beauty Chuma from Malawi sells beer and operates a tuck shop inside one of the "dark buildings".

By doing this, Chuma manages to support her six-year-old son and send him to school as well.

"Being able to send my son to school keeps me strong. It's the reason why l remain here in South Africa, operating my small business because back home l would not be able to. Sometimes, l lose stock during police raids but l am not embarrassed to go and ask for money at the robots to restock again," she said.

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Ethel Madzinga works with the organisation Zimbabwe Isolated Women In South Africa. (Photo: Kimberly Mutandiro)

Ethel Madzinga from the organisation Zimbabwe Isolated Women in South Africa (Ziwisa) also lives in one of the dark buildings. Between 2003 and 2017, she was evicted from five different buildings.

Ziwisa focuses on immigrant widows and people with disabilities.

"We started sourcing food and empowerment projects for them by partnering with other organisations after seeing how most are struggling. Most of the people survive by begging on the street, doing small businesses, sex work and domestic work, but their lives have become more difficult due to the pandemic," said Madzinga.

"Besides facing evictions, they are targeted by police and deported, yet getting legal papers is difficult. Some children get picked up by social workers while begging on the streets and we've had to engage with lawyers to help get the children back," she added.

"We are determined to fight for the rights of immigrants because they deserve to live dignified lives just like other people and should be treated as such. Immigrant Lives Matter."


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