When ‘shelter-in-place’ is relative

I took this in Johannesburg on March 27, the first day of lockdown in South Africa.

Despite a sweeping national directive to stay indoors, this homeless man remains steadfast that he will not leave the corner he usually occupies in a wealthy suburb of Saxonwold in Johannesburg. He has been there for many years (somewhere between five and 10, according to people I’ve spoken to in the area). Ironically, he sleeps just outside the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund. 

I have documented different moments of his stay over the years, including attempts by the fund’s staff to remove him. They’ve tried to persuade him to go to a shelter, which he has not been keen to do. The staff’s attempt to “clean up” the area where he lives didn’t succeed either; even after they planted flowers where he’d been squatting under a torn tarp, he returned to the same spot—but now without any form of shelter. 

South Africa (population 59 million) is home to approximately 200,000 homeless people, according to various estimates. As of Saturday, it counted some 1,200 cases of coronavirus, making it the country with the most infections on the African continent.

Dimitri Martinis is a development sociologist specializing in media, culture, and digital technologies. He has worked in the South African broadcasting sector for more than 25 years. He lives in Johannesburg, where he is involved in the development of new media companies. 

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