A PLACE CALLED COVID
Zwelethu – or as the residents call it - “Covid” - is a densely populated informal settlement in Cape Town, South Africa comprising more than 800 tin shacks and 3,000-plus residents. It’s still growing. It was founded in March 2021, and has been weathering a number of storms ever since—the weather related ones that the “Cape of Storms” is infamous for, and the gloomy epidemiological storm of a global pandemic. The shacks bump up against the existing township of Mfuleni on one side and the Kuils River and a Cape Nature Reserve on the other. Standing on its sandy hilltop, you can see Table Mountain, and Cape Town’s wealthy suburbs, in the distance.
It is just one of many new settlements that sprung up on the outskirts of Cape Town during South Africa’s lockdown, and it’s resultant economic turmoil, began. There are others too: names such as Level 2, Covid 19, Pandemic, Social Distance and Lock Down reflect their existence in this specific moment in history.
The city and government are calling these new settlements land invasions. In a way they are old hat in South Africa; the country is built, after all, on a centuries-long legacy of land dispossession. Still, there’s been a staggering rise in them since the Coronavirus hit.
As soon as these new settlements were erected, they were torn down by teams of contract workers, city employees, and the Anti-Land Invasion Unit—the largest law-enforcement operation in the City of Cape Town, with members dressed head to toe in riot gear and carrying shotguns. They would descend on a settlement unannounced, often when they are still small in number. Often brute force was used and rarely was there compassion for the people who lived in the shacks – let alone any dignity
The city maintains that the spaces these people are “invading” are “public land earmarked for housing, health care, schools, transport, and basic services.” If they would only get off it, they promised, the city would build them a better community. But history, Covid residents say, has given them little reason to believe them. The people who live on the sandy stretches that comprise the settlement plead that they are there by desperation, not choice. While they may have a piece of tin over their heads at night - the settlements have no electricity (making them unsafe at night), only a few taps with running water and, most importantly, no waste or sanitation services at all.
Two years since Covid became a household name the residents of the settlement remain in limbo about their neighborhood’s future. Their fight has moved to the country’s courtrooms. Residents know, though, that any court decision probably won’t improve their daily lives. Like Covid will be with us for years to come, so will uncertainty.