JOHANNESBURG, (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – When Cynthia fled Zimbabwe as a refugee, she dreamed of a safe, clean house in neighbouring South Africa where she could start a new life.
But seven years later she is one of hundreds of single Zimbabwean women living in Johannesburg’s notorious “dark buildings” – crowded but cheap accommodation in derelict properties that were illegally seized by rogue landlords.
Like many of the refugee and migrant women living there, she lost her job as a domestic worker during South Africa’s coronavirus lockdown, forcing her to choose between buying food or paying rent.
“The lockdown has been very painful for these women,” said Ethel Musonza, 50, who founded Zimbabwe Isolated Women in South Africa (ZIWISA), a group that connects the women over WhatsApp for help with food, rent and emotional support.
“Landlords want to evict them if they are unable to pay (rent),” she said, adjusting her facemask as she walked towards a dark building in the rundown Doornfontein suburb in Johannesburg, where a number of ZIWISA members are based.
“Sometimes only one child can eat and not another,” Musonza told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding that the group ZIWISA supports has doubled in size to 2,000 WhatsApp members in several provinces since lockdown began in March.
The municipal government of Johannesburg estimates that more than 1,470 properties in the city have been taken over by people pretending to be the rightful owners.
They rent out single rooms for about 600 rand ($35) a month to up to six tenants at once and cut off electricity when the room is not paid for, said Lucky Sindane, a spokesman for the city’s anti-fraud and corruption unit.
Some buildings have no electricity at all, and this darkness combined with “experiences of misfortune” have inspired the name “dark buildings”, according to South African academic Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon.
Inside a small room shared with four other people, with a curtain as a door, Cynthia sat on her bed.
“I want to live a better life … in a place I feel safe,” said Cynthia, whose name has been changed to protect her identity.
“But until then I have ZIWISA, which supports us to stand strong during lockdown,” said the 32-year-old, adding that the organisation has helped her and others to leave abusive partners.