He had 40 years under his belt as a firefighter and inspector, but nothing could have prepared Boet Hamman for what he saw when he entered a cluster of dark buildings on Davies Street in downtown Johannesburg that about 600 people unlawfully called home.
Switching on his cellphone flashlight, he stepped onto a concrete floor slick with water, leading to a hallway where dozens of rooms had been created by a flimsy patchwork of wood, drywall and particle board that could spread a fire within seconds. Up a stairwell with popcorn walls stained black, he found a hallway ceiling with jumbles of wires for illegal electrical connections.
He rounded a corner, and suddenly he and the two men guiding him heard a high-pitched squeal that sounded like a wire whipping through the air. The two guides ducked and ran.
“Hey! Something is happening,” Mr. Hamman said. He took a few steps away, then caught sight of a small flame glowing from one of the wires strung overhead. “Look at that!”
“And so quick the fire starts,” he said.
Several weeks had passed since 77 souls perished in a fire in a nearby building in August at 80 Albert Street that, like these, was occupied illegally by hundreds of desperate residents who say they can’t afford anywhere else.
Now the owners of the dilapidated buildings at 32-40 Davies Street had filed an “urgent” application asking a court to evict the squatters within 48 hours. They had sent Mr. Hamman to examine the danger, arguing that the Albert Street blaze was proof of an imminent threat to occupants.
“Palpably unfit for human habitation and outright inhumane,” one of the owners described the property in a court affidavit.
As of this week, the judge has yet to rule on the application. The squatters, some of whom have spent decades in the building, are still there. But the tragedy at 80 Albert Street and the continued presence of dozens of buildings like those on Davies Street underscored a damning truth: Nearly 30 years after the advent of democracy in South Africa and the promise of housing for all, tens of thousands of people in one of Africa’s wealthiest cities still sleep among rats, rubbish and danger.
After the blaze, political leaders took to demonizing the occupants of blighted buildings, ignoring their daily struggles, efforts and aspirations. At Davies Street one recent spring day, a Mozambican mechanic plied his trade in front of the building; a Zimbabwean comedian showed off a chipped mirror, where he practiced routines; and a retired South African domestic worker sold candy from her unit, which she had spruced up with plastic, parquet-patterned floor tiles.
“It is my only home,” the retired worker, Jabulile Ndebele, 56, wrote in a court affidavit, “and affords me a dignified existence in the inner city where I would otherwise not afford to exist.”
Once a factory, the Davies Street buildings stand on a block teeming with pedestrians and broken-down vehicles, across from a macaroni factory and an empty lot. The tallest building is five stories, and when residents climb to the rooftop to hang laundry or bathe with buckets, they catch a glimpse of the downtown skyline. Just around the corner is a boutique hotel, with rooms starting at about $58 per night, or about a third of the median monthly household income in the inner city, according to data from the Gauteng City-Region Observatory.
Despite the buildings’ rough conditions, Mr. Hamman hoped there would at least be fire exits. He searched for several minutes before ducking through a narrow room near the end of a hallway, and finding one behind a door. But there was a problem: Though the escape had metal railings leading down to a sea of trash in the courtyard, the steps were missing.
“Going nowhere,” Mr. Hamman said, sighing.
The arguments offered in court stung Lancy Moabi, a resident of 18 years.
“Not if, when,” a lawyer for the owners said during a hearing the day after Mr. Hamman’s inspection, arguing that a fire was inevitable.
“The building is not fit for the residential use,” Mr. Hamman wrote in his report, adding that “the lives of occupants are in danger should a fire occur.”
In one argument after the next, Mr. Moabi heard that the place he called home wasn’t really a home at all. But what irked him most, as he listened from a courtroom bench with his arms folded, was the owners’ demand that the “occupiers” vacate within 48 hours.
Mr. Moabi, 40, had moved in after his release from prison for carjacking because his mother lived there.
He occupies a tiny room on the third floor fashioned from particle board and decorated with a soccer trophy and a photograph of him smiling, holding his two sons. Two portraits from his teenage years hang next to a newspaper clipping of Tupac Shakur with the headline “Thug Life!” — a reminder of Mr. Moabi’s efforts to mimic American hip-hop culture growing up.
Mr. Moabi’s mother and two brothers live in adjacent rooms.
Mr. Moabi had left Davies Street for several years after his first son was born. He worked as a chef and, together with Vinolia Ngwenya, the mother of his children, paid $180 a month for an apartment. But he lost his job during the pandemic, his relationship with Ms. Ngwenya collapsed and he returned to Davies Street.
Like most other residents watching the court proceedings, Mr. Moabi worried that he would have no place to go if ordered to leave. Having grown into a community leader who everyone calls “Skim,” South African township slang for friend, he gathered dozens of neighbors outside the buildings the night after the hearing.
“Whoever is going to say that we must move from where we are currently standing so that we go and stand in the dark is nothing but a crook,” he said. “We are not going to entertain that thug mentality.”
His voice rose, and residents roared in agreement.
“If these people don’t have an alternative place for us, we are not going anywhere,” he shouted. Then he summoned an iconic South African freedom struggle slogan, thrusting a fist into the air and shouting the Zulu word for power: “Amandla!”
Several police officers jumped out of an unmarked white sedan the following morning and demanded Mr. Moabi and the dozen or so men standing outside of the buildings put their hands against the wall.
An officer grabbed Godfrey Majola, a resident fixing a car, and pushed him.
“I’ve got rights,” Mr. Majola said, upsetting the commanding officer.
“Do you have rights?” the commander shouted several times, his hand on his gun.
“We will knock out your teeth right now,” another officer said.
Within two minutes the officers patted them down, then raced off.
“They can’t just come and do this to us,” Mr. Majola said, though he knew these were the indignities of a society where people often equate poverty with criminality.
The police routinely harassed the tenants of Davies Street and a dozen other buildings downtown several years ago with illegal raids that were “degrading and invasive,” the nation’s highest court said in a landmark ruling in 2021.
Mr. Moabi did all he could to maintain his dignity. He woke up that morning shortly after 6 with his two sons — Lancy Jr., 7, and Lewatle, 5 — curled up by his side, beneath the animal print blankets covering the mattress on the floor.
Neither Mr. Moabi nor their mother liked the idea of the boys sleeping in a building they considered littered with hazards. But the boys loved their father, and Ms. Ngwenya wanted them to maintain a relationship with him.
After standing over a bucket to brush his teeth, using a pitcher to rinse, Mr. Moabi took the boys around the corner to their mother’s home, a room in a high-rise with a kitchenette and bathroom, where they could take showers and prepare for school.
Mr. Moabi then parked himself at a picnic table on the sidewalk next to a small fast food joint on the building’s ground floor, and waited for the motley crew of hustlers, handymen and drinkers to rise, each figuring out how to survive another day on the margins.
Getting by, Mr. Moabi believed, required taking pride in what they had. That afternoon, he spent several hours painting his building’s entryway. He made it up the first flight of steps when the paint ran out. There was no money for more.
When Ms. Ngwenya stopped by that night, Mr. Moabi showed off his work, flashing a proud smile.
“What’s the point of you painting the whole place when you are going out?” she asked, assuming that the judge would evict the residents.
“Nobody’s going out,” Mr. Moabi said. “But you can see I have tried.”
“No, you tried,” she said. “It’s OK. But at the end of the day you guys must move out. You have to move out because these buildings are burning and I don’t want my kids to burn inside.”
Mpho Makhoba was vigorously sweeping pools of water beneath large steel doors leading to a garage, at the building’s front, when an angry voice shouted from the other side.
“Have you started again!”
Twice every day since moving into Davies Street three years ago, Ms. Makhoba, 35, has had to sweep water out of her corner of the building to keep it livable. Residents dump water out their windows into rat-infested piles of garbage in the courtyard, where it has nowhere to drain. Ms. Makhoba’s ground floor hallway inevitably floods.
City officials were coming that day to assess residents for alternative housing. The last thing Ms. Makhoba or any other tenant wanted was for the city to think they lived like slobs.
“This place is now full of water,” the man yelled.
“You are crazy,” Ms. Makhoba said.
“I’m going to show you,” he said.
“Come and see me,” she said. “I’m not scared of you.”
Moments later, he appeared, wobbly on his feet, wearing a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles hoodie. Mkhize Joseph, 40, has lived in the building ever since moving to South Africa from Mozambique 20 years ago. He occupies a loft space at the back of the garage.
“You are disrespecting me and you are very stubborn,” he said, pushing Ms. Makhoba slightly.
The Davies Street residents are a diverse bunch, but their lives are interconnected. Problems are not so much eliminated as they are shifted.
“You must just relax,” Ms. Makhoba said. “You should be helping us.”
Mr. Joseph eventually settled down and opened the garage doors so the water could flow out freely. Ms. Makhoba then began helping Mr. Joseph clean the garage.
“Hey Mkhize,” Ms. Makhoba said, “you see, together we can.”
How much longer the residents would be together was anyone’s guess.
That afternoon, city representatives and law students working with the residents’ lawyers at the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa arrived to interview the tenants.
When they got to Mr. Moabi, he removed a notebook from a shelf in his room and pulled out several documents. A city employee jotted down details of his life. He lived in a “shack,” paid 500 rand in rent a month — less than $30 — to a man named Xolile and moved there “to accommodate wife and children.”
This was the City of Johannesburg’s official narrative of Mr. Moabi’s life. But what the official did not examine in the notebook painted a fuller portrait.
“Remember no politician will help your situation if you are doing nothing about your life’s situation or condition,” Mr. Moabi wrote on one page.
“Even the darkest clouds have a silver line,” he wrote on another.
“I rather have a big dream and see half of it come true than to have a small dream and achieve all of it,” he wrote on yet another. There is no mistaking what the big dream is.
Taped to the inside cover is a photograph of him hugging Ms. Ngwenya from behind, their faces nestled together. Above them is a picture of a sprawling, modern mansion, with a swimming pool, palm trees and a balcony with shiny railings — glamorous, if painful, motivation for a life beyond the grit and struggle of Davies Street.