South Africa’s census starts with the homeless

It's only the fourth census since the advent of democracy in 1994. The count normally happens every 10 years, but was delayed last year due to Covid.

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South Africa started its once-in-a-decade population count late Wednesday night, a laborious process that will run until February 28.

The country has a gaping divide between rich and poor, and decided to start its census by counting the poorest of the poor, who eke out a life on the streets of its economic capital.

It’s only the fourth census since the advent of democracy in 1994. The count normally happens every 10 years, but was delayed last year due to Covid.

At midnight, 165,000 enumerators took to the streets with a detailed questionnaire to count everyone in the country at that moment, “irrespective of age, race, colour or creed”.

In a rough neighbourhood in downtown Johannesburg, one team approached a homeless encampment, where about 20 people huddled on a sidewalk.

“Which province were you born in?” No reply. “Level of education?” More silence.

Owen Nkosi stirred enough to think about his age. Maybe 43, or it could be 45 — he hadn’t really kept track.

“Which population group do you belong to?”

He shook his head wearily and went back to sleep.

The enumerator ticked “black” and headed down the street to try his luck farther away.

A significant part of the population may have slipped under the radar during the 2011 census. In 2016, South Africa’s population was estimated at 55.7 million.

Some 35,700 homeless were counted, most of them in the densely populated province of Gauteng that’s home to Johannesburg and the capital Pretoria.

But In 2015, the Centre for Social Science Research estimated the homeless population at 200,000.

– ‘No kind of life’ –

Tony Lissaga, 48, said he came from neighbouring Mozambique a few years ago, because “there’s money here”.

But so far, the only work he’s managed to find pays just 600 rand ($39, 35 euros) a week as a mechanic — not enough to make rent.

The corner he’s claimed smells of urine and filth. He says he doesn’t drink, but does smoke a little marijuana.

“It’s difficult,” he said. “I need something to forget I live in the street.”

The man lying next to him slapped his shoulders with a rag, shooing away the mosquitoes that swarm around.

The police did not move them on.

A situation like this, eish!” said one officer on patrol to protect the enumerators, using a typically South African word to express resignation.

“It’s sad to see that,” he said. Even though the police station was nearby, there was not enough space to accommodate all of the homeless.

A few metres (yards) away, a man had taken off all of his clothes for the night, and stood in his underwear in the middle of the street.

He shook a dirty blanket to make his bed on the sidewalk. Some people created a barricade of carts around themselves. Others were buried behind giant sacks and piles of rubbish that they sell for a pittance to recyclers.

“I have no privacy. Nowhere to bath. I don’t have any kind of life,” said Thebe.

“They counted us before,” she noted. “It didn’t change anything.”

She told her story in just a few words. Her parents died unexpectedly. Her boyfriend kicked her out. So she’s on the street.

Nearby, Xolani Gcobo slipped past like a shadow, glaring at the cameras and the handful of politicians out for the census.

“Yeah, yeah, proudly South African!” he said, breath thick with alcohol, mocking the nation’s marketing slogan.

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