Kenyans in South Africa tell of life in Covid-19 lockdown

Wednesday May 13 2020

South African police officers at a road block near Cape Town on March 31, 2020 enforcing the ongoing lockdown. Kenyans in South Africa are struggle to adjust brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic. PHOTO | RODGER BOSCH | AFP


South Africa started its 21-day national lockdown on Friday as the government stepped up its efforts to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.

Besides South Africans, the clampdown has also affected foreigners who arrived in the country to seek a better life.

As the lockdown kicked off on Friday, the health department announced the first coronavirus death and that confirmed cases had tipped over the 1,000 mark.

Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said the country now had 1,170 confirmed cases of Covid-19 — an increase of 243 new cases from an announcement made on Thursday. At the time, 28,537 tests had been done.

Of these cases, 55 patients were in hospital, four of whom are in ICU and on ventilation.


President Cyril Ramaphosa said the unprecedented crisis demanded that the lockdown be imposed.

The ordinary South African has now to get used to “a new normal” – being confined at home for the next three weeks.

But for some, especially foreigners, this reality has far-reaching implications.

Thomas Maina arrived in South Africa three years ago to try and eke out a living and support his family back in Nyeri, Kenya.

Maina sells artefacts at the Johannesburg Mall, not too far from his apartment.


Not sure of exactly how he will cope during this lockdown, Mr Maina now wishes he is with his family in the central highlands of Kenya.

The 43-year-old trader is only one of the countless venders and entrepreneurs facing crippling uncertainty during the lockdown.

“It’s been a bit of a difficult period since the coronavirus cases were confirmed in South Africa. I work from the Johannesburg Mall and people stopped visiting malls, which meant business was affected,” he said.

With just a few days before the month ends, Maina knows his landlord will be expecting his rent and his children back in Kenya will be expecting money. But he says he has not been able to make enough money this month.


“I don’t know what’s going to happen because there has not been any business this month. I really want to know if I’ll have to pay my rent this month,” Mr Maina says.

He is aware of the move Italy took to soften the economic impact of the coronavirus such as suspending the need to pay household bills.

However, the South African government has not said anything on rentals and Maina may find himself in trouble if he fails to raise the R4,000 (Sh23,000) needed by Wednesday next week.

“I’m not sure how I will raise the money because the malls have closed and people are indoors. Who will buy my artefacts?”

On a good month, Maina can make up to R10,000 (Sh59,000). Part of that money is sent to his family.

“I’m a father and I’d obviously prefer to be with my kids at a time like this. But the situation doesn’t allow,” he says.


The Kenyan High Commission in Pretoria has warned Kenyans living in South Africa “to adjust to the guidelines issued by President Ramaphosa” and “to familiarise themselves with the directive issued by President Uhuru Kenyatta including the outlined proactive measures the Kenyan government is taking to contain the spread of Covid-19”.

Even if Maina wants to return home and has the means, the Kenya government has already suspended all international flights into the country except for Cargo flights.

“I’m in a fix, I just have to stay and see how this plays out over the next few weeks,” Maina adds.


For Julia Wanjiru, a Kenyan businesswoman who has lived in Johannesburg for the past decade, it’s yet another blow.

In the last quarter of 2018, Wanjiru lost R40,000 (Sh235,000) worth of goods to looters in clashes that broke out in the city. Five months ago, she had to halt operations because of the wave of xenophobic attacks.

The Covid-19 outbreak has also had a negative impact on her business.

But, Wanjiru, 36, a devout Christian, believes she will navigate through the difficult period “by God’s grace”.

“This has affected my business a great deal, but we shall overcome this,” she says, adding that “God is the answer”.


While she is convinced a divine power will help her through this period, she will not neglect playing her part.

“It’s important to follow the measures being implemented by the South African government because they are for our protection,” she says.

Unlike Maina, she has no intention of returning to Kenya soon.

However, she heeded the call by High Commissioner Jean Kamau for Kenyans living in South Africa to “continuously look out for and support one another”. She and Maina occasionally check up on one another.


Unfortunately, she may not be able to help him with his rent come Wednesday next week as she also has to take care of her own.

Another Kenyan, Mike Njeri, 28, works as a car guard in northern Johannesburg.

An emotional Njeri says he wishes he could go back to Kenya.

“I regret being here. I have my country and if I get money for transport, I wouldn’t hesitate to go home,” he says.

He does not feel safe in South Africa, which has the highest coronavirus cases in Africa.

Also read: How Kenyans are smuggled into South Africa