The empty streets of Africa’s normally bustling financial capital, Sandton Central, are frequently featured among the most striking images of South Africa’s hard lockdown.
Even though they have been exceptionally quiet during the country’s national lockdown, the public spaces of this economic powerhouse have been devotedly guarded by Sandton Central’s much-loved Men in Red, who are on the frontline of the business district’s safety and cleanliness. Sandton Central’s team of 50 public safety ambassadors operate in the precinct day and night and continue to work right throughout the national lockdown.
Mfanafuthi Khumalo’s is one of Sandton Central’s team of Men in Red. His job is to make sure that people are safe, and the importance of the role he plays in the community has been magnified and taken on an entirely new dimension with the COVID-19 pandemic.
He has one message for the community and the many smiling faces he usually sees on Sandton Central streets every day: “Continue observing the rules and regulations, and please try by all means to stay home. This shall pass.” He is looking forward to seeing everyone back soon once this is all over.
Based on the ordinarily bustling Sandton Central that Mfanafuthi knows so well, having patrolled its streets and helped its people for three years, the quietness of the district during the lockdown reminds him of a scene from a horror movie. Some essential workers who are familiar with navigating the area’s busy rush hour, however, have told Mfanafuthi that they are loving the empty roads and wish traffic could always be this light. Yet he also misses the bustling city life Sandton Central is about.
The lockdown has changed the way he does his job. Some parts are simpler, but there are areas of work that he is finding more difficult. “Dealing with people who may be sick but don’t appreciate the need for social distancing is a big challenge. Most people are obeying the lockdown regulations and physical distancing guidelines, but there are few who don’t and are making unnecessary trips,” he says.
Mfanafuthi is well informed about the coronavirus and how to prevent its spread and is taking the opportunity to share this knowledge with others when he can. Most of the queries he gets are about the Sandown Clinic and COVID-19 testing. He explains to people that Sandown Clinic, located at West and Duodar Lane, is open on weekdays from 7.30am to 4pm and now has a dedicated tent set up by the Department of Health to help isolate and test patients with suspected coronavirus symptoms who visit the clinic. The tent is reserved for use by Sandown Clinic; it isn’t a public walk-in testing facility.
The friendliness of the public, who are appreciative and caring, is a welcome distraction Mfanafuthi. “Most people are very kind towards us, and acknowledge the higher risk of infection that comes with being an essential working, and not being able to stay safely at home,” he says.
However, he finds it difficult not to overthink, and he worries about the challenges of physical distancing and observing the rules and regulations to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in public places, which isn’t always straightforward or easy.
As part of the team delivering a vital public service 24/7/365, Mfanafuthi uses public transport to get to work and back, which is a challenge on weekends under lockdown, when taxis stop operating earlier than usual. He’s stopped working overtime shifts to minimize his chances of exposure. The COVID-19 crisis has also put his personal priorities into perspective for Mfanafuthi. He is determined to upgrade his studies and build a bigger house for his mother.
The belief that nothing terrible lasts forever gives Mfanafuthi comfort, and he is motivated by his passion for people and being able to help them.
Sandton Central Management District (SCMD) manages the public urban spaces of Sandton Central, which is home to three business improvement districts. SCMD City Improvement Manager Elaine Jack, says, “Mfanafuthi and all our Men in Red continued to show their dedication and professionalism on the frontline even during this tough time, and we salute them and all the essential workers keeping Sandton Central and South African safe. They show us that heroes are real.”