Alex Rat Attacks
Dennis Georgiannis looks at how rats are plaguing Alexandra in northern Johannesburg.
It was a warm December evening in 2011 when Alexandra resident Nunu Sithole's phone rang; it was a friend asking her to come over for a visit. The young mother put her baby girl on the bed and rushed over.
About an hour later, she came home to find her nine-month-old infant on the floor crying, surrounded by a dozen rats.
Dressed in a floral shirt, the young mother wept uncontrollably while holding her second child in her arms.
Sithole clearly remembers seeing blood on the bed and floor as rodents bit through the baby's nappy and ate away at both legs.
The frantic mother called her cousin and they took the child to Alexandra Clinic. The facility in turn called an ambulance to take the infant to a Johannesburg hospital.
"On the way to hospital, my child passed away," an emotional Sithole said.
Sithole is not the only person to lose a child to rats. Reports suggest the problem is widespread and several incidents involving the elderly and mentally disabled have also been reported in other townships across South Africa
RAT BITE DEATHS
May 2011: Nomathemba Joyi, 77, died after large rats chewed off the right side of her face.
June 2011: Three-year-old Lunathi Dwadwa died after rats gouged out her eyes while sleeping in a shack in Khayelitsha, Cape Town.
December 2011 : Alexandra resident Nunu Sithole's nine-month-old baby dies after being attacked by rats.
June 2011: A Soweto girl was attacked by rodents while her teenage mother went out with friends.
2012: Two baby deaths due to rat bites in Alexandra.
Early 2013: Mentally disabled man died after rats allegedly attacked him when he passed out in his garden in Alexandra township.
Alexandra rats have become notorious, mainly due to their size and their lack of fear for people. The rodents chew through doors and walls, open pots, destroy electrical appliances and clothes.
Some residents claim rats eat condoms to gain human knowledge, while others say even cats are afraid.
Sithole's ordeal didn't end there after staff at the hospital called police. She appeared in court for murder.
"At night there are more than 20 [rats] inside the house and on the bed. If we sleep, we don't switch off the lights because we are scared."
Behind Sithole's shack is the Alexandra Men's Hostel, a large, overcrowded and dilapidated structure. Some windows of the four-storey building are covered with cardboard boxes and plastic.
Residents from the hostel dump their trash out windows and the problem is compounded by litter and soapy water from shack dwellers, resulting in a pungent smell and providing the perfect environment for rats to breed.
Health officials attribute rat infestations to illegal dumping, unhygienic conditions, overcrowding and scrap yards. Rodents eat and contaminate food, damage structures, cause rat bite infestations and transmit diseases (plague, leptospirosis) and parasites to other animals and humans.
"We do have a problem because there are too many rats," Sithole said. "Government doesn't help us; nobody cleans this place."
Despite sharp criticism from Sithole, community members, opposition parties and the media, the City of Johannesburg's Director of Health and Social Development for Region E, Vusi Mazibuko, maintains interventions are yielding positive results.
Mazibuko said the council had a programme in place to address litter issues.
"We've got what we call 'Wacky Wednesday', where all our departments go and identify places. We go from place to place and we go and clean. We certainly know that it won't be effective if we only do it once.
"All departments, including Pikitup and City Parks, go and clean together with the community. Cleanliness is close to Godliness. The onus of cleaning should also be taken up by the residents themselves."
Previously, the city launched a massive clean-up operation in September 2010. Officials targeted specific areas, namely Alex Vincent, Kholofelo ya Joseph, Oliver Tambo, Richard Baloyi, Roosevelt and Vasco da Gama.
In January 2008, a report from the City of Johannesburg's pest control programme revealed rodents were a serious problem in parts of the municipality. Officials revisited pest control and surveillance programmes. The documents further revealed that an additional R22,241 million was needed to deal with backlogs.
Mazibuko said the municipality implemented an integrated pest management strategy, which incorporated biological, mechanical and chemical means.
Biological measures involve the use of barn owls, while mechanical methods include rat cages. Chemical means entail fumigation in burrows.
Mazibuko said some 19,000 rats were killed since the start of that project, thanks to efforts by Alexandra residents. He urged community members not to recycle metal cages.
Also in March 2012, local radio station Alex FM announced the City of Johannesburg needed community members to catch 60 rats in exchange for a cellphone. In June that year, prizes were given to 45 people.
The initiative was sponsored by non-governmental organisation Lifeline. The Alexandra Renewal Project, video journalists, local councillors and Pikitup also took part in the initiative.
The eradication project raised eyebrows and several reports suggested the initiative was funded by taxpayers.
In July 2012, officials launched the owl box project, an initiative which saw Eco Solutions donate four owls to feed on rats. Owl nesting and release boxes were installed at three Alexandra schools. Community members and schoolchildren were taught about the role owls play in eradicating rodents.
According to numerous reports, locals killed the owls for suspicious reasons, a claim Mazibuko strongly denied. He said traditional healers came in to debunk myths associated with the birds.
"There is no proof or exhibit to say an owl has been killed by somebody thinking it's used for witchcraft or any other thing," he said.
Eco-friendly programmes using barn owls have successfully been implemented in Israel, Malaysia, the United States and parts of South Africa.
The director said authorities noted a "tremendous decrease" in the number of rat bite incidents reported in the area.
"In our clinics, there are forms that people fill out if we see rat bites. There's a tremendous decrease. Where we used to get about 3-4 [cases] a week, they've now really declined.
"We've collected stats on an ongoing basis. This is another proxy or an indicator to show us we are getting a handle over this problem," Mazibuko added.
He said over the past three to four months, no incidents have been reported at government facilities.
Alexandra Health Clinic matron Legora Marumo said personnel at the facility view rat bites as somewhat of a normal thing, despite the fact that they don't often deal with such cases.
"Yes we do see cases but it is not glaring, maybe once a month. It will be reported if it does happen."