Historic Caledonian Stadium ravaged by coronavirus pandemic and neglect

The Caledonian Stadium in Pretoria was used as a homeless shelter when South Africa's lockdown, which went from 21 days to 35, was activated in late March. It has highlighted the existing problems the stadium had, such as a lack of running water. AP Photo/Jerome Delay

South Africa's Caledonian Stadium stands ragged and dirty, a literal shell of its former self, savaged by the coronavirus crisis and a long history of neglect and inaction.

When Lucky Manna now walks through the Pretoria football stadium's stands, he is both frustrated and saddened by what's happened to the home of his family's team, the Arcadia Shepherds FC.

Manna's ancestors founded the team in 1903. "We were the first club in South Africa to turn fully professional," Manna tells ESPN with pride.

"We were the first club to defy the government and play players of colour."

Deshi Bhaktawer, Mark Fish, Tiyani Mabunda, Katlego Mphela, George Lebese, Dylan Kerr, and Sir Stan Matthews have all played for the team.

Manna says the club has been a founding member of every major league in South Africa, and claims to have "created more Banfana players and national players than any other amateur club in the country."

But their home field has fallen into "total decay," as one local headline proclaimed late last year. There hasn't been any electricity or adequate sewage disposal since 2012.

The team's coach, Dennis Maduna, told the local newspaper in Pretoria that the club was forced to cancel matches because the "pitch wasn't in good enough condition." He worried the dust kicked up from the barren dirt field was "becoming a health hazard."

Manna says he's battled for years to fix the stadium, fighting with local officials over who owns the property. Originally erected by Irish, Scottish and British immigrants, the stadium was initially owned by the Caledonian Society, according to Manna. When the facility was sold to the local government in 1937, Manna said the Arcadia Shepherds were "given life rights" but admits he "cannot prove it."

"We have been at the facility for the last 117 years," Manna says. "They have tried to evict us on many occasions." In 2013, some city leaders tried to convert the facility into a public park, but both Manna and Solly Msimanga, the mayor at the time, successfully fought to keep the land reserved as a football facility.

According to Manna, the government agreed to give the club a long-term contract in return for the club dropping its objections to some of its construction demands. The government did not respond to ESPN's multiple requests for comment.

A breakthrough of sorts came in October, when local government officials announced they had allocated R35 million, or $1.8 million, to renovate the stadium. After years of similar promises, but no action, Manna thought the government might follow through this time.

Final design plans were completed, procurement began and a government spokesperson announced the renovations would start in February, with estimated completion in 2020. Manna thought they were about to develop the facility into a "first class football stadium" that would put the club "in a position to get back to professional football."

But then the coronavirus arrived. "The facility was used at the start of the lockdown to house the homeless," Manna said. "They were only anticipating a few hundred, but in the end there were close to 2,000."

The move fit the larger COVID-19 response seen so far across Africa. "We've seen some really great innovation in Africa's response because of its experience with Ebola," Dr. Amanda McClelland tells ESPN.

Along with the non-profit Resolve to Save Lives, she has spent the last 16 years building emergency health facilities and helping nations throughout the continent plan for this type of outbreak. As a result, Dr. McClelland says that unlike many European, Asian and American countries -- which have converted their stadiums and fields into COVID-19 response centers -- many African nations already have overflow hospitals and quarantine centers.

Instead, Dr. McClelland said some African nations, including South Africa, are converting sports stadiums into temporary homeless shelters. When living on the street, "there's an inability to social distance and wash your hands," Dr. McClelland explains, adding, "Access to water is extremely difficult."

Public health experts across the globe are trying to slow the spread by safely providing these types of basic necessities. But to be successful, governments have to carefully create a bubble around their temporary shelters, preventing those who may be carrying the disease from coming or going.

"If you do it well, you decrease the chance of these vulnerable people getting ill," McClelland says. But she warns, "If you do it badly, you can actually create an explosive super spreading event."

At Caledonian Stadium, the tent encampment became "a major problem," according to Manna. Authorities were "not prepared for such large numbers," he adds.

There was little or no sanitation and just one tap for water. There wasn't enough food and the tents were unsuitable for rainy weather, prompting many inhabitants to crowd together in the stands.

Manna believes some were able to sneak out of the facility as they tried to feed pre-existing drug habits. "The task of keeping the drug addicts confined was a major problem," he says.

Government officials are quoted in local media explaining how they wanted to help heroin addicts transition to methadone while staying in the government's mandatory 35-day lockdown.

During the lockdown, someone stole all of the field's goalposts for scrap metal, according to Manna, while the stadium's lone security officer was robbed three times. "The facility has basically been wrecked," he says. "It is an extreme health hazard."

Authorities eventually moved most of the inhabitants. Some 500 are now at Pretoria West Rugby Stadium. "I take food to those stragglers who were left behind every three days or so," Manna said.

"There are about 11 who still reside in the clubhouse illegally - but nothing can be done." He says that the police won't intercede. Those left behind now have free reign of the stadium, Manna says.

He concludes: "Our club is the most historic club in South Africa. We are also the oldest continuing and active club probably in Africa. Not once during the 117-year history has the club ever stopped playing."

But Manna now despairs about the future of the stadium, unsure if the damage done here -- both physically and emotionally -- can ever be repaired.