08 July 2007
I get off my plane, get my bag, go through customs and within minutes, I’m in a car heading to Soweto, one of South Africa’s largest townships at nearly 4.5 million people. Driving on the freeway it looks like I could be anywhere, though I have this feeling that I am at the end of the Earth. The sky looks somehow different, as if falls off at the horizon. The sun doesn’t move overhead, but more “around the side,” if that makes sense. 40 minutes later we enter Soweto, and I realize I am not just anywhere.
A haze of dust filters through the air. There are people out and about in every direction. As we move slower through the residential neighborhoods, some begin to stare at me through the window. We have yet to pass a single white person.
Every house is surrounded by a 6-foot wall that is topped with broken pieces of glass or barbed wire. There are no street signs and no public garbage cans. Trash lines the side of the street. On empty lots, large signs read “No Dumping.” No one seems to respect these signs, and how can they? After all, there are no trash cans!
We arrive at the B&B. M-Po greets us at the gate and immediately teaches me the Soweto handshake. “Shake, grab, shake, snap. There you go. You’ve got it. Now you’re a real South African,” she tells me. My room is bright and colorful, and absolutely freezing cold. I had somehow forgotten that it was the winter in the Southern Hemisphere. Sensing my chill, M-Po reassures me. “Don’t worry, the blankets are heavy.” I wasn’t worried, I think to myself. Just cold.
On the way to the big welcome lunch at Ashoka’s main office, Marshall, my driver and “protector” explains that there is no public transportation in the townships. “Everyone, if they want to go anywhere, has to take the private mini-buses. There are different hand signals to let the driver know where you want to go. If you flash their sign, they pick you up.”
The Ashoka office is located in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods of Jozi. Here, the houses are still fenced in, only the walls are 10 feet high and topped with electric fencing. At the lunch we talk about the current teacher’s and hospital worker’s strike that has kept kids out of school for more than four weeks. The teachers want a 12% raise. The government is only offering 6%. Neither side is willing to budge. Meanwhile, kids spend their days getting into trouble and not studying for exams. After the meeting I quickly use the computer. There is no internet at the B&B in Soweto. In fact, there is no internet within a 2 kilometer radius of where M-Po lives.
Marshall offers to drive me to the mall so I can buy a power converter. “It’s better if I come,” he tells me. I nip to the ATM. He stands just a foot behind me while I withdraw money. Sadly, the shop we need is closed. No computer tonight, much less internet. On the ride back to Soweto M-Po calls and texts twice, worried that I wasn’t back before dark.
Over dinner she explains that “Ten year ago, you would have been shot just for being in Soweto. Then, because you were on my land, me and my whole family would have been killed too.” On that note, I head to bed.
What can possibly be expected of people in Soweto? Unemployment is at 70% when you count every person not working. Even just counting people who are actively seeking work (like they do in the US) the unemployment rate is still 40%. There is no basic infrastructure for success – no public transportation, no street signs, no trashcans and no internet access, the key to being an active part in our global society. I feel like I have, at some level, fallen off the map and out of the World I know, even more so that when I was in Humahuaca, just 10 miles from the Bolivian border.
“Everyone thinks South Africa is the first world because there are white people living here and because of the situation in the rest of Africa,” M-Pos Director, an Ashoka fellow, told me. “It’s just not true. We may be a little better off, but our people still don’t eat. Our people still don’t work. This is Africa man. We aren’t no special case.”