J is for Johannesburg

I have been to some places with bad memories. But only once, in the Prague Holocaust memorial with the heartbreaking handwritten names coating the walls, have I been brought to tears. My day in Johannesburg, with our eloquent, dignified guide Disman, brought me to tears or very close a number of times. The bad memories are ever present, but despite that, the message Disman wanted us to go away with was one of hope, of true reconciliation, and of promise for the future. At the same time, Johannesburg is making an effort never to forget.

Johannesburg is a city of 10 million people, the third largest in Africa, and because it was built on gold fields is one of the few cities you’ll find not built on a natural water source. Yet Johannesburg is filled with trees. (This is apparently a problem for the city planners, as the trees draw down the water table). The view from one of its hills is of a leafy, rather attractive city. Drive down into it and you find it is a city of enormous contrasts. Around our hotel, there were wide streets, enormous houses or clusters of houses on large estates, flowers, people walking their dogs or jogging on a sunny Sunday morning. Nelson Mandela now lives in this neighbourhood. Look more closely though, and you’ll see the electrified wires around the tops of the high walls. You don’t really need to look too closely to see the guard houses, and armed guards sitting outside a number of houses.

Leafy street in Johannesburg
Leafy street in Johannesburg

Drive into the downtown area, and you find a wasteland on a Sunday. During weekdays it bustles, but not with the gold traders and businesspeople you used to find, but with small sidestreet stalls, an informal economy operating next to the offices of all the major gold and mining houses of the world. But these businesses are increasingly moving out to one of the suburbs – including the stock exchange – leaving high-rise office buildings empty, windows pasted with To Rent signs. Illegal immigrants, swamping the country from more troubled parts of Africa such as Zimbabwe, have moved in, and squat in the empty floors. For all South Africa’s economic challenges, and 41% unemployment, it is better off than so many of its neighbours.

Downtown Johannesburg on a Sunday morning. Opposite is a statue of Gandhi, who lived and worked in South Africa and influenced Mandela with his principles.
Downtown Johannesburg on a Sunday morning. Opposite is a statue of Gandhi, who lived and worked in South Africa and influenced Mandela with his principles.

The Constitution Court represents the new South Africa, ruled by law and constitution, open and fair to all. It is built near an old, infamous prison, which you can tour on weekdays. Constitution Hall is a modern building, with plenty of fascinating art and sculpture representing South Africa’s past and future. From the outside, you can see through windows to the Courtroom itself, representing the new transparency of the country.

A statue ourside the Constitution Hall representing the way the economy was built on the back of black and child labour. And our guide and teacher Disman.
A statue outside the Constitution Hall representing the way the economy was built on the back of black and child labour. And our guide and teacher Disman.

From central Johannesburg, we drive to Soweto. Soweto, originally the South West Townships, was well known to me growing up in the 70s. I remember hearing and seeing coverage of the Soweto Uprising, when thousands of students protested a government policy to require education in Afrikaans as well as English, police opened fire and hundreds were killed. I remember the protests which continued into the 80s, the Sharpeville Massacre and Steve Biko’s death in custody. Although these second two events did not occur in Soweto, for so many of us, Soweto represents the horrors of apartheid, and the refusal of the blacks of South Africa to succumb to such injustice. When the apartheid system was enforced, blacks were forcibly removed from Johannesburg to Soweto. The pass laws meant that you could not travel out of the township except to places of work. Even the numbers allowed to live in each house were rigorously controlled. Visitors could not enter Soweto without the appropriate documentation. So this sign meant a lot more than on first glance.

The sign is also a symbol of change.
The sign is also a symbol of change.

I was looking forward to seeing Soweto, but also apprehensive. I didn’t want to be a gawking tourist, although that was what I was, snapping away with my camera, holding back the tears. Disman however made us feel comfortable, so intent on his mission of educating us about the past, and at the same time of understanding that the future is bright. He explained that people wanted foreigners to visit, to see their lives, to know the new South Africa. As our van was parked on a quiet street, a man went past and stopped. He wanted to tell us about the new South Africa, talking about the inauguration the day before of President Zuma, about the government’s policies of gender equality as well as racial equality. He was friendly and excited, filled it seemed with the promise of the future. We were in the middle class area of Soweto, where the streets are lined with well manicured lawns and lovingly tended gardens, European cars are parked outside (and on Sunday mornings they are carefully washed), and the houses reflect the pride of the owners. The new wealth of its population means that there are now million dollar houses in Soweto and, we were told, a Ferrari dealership. We certainly saw plenty of BMWs and Audis driving by.

A street in the more affluent areas of Soweto.
A street in the more affluent areas of Soweto.

But just across the way were the housing areas known as the single men’s quarters. (See the header photo). Without electricity or water, these are difficult places to live. We then visited the informal settlements; the local terminology for what is effectively a shanty town. We visited Gladys, in her two room house. She lived there with her two month old grandchild, and two children. She cooks all her meals on charcoal, and a kerosene lamp lights their table at night. She was putting all her money into her children’s education, but has no job. She sells vegetables when she can, and makes some money by inviting tourists like us into her house. There were 20,000 people living in this one informal settlement, 30,000 in another we saw later in the day. The government is building new housing for the residents, who will take ownership provided they don’t sell the house in the first 8 years, but the magnitude of the task required is enormous. 900,000 houses are needed. But these would be a mere drop in the bucket. A young man we met later said that people were getting tired of waiting. “Promises, always promises,” he said resignedly.

Gladys in her kitchen, cheerfully posing for us as her two month old grandchild slept under a blanket on the bench behind us.
Gladys in her kitchen, cheerfully posing for us as her two month old grandchild slept under a blanket on the bench behind us.

Other housing in Soweto included what were known as elephant houses, bitterly cold in winter, and matchbox houses, small cottages but which at least had electricity, although not always water or plumbing. Telephone lines still did not reach everyone, and people sold whatever they could to make money.

Telephone box, a mobile fruit stall, and shoes for sale on a grassy corner.
Telephone box, a mobile fruit stall, and shoes for sale on a grassy corner.

The irony of this poverty, and its incredible injustice, is that Johannesburg was built on gold, and driving to Soweto you see huge mounds of gold tailings – it took 100 tonnes of ore to get 500 grams of gold, so there is a lot of waste. These piles of waste tower over the neighbouring buildings, in unnatural squares.

Gold mining waste towers over the neighbouring buildings.
Gold mining waste towers over the neighbouring buildings.

Our tour of Soweto included sites of the Soweto Uprising, the Regina Mundi church, still bearing the scars of the battles fought there, and the modest house where Nelson Mandela lived before he was arrested in 1962, and to which he intended to return on release from prison. (His notoriety and popularity meant that he only spent 11 days there, moving out to give his neighbours some relief from the crush of media and people trying to see him). Bishop Tutu’s house was just down the road, and we had lunch at a restaurant next door. It was packed with local families celebrating Mothers’ Day, enjoying a hearty spread on a sunny autumn day, on a street where two Nobel Laureates have lived.

Sunday best on a street that was home to Nobel Peace Laureates.
Sunday best on a street that was home to Nobel Peace Laureates.

On the way back to our hotel we stopped at the Apartheid Museum. It needed more than the brief time we had to spend there. The exhibit which really struck me was a wall on which all the segregation and apartheid laws that had been passed. There were not just one or two laws which put this system in place. It was continuously added to; year after year new laws were brought in, trying to crush the spirit of the communities, to divide and rule the black and coloured communities, to entrench white rule. No politician in the South African government could argue that they didn’t understand, or that they didn’t personally take responsibility. Those who fought against this were rare. One who did was Helen Suzman, and a large exhibit on her life showed just how rare courage and morality was in the days of apartheid.

As we listened to Disman, this eloquent, intelligent, dignified African man, I fought back tears wondering what it took to be able explain daily the injustices that they had lived under, to relive the brutality, to remember the horrors and difficulty of life in apartheid South Africa. But then I caught myself, realising that of course it was far worse to have lived through the reality itself. Disman showed no bitterness, which surprised me. I find it hard to understand how the entire black population was not consumed by bitterness. But Disman, like his people, showed enormous optimism. “I can’t believe South Africa now,” Disman said, shaking his head in wonder. Perhaps he finds it inspiring being able to reinforce daily the commitment of the new South Africa, of Nelson Mandela, to welcome and incorporate all peoples with hope and justice. It was inspiring to me simply to be there.

Nelson Mandela's quote. The preceding sentence is the most important. "I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities."
Nelson Mandela’s quote. The preceding sentence is the most important. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.
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4 thoughts on “J is for Johannesburg

  1. You are sturdier than I am. I cried at Andersonville, at holocaust museums, former women’s asylums, etc. I can’t imagine Johannesburg. I’d be a mess.

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  2. Accounts like this reinforce for me what a charmed life I lead, where I can pull out a credit card to pay for pretty much whatever I need or want. I hope Nelson Mandela’s vision materializes.

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  3. The trip of a lifetime. Thanks for sharing all of this with us.

    I have yet to even truly dream of being in South Africa, but I’m happy to say that I’ve been in the same room with both Mandela and Tutu—both occasions were incredible.

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  4. Gandhi Mall. that’s an image I’ve never entertained before.

    and Africa is beginning to look more interesting to me, seeing it through your eyes.

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