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Soweto, South Africa: Taxicab Confessions Part 2.

Updated on May 13, 2013

On the way to Soweto.

Soweto, circa 2009: A place of contradictions.

Sometimes, you need to leave your preconceptions behind to see a broader reality.

Johannesburg, late 2009.

This entry is a mix of things, which is unusual for my writing. Instead of a first hand account, it is a mix of my experiences, coupled with some facts, statistics, and opinions. Each detail helps paints a scene. So sit back, and let me paint you a picture of change.

Firstly: The facts - Wikipedia & CIA world fact book can be today’s sources. They list the following of South Africa:

  • Unemployment is high, poverty is high, social tensions are high.
  • In the year 2000, the average white household was earning 6x the income of an average black household and whites make up only 9.2% of the population.
  • High refugee influx is occurring into South Africa from DRC, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and other African nations and they are empoverished. This has caused further economic and social strain, resulting in growing xenophobia.
  • Life expectancy of the average adult is only 48 years.
  • HIV rate is over 18%. In 2005, an estimated 31% of pregnant women were found to be HIV positive. The legacy of this tragedy is 1.2 million orphans and an infection rate that grows year on year, with over 5 million infected to date.
  • From 1998 to 2000, a UN survey ranked South Africa as the country with the 2nd highest rate of murder per capita in the world. For rapes and assaults, it was ranked 1st. I quote Wikipedia:

“...It is estimated that a woman born in South Africa has a greater chance of being raped than learning how to read. One in three of the 4,000 women questioned by the Community of Information, Empowerment and Transparency said they had been raped in the past year.South Africa has some of the highest incidences of child and baby rape in the world. In a related survey conducted among 1,500 schoolchildren in the Soweto township, a quarter of all the boys interviewed said that 'jackrolling', a term for gang rape, was fun.

Middle-class South Africans seek security in gated communities. Many emigrants from South Africa also state that crime was a big motivator for them to leave. Crime against the farming community has continued to be a major problem…”

Now I’ll be the first to admit, statistics are open to manipulation. But those are quite some statistics.

My past experiences in South Africa backed up what I just quoted. I know why I visited Johannesburg again recently - it was for business. But do these statistics and my past experience tell the whole story of this city? Until recently, I would have said so. But now I think otherwise. Read on if you’d like to know why.

During my first visit to Johannesburg, in 2000, I played by the rules. I was only passing through, on my way to see wild game in the north. Consequently, my trip was safe. Despite everyone knowing someone who found themselves on the wrong end of a firearm, the only danger afflicting my existence at that time was excessive boredom. I passed my time in the knowledge that I would soon be in the bush, chasing the big 5. As I was going to do the ‘other’ things in South Africa, I justified squandering my time in Jo’burg like most white locals do: I lived behind electrified barbed wire in a guarded community compound, which was interesting for a brief time. After all, there is a unique novelty in thinking about what would happen if you touched that wire (aka ‘wet paint’ syndrome). But thereafter, the entertainment value wore thin as life seemed to tick into a daily grind of monotony, as I minimised my risk profile to avoid the consequences of the unknown. And while I found my joys later - in the wild near the border of Zimbabwe with a crazy bushman named Errol (and that's a story for another day), the consequence of safety was that I learned very little from my trip to Johannesburg itself. When I departed the city limits, although I was safe, I regarded my time as waste. I swore to myself that if I ever returned I would get beyond the safe zone and experience something that felt real.

My second opportunity came around in 2004. I touched down in Johannesburg again for a friend’s wedding, but even as he exchanged his vows with his South African bride, I was itching to get outside the wired perimeter. After my best man duties were over, they went on their honeymoon while I went straight off the reservation. In hindsight, I was lucky not to become a statistic. I had a number of close calls, each of which might have ended in disaster for me. But sometimes lady luck is the patron saint of youthful stupidity. Of all the experiences I had at that time, perhaps the most authentic picture of South Africa I found was in Soweto - the South Western Townships outside of Jo'burg.

The Soweto I ventured into at that time was a snapshot of what remained of a historically oppressed community. Soweto was originally founded under the aparthate regime as a ghetto area for the black population. It was, from its inception, created as a place of inequality. Its residents were 100% black (still are), either unemployed or exploited for cheap manual labour and little investment was made in infrastructure or social services at that time. Over those years and beyond, the township had descended into squalor. Life became very cheap and policing became more an exercise in containment than of social safety. Out of many stories of loss, it is no wonder to me that a political movement was born there and the township became ground zero for the struggle for a democratic and racially equal South Africa. Many of the famous icons of South Africa's struggle originally hailed from Soweto - perhaps the most famous being Nelson Mandela himself.

In 2004, while that struggle had already led to regime change and democracy being established in South Africa, it was still a nation in transition. That change was made to achieve an ideal of equality, and the people expected it delivered quickly. However, it remained substantially unfulfilled. There just wasn’t enough to go around. Especially in Soweto. It remained a volatile place, perhaps as dangerous as it had been years before, because its population seemed to be completely left out of the economic revolution that was transforming other areas of South Africa. The township wore the reputation of a broken promise. The residents of the shanty towns wore their frustration openly. So, common advice suggested that unless you stuck to the tourist routes like Mandela's house, you took your chances. However, being a student of history, struggling Soweto was an opportunity I couldn't let pass. It was an important part of South Africa’s history, both past and in the making. A coalface of its evolution. So against my better judgement and the advice of friends, I decided to go and see it for myself.

I started trying to find tour groups to take me there, but no one was willing to go into the areas I wanted to see. I wanted to go into the heart of Soweto, so I could see it up close and personal. After some investigation, guides advised me that the only way to do something like that was to go local. So I hired a local who knew the area and a beaten up van like those Soweto locals often use as defacto taxis, figuring that I could travel without drawing too much attention to myself. The driver picked me up and following the instructions of my defacto guide, we drove right into the thick of it. The van idea worked and I was able to venture for a time unnoticed. I saw the locals going about their daily lives, still stuck in the poverty that was the hallmark of years of apartheid segregation. Large families lived in housing that was little more than corrugated iron scrap lashed together into shanties. I saw no sanitation facilities, no running water... and I noted that although it was a weekday, entire families remained at home or congregated on the roadside. Fathers, mothers, children - sometimes more than a generation's worth. Gangs of youths on corners, just loitering. In my mind, this told a tale: No jobs, no schools, no opportunities. No wonder crime existed here - in all societies, idle hands are the devil’s work. The faces that I saw bore tales of hardship - some scarred by violence, some by hunger, others simply by lack of basic necessities. South Africa’s beauty appeared to be only skin deep, if the measure of its soul was Soweto.

I remember leaving the vehicle to give some sweets I had with me to local kids in the area. That ended up being my undoing. Word spread very quickly that a white guy was in Soweto and giving out freebies. Before I knew it, a crowd began to form around me. They had no ill will at first, but soon expressions began to change - first from friendly greetings, then to expectation and finally into insistent demands. There were simply too many people asking. I had to fall back to the van because the situation became... unpredictable. Once I was inside the van, we became surrounded, and the car began to fill with the noise of many hands knocking against the vehicle, asking for an answer to their needs. With an apologetic smile pasted on my face and sweat dripping from my brow, the driver and I beat a slow motion retreat out of Soweto, rolling through the crowd at walking pace. Thankfully, the crowd parted without incident. There were no threats, just open frustration. But it was on the edge. Later, safely back behind the wire in Sandton city, I thought about my experience. I recall a feeling of deep disappointment. I felt that way because I saw a place with so much beauty and promise remaining hostage to its divided past. One of the few countries in Africa where the textbook definition of freedom was claimed to have been realised, and yet, in reality I found a place where the reward of opportunity had somehow failed to materialise for those who had struggled most to earn that freedom. Instead what I saw was a scene where one part of the population that 'had' was forced to use their resources to fortify themselves against the desperate need of the others that 'had not'. That in itself is not unusual - it exists in every city - but not to the extent that I had seen here. It seemed to be a sad legacy when compared to a noble ideal. When my flight left that night, I did not look back, as I usually do when I depart somewhere. In my mind, I still heard those hands, asking me for an answer I didn’t have.

This was not a city I was planning to return to.

Then recently, an email with a flight e-ticket attachment arrived in my email box. In between lines setting out appointment times and objectives, one word stood out at me: Johannesburg. Damn.

And so it came to pass that I returned after all... and all things happen for a reason.

South Africa, August 2009.

My meetings complete, I sit in a hotel room in Sandton city. *Tic-toC*

Sandton is South Africa’s second CBD - a place populated by tourist hotels, shopping centres and multi-national companies who relocated to this suburb circa 1990’s, after the original city center became overrun by crime. It’s a pasteurized place that is run like an island state, where the wealthy live in fenced conclaves patrolled by police cars and private armed response vehicles. For the most part, it is very safe. That makes it a very good place to be in Johannesburg. I guess that is why I am here.

And it’s also the reason why I am bored. *Tic-toC*

The clock on the bedside table tells me that it is only 11am. Time is crawling. I sigh in resignation, put my feet up on the desk and kick off my shoes. One remains on the table, but the other bounces once and falls to the floor. It adds to the mess that I have made of the décor. I think my talent for creating in-room armageddon has a lot to do with excessive time spent in hotels - I’ve discovered that no matter how much disarray I cause, the next morning all is ordered again by the housekeeping gods.

I wonder what I should be doing with the rest of my day? I pick up a ‘things to do in Sandton’ magazine kindly provided for my shopping convenience by the hotel, but I remain completely uninspired by its contents. I don’t need any more consumer junk. Being thoroughly globalized has taught me that I can get Australiana in South Africa and South Africana in Australia, so why pay the baggage charges? Its just pointless. I might as well watch the tube. So discarding the magazine, I punch the buttons on my TV remote, hoping for some digital salvation. My prayers remain unanswered as I see shows onscreen that I have seen before. All cable feeds sooner or later repeat themselves, it is only a question of time. After scrolling through all of the channels twice, I become resigned to the fact that I’m out of TV time. CNN in particular is beginning to sound like a broken record. I sit there, hoping for some breaking news to disrupt the monotony of rehashed commentary. Nothing comes. Eventually, I realise it is a choice between either the off switch or starting to recite headlines before they appear on screen. I hit the power button. There must be something else to do... I open my laptop and check skype to see if my girlfriend is awake yet. She always makes the time fade... but no such luck. So I sit. And think. And then Soweto comes back to me.

I wonder if it has changed? Should I go? No. Yes. No... No. No. NO.

Half an hour later, I find myself downstairs at the reservation counter. The concierge, ‘King Larry’ greets me with a high five, a slap on the back and a hearty ‘ghud moanin’ sir’. I respond with an Elvis impersonation: “Why, thankya veeeery moooch”. He laughs. An extroverted character full of spirit, Larry is the self proclaimed king of making things happen in Johannesburg. For some reason, he has taken a shining to me. I guesstimate that this happened because I’ve been walking around here with my own private chaos on open display. Even my requests have been delivered to him with a random code of dress: one day a suit and tie, the next day a pair of sweat pants and yesterday’s work out T-shirt that I had slept in with a hairdo that could have come from playing with a power socket. I’m quite sure Larry thinks I have a screw loose. I don’t disappoint him with my next request: ‘Can you get me to Soweto with a local? I don’t want a tour. I don’t do tours. I just want a local guy who knows the area please’. Larry’s grin widens and he tells me he can make anything happen, because after all, he is the king of that sort of thing.

Momentarily, the King escorts me outside to meet the local who is going to take me to Soweto. I size him up as we approach: He is a middle aged, athletic black man with a conservative dress sense and a love of gold jewellery. He is dressed much better than the last local who took me to Soweto years ago. Actually, he is dressed better than me. I wonder how all that gold jewellery will go down in the shanty town. He sticks his hand out to me in greeting and introduces himself with a smile and a wink as ‘ Mr Remember’. In the same breath, he steals my next question and explains: ‘dat so you don’t forget me, sir’. I laugh and resist the urge to introduce myself as Batman - I'm underdressed for such claims. In between the small talk, I realise that Remember isn’t winking at me at all. He only has one good eye. I could see him explaining it away with another one liner: ‘because I always got one eye on you, sir’, so I don’t bother mentioning it. I’m happy to add him to my collection of one eyed drivers I have encountered on my travels. I have always wondered about their depth perception though. In between these thoughts, Remember takes me to his car and holds the door open for me.

...and I stop in my tracks...

Me: “Aaaah, Remember, we're going to Soweto today?”

Remember: “Ya man, we go Soweto today, then we see dem other sights too”

Me: “Oh ya, sure thing. You gonna take me in this BMW? Maybe we can go picnicing downtown in Jozi just now?” (For those unfamiliar with South African lingo, the last statement was a sarcastic observation that a successful trip to Soweto in a BMW is almost as unlikely as a relaxing day spent picnicking in Johannesburg CBD).

Remember: *laughing* “No worries man, Soweto is okay now. Maybe not downtown Jozi though. We go”

I pause and think. It is his car, after all...

Me: “Okay Remember, they’re your wheels man”.

So I get on board and before long, we reach the outskirts of Soweto. Remember is quite the storyteller and I barely notice the city giving way to Soweto’s township. The conversation dries up though, as I cross the threshold and I see the shanties drawing nearer. Thousands of corrugated iron lean-to’s dominate the scene, scattered across kilometres of urban sprawl. In between random clusters of shanties, narrow laneways branch out like a spider’s web. I watch the inhabitants wander up and down those laneways, eking out their subsistence. Their faces tell me that nothing here has changed. A large chain link fence separates the occupants from the roadway and I snap some random shots as the car rolls past. I confirm with Remember that this is as close as we get to the oldest part of the township and he readily agrees. One lesson is lesson enough for me.

Adjacent to the shanties, a massive series of antiquated buildings stretches on endlessly. Remember tells me that this structure is a hospital, catering to the needs of Soweto’s population of almost 900,000 people. In fact, it is the largest single hospital on the African continent and it is entirely walled off behind barbed wire. We pause outside one of the entry points and I watch the ill entering and exiting the hospital. They form an endless flow. Outside the walls, the flow becomes a stream travelling in either direction, the human tide making their way back home after seeking treatment. I wonder about the conditions inside the hospital, but I banish the thought before it takes form. Up to this point, this is still the Soweto I am acquainted with. I play it safe and we drive on.

I expect more of the same, but as we continue, the scenery begins to subtly transform. I become transfixed with the view outside the car window. Is it my imagination, or are there traces of change in Soweto? As we head deeper into the township and the freeway disappears from view, streets form and the shanties disappear entirely. Buildings begin to look more organised, and amid the older pre-apartheid structures, spatters of different housing appear - either modestly renovated or entirely redeveloped. I ask Remember about the change in Soweto. He confirms that there is a lot of building going on: “This is tha new Soweto man!”. I can’t disagree with him. I haven’t seen this Soweto before. As he takes me deeper into the township, we pass through through what has become a middle class neighbourhood. Then we reach an upper class neighbourhood. The whole while, I am sitting in the back of the car in stunned silence. I can’t seem to get over the notion that Soweto now has different classes. He stops at one particularly well designed house which would have looked more at home in Sandton than suburban Soweto and he tells me that is the new house of the Chief Coach of South Africa’s FIFA team. As a Soweto local, Remember grins with a measure of pride: “He’s staying in Soweto now. Many good people are”. The statement rings in my ears - people of affluence are choosing to remain here. And by doing so, they are changing the face of Soweto.

The day brings with it other surprises. I stop at a university to watch a graduation ceremony. I photograph the old power plant towers - which were previously eyesores - but now painted with a massive mural and decked out with a new cable ride engineered by some aspiring entrepreneur who is busy dropping screaming local thrill seekers from its top. Beyond the landmarks, there are other changes too. Traditionally, roadside businesses plied their trade out of shipping containers, selling the bare essentials the people of the townships needed to get by. My journey took me past many of these familiar shipping containers. However, where the old set ups of the past were selling Omo washing powder, alcohol and cigarettes, a new breed of business has risen, selling consumer goods I could have never imagined a few years back. As we roll past one of these tin shed stores, a local business man tells Remember he needs to ‘pimp that ride’, pointing to the dozens of designer mag wheels he has positioned outside his shipping container. I shake my head in disbelief.

Soweto meets MTV.

At one point, Remember and I had become caught in a traffic jam, caused by local taxi vans. As their drivers hustled for business, they blocked the road and caused a small accident between themselves. Instead of doing the sensible thing and pulling over, they decided to settle their dispute in the middle of the road, bringing everything to a standstill. Chaos still reigns the roads it seems. During the gridlock, a local casually walked up to the car. However, instead of the come-on I expected, the man simply grinned and exclaimed: “We all stuck here, bruda! You just relax, you be on your way soon”. Another girl saw my camera and leaned out of a black taxi, telling me to take a photo of her: “Something fo’ you to remember us by!”. It occurred to me then that many occupants here actually want to receive tourists. Tourism brings with it the promise of opportunity and with FIFA on the horizon, the promise is fruitful. As every moment passed, more cars joined the traffic jam. I noticed a few VWs, minis, BMW’s and even a Mercedes in the mix. Their occupants hit their horns impatiently. In any other moment, I would have felt all the noise grating on my nerves, but I was too caught up in the moment. Eventually, police and an ambulance vehicles arrived at the scene to disentangle the mess. I note that is something new too. These guys have social services now.

On the way out of Soweto, Remember took a short detour, saving the last mind blowing detail until the end of my trip. He showed me a massive stadium that is capable of seating 40,000 people, complete with its own mass transit system, ready for the FIFA matches. It is then that I realised - in a few months, many thousands of tourists and locals will descend on this area, bringing with them more opportunity than Soweto has ever seen in its entire existence. No wonder things are changing here. Soweto stands on the brink of a rebirth.

On the way back to the highway, we passed by both young and the elderly, a mix of the old and new. There is still danger in Soweto, of that there is no doubt. Some of the older locals I encountered still wore the suspicions of a lifetime’s worth of hard experience on their faces. And old habits do die hard. I think it would not be a place I would like to loiter in after dark. But things are changing. I saw the effects of those changes in the faces of the young. Before we hit the highway and headed home, we passed a crowd of black youths partying on a corner in a slum block. In the past, I expect that they would have given me menacing looks to match an aura I would expect out of a bunch of crips in Compton LA. Instead, one held up his 40 and yelled out: “Thank you for coming to Soweto!”.

Indeed. A Soweto I never would have believed could be.

Not too long ago, I saw a commercial for South Africa: “South Africa: It’s Impossible”. In front of my TV and half a world away, I didn’t believe the slogan. The facts and my past experiences told me otherwise. But having seen what I have seen, I do believe the slogan now. It is possible.

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      justin 3 years ago

      its probably because negroids are inferior