Yesterday I visited Johannesburg’s two poles.
Unemployment is about 30% in South Africa and new numbers this week indicate it’s on the rise. Joe is working on some stories related to that. We left mid-morning and stopped to photograph two men pushing a cart of recyclable trash up a steep hill. These men scratch out a living sifting through garbage (or rubbish, as it’s called here) for plastic, glass, and metal that they exchange for money.
Joe jumped out of the car and talked to the men. I winced as he crouched to photograph the cart in the middle of oncoming traffic. Soon we were off again.
Our next stop was Albertville, a working-class neighborhood not far from Melville. Joe knows a street corner there where men sit and wait for construction work. The corner appeared deserted as we approached, but as we slowed down about two dozen men materialized, running from every direction. They crowded around the car and Joe explained he wants to take photos of them for the newspaper, so people will know they’re looking for work. They agreed and Joe promised to come back the next morning.
Joe wanted to give me more of a look at the wealth gap in Johannesburg. We drove to Westbury, a nearby colored township. Under the apartheid government, “colored” referred to people of mixed race. Colored people were confined to their own townships, just as black Africans were. Sixteen years after the end of apartheid that legacy remains.
Westbury looks much like the projects in any U.S. city — crumbling tenement buildings, stray animals, and people sitting and walking about with expressions of casual resignation. I snuck some photos through the windshield.
We headed south to Soweto, the historic heart of South African black townships. Soweto is a city in itself — about a million people live there. Like most townships, it’s built on the least desirable land, in a barren region surrounded by toxic gold mine dumps.
We drove to Vilakazi Street. It’s a Soweto tourist attraction — the only street in the world where two Nobel Prize winners (Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu) have lived. We parked and strolled past Mandela’s house, which is now a museum. Tour buses lumbered by but no one got out.
We stopped at the Thali Snack Bar, a bright red corrugated iron shack, for a soda. As I sipped Coca-Cola-brand ginger beer from a glass bottle, I noticed three little girls working on a puzzle on the pavement. I squatted down to look and asked if I could take their photo. I took one and showed it to them, but the oldest girl pronounced it too dark. I took another that was more to her liking. I like it too.
We continued our drive through Soweto and passed Baragwanath Hospital, reportedly the largest hospital in the Southern Hemisphere. We also saw Orlando Stadium, which hosted the opening concert for the World Cup last month, and the Orlando Power Station cooling towers, the most attractive coal plant cooling towers I’ve ever seen.
Our brief tour of Joburg’s southern pole was complete. Time to head north.
We fought mid-day traffic for a half-hour or so. Eventually the northern suburb of Sandton loomed ahead. Sandton, where many of the wealthiest South Africans live, has taken over from the Central Business District as the city’s financial center. The stock market is there, along with imposing office buildings, golf courses, gated communities, and posh shopping complexes.
We had come for kitchen supplies. We parked at a mall called the Design Quarter (much more aesthetically pleasing than the malls in the DC suburbs) and went into Boardman’s, a home design chain. We bought a toaster, a spatula, a measuring cup, and other essentials. It felt a little bewildering after our morning activities.
We wandered across a terrace, filled with people eating gourmet pizza and sipping lattes, to Woolworth’s, the South African version of Whole Foods. We bought some food for dinner and a couple of pots and pans. Lunch was a four-cheese muffin from Vida Cafe, which reminds me of Starbucks. There is no Starbucks in South Africa! Amazing.
We loaded up the Landrover and headed back to Melville, which sits between the two poles. It was good to be back.