UPDATE (March 2017): I wrote this post six years ago, at a time when I was pretty clueless about life in South Africa and how to write about it. I regret the title of the post and the poverty-porn-like tone that much of its prose conveys. But I have a policy of never deleting any of my old posts, so it will stay. Last Saturday Joe and I went to Diepsloot, a sprawling informal settlement — or squatter camp — on the northern outskirts of Joburg. We went with the Joburg Photowalkers to attend a Mandela Day celebration sponsored by the Diepsloot Arts and Culture Network. Diepsloot. Squatter camps like Diepsloot sprouted up in the mid-1990s, when the apartheid-era townships overflowed with people flocking to South Africa’s cities, and the government began moving those people to empty tracts of land on the cities’ edges. Nearly two decades later, the population is still growing and poverty rages on. Squatter camps, which consist mostly of corrugated iron shacks without running water or electricity, continue to swell. About 200,000 people live in Diepsloot.
Yesterday, thanks to my new friends at travelwrite.co.za, I attended a “Rediscover Joburg” tour hosted by the mayor of Johannesburg. The purpose of the tour was to showcase various development projects in the city to members of the media and other invited guests. It was also a farewell tour for the mayor, Amos Masondo, who steps down this Tuesday after 10 years in office. I showed up at the Joburg Theatre, the tour’s starting point, with no idea what to expect. When I saw the buses, I knew I was in for an exciting day. The bus I rode during the Rediscover Joburg tour.
Soweto, the largest township in South Africa, is a country unto itself. About a million people live there — the same population as Swaziland. It’s a cultural and economic hub for black South Africans, and legendary for the historic events that happened there in the decades leading up to the end of apartheid. Soweto is just a few miles from Melville but I had only been there once on a brief drive-through with Joe. I decided Mom’s visit would be a good opportunity to see more of Soweto.
Part 1 The weather shifted while Joe and I were away. Instead of the endless string of sunny, dry days we had before, we’re yo-yo-ing erratically between cold/rainy and sunny/warm. It’s more humid. The koppies have turned green and new summer flowers are blooming. This amazing cactus flower bloomed in our yard yesterday. Also, it’s corn season. This has brought a new source of joy into my life — the mielie lady.
Yesterday was Sunday and it was warm. Joe and I decided to go hiking. We got a late start (slept late and needed provisions from the store) so we picked Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve. It’s 45 minutes away and easy to see in a couple of hours. We got on the highway, looped around downtown Joburg, and exited onto a smaller road to the southeast. The midday sky was hazy and tinged with pink. I soon learned why — we rounded a curve and passed a steel plant belching acrid smoke. A few miles later, the road bisected a township called Tokoza. On one side were lines of small brick houses with red tile roofs — the government-subsidized section of the township. On the other side was a sea of corrugated iron shacks, stretching as far as the eye could see. The view contrasted oddly with the Steve Miller Band hits blaring from my iPod.
On the move in Joburg. 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.