It’s been three weeks since I arrived in Joburg, and almost as long since I updated this humble blog. While there are many plausible explanations for my absence – reaching a violent, Lolly Jackson-style demise at the hands of Jozi thugs; being expelled from the country by Julius Malema – the more honest reason is that I’ve been overwhelmed: by work, by moving into my new home, by the city itself. Sadly, this blog has to take a backseat now and then to the thing we call life. But now, with my biggest deadlines behind me, with something approaching regular Internet access in my home, and with my rump more or less settled in Auckland Park, I’m looking forward to getting the blog back on track.
Fragments of these past few weeks in the city, which have been filling up my little notebook, to be posted soon. Today, thoughts about Soweto.
Sunday I tagged along with the Johannesburg Culture Club for its monthly photo walk. These are, as the name implies, informal ambles around a city not known to favor ambling, with a group of photographers – both professional and amateur – training their very hi-tech lenses on all the little quirks, minutiae, oddities and inspiring sights of the city we call Joburg. Sunday’s tour, of Soweto – which I was lucky to catch wind of on Twitter – seemed like a good way to meet people who shared at least one of my passions, which is taking pictures of really poor black people.
A few thoughts, first, on white people, cameras, and white people with cameras.
I have spent my whole life as a white person, and most of my adult life as a white person with a camera. Only in recent years, however, have I grown sensitive to these facts. There is, I’m sure, a long history of personal idiosyncrasies and neuroses that has brought me to this peculiar place vis-à-vis my relationship with whiteness and cameras. There is also a great deal that comes from nearly three years of traveling in Africa, where the complicated dynamics of race and power have sometimes reduced me to such self-loathing and hysterics that going to the market to buy tomatoes requires three cups of coffee and 20 minutes of heavy breathing into a brown paper bag. Lastly, there is the symbolic distance that comes from putting a camera between me and a stranger – especially in Africa, where the above racial dynamics are no less acutely felt by the subjects of the pictures than by the sensitive, hyper-ventilating white guy. My default mode in Africa is to approach strangers with a smile and an extended hand; it has worked marvelously. It is not as easy to do this with a camera pressed against your face.
It is quite possible that I’m over-thinking all this. I realize that.
Another point worth getting out of the way: I had visited the Soweto Photo Walk’s Facebook page before deciding to join the group, both to scope out the potential presence of young hot chicks and to suss out the group’s racial make-up. I was happy to see not only a few pretty blondes mixed in among the confirmed attendees, but a number of young, black South Africans who seemed more fired up about the trip to Soweto than anyone else. This was important to me – so much so, in fact, that I’ll admit that I probably would have passed on the Soweto Photo Walk had I known in advance that none of those young, fired-up black South Africans were going to attend.
Last point worth getting out of the way: I’m very glad I didn’t let all this acute racial hyper-sensitivity ruin an otherwise marvelous day.
We meet in the parking lot outside the Apartheid Museum, a hearty and cheerful group in hiking boots and walking sandals, fussing with zoom lenses. Urban safari is the thought that crosses my mind. Much discussion of photographic equipment, prices in the many thousands of rands. I, with my dinky little Canon PowerShot, feel like the odd man out. Discussions of the day’s itinerary – we have a guide, the father of one of the group members, who will take us through the worthiest sights in sprawling Soweto. It is all loosely structured, and a spirit of improvisation reigns. “If we have some lekker photographic opportunities, we can stop,” someone says – my Afrikaans vocabulary growing by leaps and bounds.
The guide arrives, a ruddy old fellow who, I’ll later learn, has made it to South Africa by way of the Belgian Congo. Much to discuss with Mr. Edmond Parent. The bus pulls up, we pile in. Beside me a large, bald, cheerful chap named Jerome. “The last time I was in Soweto was in a buffel” – an armored troop carrier – he says. Jerome was serving in the South African military during the violent riots of the ’80s. “The police did all the shooting,” he says. “We were there to protect the police.” Now he’s going back as a camera-toting tourist – a very different type of shooting, and a development he seems to regard with ironic good humor.
The bus pulls to the side of the road. Diepkloof. Orderly rows of brick cottages with terra cotta roofs. “I have stopped the bus here because most people don’t believe they’re in Soweto,” says Edmond. Sure enough, a road sign says, “Welcome to Soweto.” Everyone piles out to take pictures beside it. Nearby a bit of graffiti (pictured right), keenly spotted by one of the group. Much commenting on the goodness of her eye. Then we line up, one by one, to take the exact same picture.
“From 1886 to 1904, all the people were living together,” says Edmond, as we pull again into traffic. In 1904, a cholera epidemic swept through the city. There wasn’t enough water on this parched bit of Highveld to sustain early Johannesburg, and sanitation was a problem. After the cholera panic subsided, the first great segregationist fervor took hold. The black population was moved to the city’s outskirts. The old area was burned to the ground. Atop it they built a new district, called Newtown. A century later, Newtown was at the heart of the local government’s plan to reclaim the inner city.
Edmond is telling us about the early difficulties encountered by surveyors in today’s city center. Different measurement standards were used as they laid out the city streets; as a result, many of the streets today are skewed. From the start, this schizophrenic city couldn’t quite get its act together. Edmond shakes his head.
“Everything went wrong when they started Johannesburg,” he says.
We stop at a playground. Kids on slides and swings. A bunch of older guys playing soccer on a small, concrete pitch. We buzz about like horseflies, snapping away. No one seems to be paying us much mind – they’re used to tourists here. Soweto tours have, in fact, become big business in the past decade, as the day will make increasingly clear. At each stop we seem to be chased by a minibus full of French tourists. On Vilakazi Street, a small UN congress marches up and down the road.
Edmond again stops the bus and swings open the door. Already our reactions are Pavlovian – we diligently hop out, cameras at the ready. He points across a small valley to a bunch of long, gray hostel blocks – built for mine workers in the 1920s, he says. Most are still inhabited by poor families; we can see washing hanging from lines, people sitting in the shade. Nearby are a bunch of bright, candy-colored duplexes – recent developments for more upwardly mobile families. Cameras clicking and whirring. One of the women goes stalking down into the valley, as if she’s on a big-game hunt. Edmond stomps out his cigarette and points to the hard-packed earth.
“One cow, to feed for a year, you need 24 hectares,” he says. “In France, three cows can use one hectare.” It was the barrenness of the earth that made this such inhospitable land for farmers, he says. If it weren’t for the discovery of gold, this place would have been uninhabitable a century ago. Edmond shrugs. “That’s Highveld,” he says.
We crowd back into the bus. Driving through the streets – women selling apples and bananas, men with electric clippers shaving heads on the side of the road. Shops. Lovey’s Curtain Specialists. Bling Hair Studios. Eric Builders & Plant Hire (“We pay cash 4 scrap metal”). Jeff’s Mobile Kitchen and Food Warming.
Again we stop, just down the road from the massive Baragwanath Hospital. Everybody itching for some unstructured camera time. Bodies pouring into the sunlight, hyperactive trigger fingers. We look around like overstimulated kids. Fruit and vegetable sellers, men and women in church clothes. “Welcome to South Africa!” a black woman shouts to a bunch of her countrymen. Viewed ironically, this would make a certain bit of sense. Everyone scattering like marbles. Click. Click. Click. Advertisements for revival meetings. Africa Rejoice – “4320 minutes of praise.” Gospel Fire presents Miracle Revival Crusade (“1 million souls in 2010”). Ads, too, for quick, same-day abortions. “100% pain free guaranteed!”
I find Edmond smoking cigarettes beside the hospital – the largest in the southern hemisphere, as I’ve been frequently told. South Africans are proud of this country they’ve built. The largest hospital in the southern hemisphere. The largest shopping mall in the southern hemisphere. Across the road, the largest taxi rank in the southern hemisphere. “In 1994, that’s where they were fighting with Kalashnikovs,” says Edmond. It was during a fierce period of the city’s notorious taxi wars, with gangsters scrambling to secure the most profitable routes. A 2006 New York Times story described the phenomenon:
In the last two decades, thousands of South African taxi owners, drivers and passengers have been killed and many more have been wounded in one of the strangest guerrilla wars to bedevil any nation. The combatants are rival cartels that control thousands of low-cost minibuses, or “combis,” that haul a large share of South Africa’s urban commuters and much of the nation’s intercity traffic. Combi drivers are mostly poor, and competition is fierce. Many operate illegally, and even legitimate ones may poach others’ routes to grab as many fares as possible.
Edmond explains. “I am starting a new route,” he says. “I come with my own empty vehicle, I follow you on your route. The next day I come five minutes early, and I charge one rand less.” Edmond had seen how such tactics could provoke violent outbursts. More recently, the introduction of an ambitious new bus rapid transit (BRT) system has prompted protests – and gunfire – from disgruntled taxi drivers around the city.
We stop again nearby. Motswaledi, a “squatter camp,” as they’re called here. An informal settlement of tin-roof shacks, sitting just off the main road. Dozens of homes pressed close together, glinting in the sunlight. Kids everywhere. A woman braiding another woman’s hair in the yard. Edmond explains how the camp had sprung up in 1994. The tenants are living here rent-free, he says. They tap into nearby power lines for electricity. The government provides shiny little port-a-potties for each home – cholera is always a fear. “The majority of these people, they don’t want to move,” says Edmond, explaining how many residents are making up to R5,000 a month, but choose to stay here. I have my doubts. Five thousand rands, for starters, is an astronomical sum – more than twice the minimum wage – and I suspect most of the inhabitants of Motswaledi are, at best, casual laborers and piece workers. There is also, too, the grinding economics of poverty in Africa – the fact that most employed people are supporting extended families on meager wages: an unemployed uncle, a sick mother, a drunk cousin. The upward mobility we’re brought up on in the West is built on principles of personal growth and achievement – an individualist’s ethos. Here your responsibility is to your families and neighbors. This collectivist spirit of the African family is both a blessing and a burden. For most, it is an impossibly long climb to the top.
Again we pour out of the bus, everyone in high spirits. This is like a lunar expedition; for most white South Africans, the life of the squatter camps is something you see on the evening news, not experience first-hand. It is a very good group, too. My great fear – that we would plow through the township like a safari vehicle, snapping pictures out the windows – proves unfounded. Most of the group is friendly, engaging. They chat with people, ask to see their homes, ask about their lives. Jerome, ever the good sport, has a barber shave what’s left of his hair. I imagine how much good it would do for this country if you plucked up families in Sandton and Rivonia every weekend and deposited them in a place like Motswaledi. Most of the fears and prejudices of white South Africans, I’ve felt since I arrived, stem from a simple lack of understanding about poor people’s lives. Sympathy, kindness, trust: it is impossible to build these feelings behind the high walls of the northern suburbs. Like plants, they need sunlight and space to grow.
A group of schoolchildren, playing soccer on a dirt road. They crowd around me, asking questions, whistling. America – it might as well be Mars. They squeeze at my biceps and pluck at the hairs on my arm. The simple amazing fact of my being here on a Sunday afternoon. Two clever boys, Zweli and Sihle, inquisitive, telling me about their studies. Sihle wants to be a dentist – he is 11. Zweli, a tall, handsome 13-year-old, is the second-born in a family of eight. He looks after his younger brothers and sisters, he tells me. Then they both start to speaking to me in French.
On our way to lunch we stop at a Bonjour gas station, newly built. Two years ago, says Edmond, a group of brazen thieves tried to dynamite the ATM. These were hardly master criminals – the wisdom of setting off explosives in a highly combustible gas station never seemed to cross their minds. The whole station went up in flames, says Edmond. And when they found the ATM, he adds with a mischievous smile, it still hadn’t been cracked.
We stop again for a photo op. The Orlando Towers, part of a disused power station, now painted with colorful murals and used for bungee jumping. One of the men is giving us a taser demonstration – he keeps it clipped to his belt, like a Blackberry. It is 1.5 million volts, he says; if you hold it to someone for three seconds, they’ll hit the floor like a sack of mealies. It is, he says, his one concession to self-defense in the home. Last year his house was robbed while he was in his bedroom upstairs. He wanted to have something in case a thief came into his personal space. Unlike many white South Africans, he refuses to buy a gun. “I was thinking of getting a crossbow, but it takes too long to load,” he says, not unreasonably. He presses the button on his taser, which crackles wickedly. Everyone laughs and takes a few cautious steps back.
Lunch, Orlando West. The famous Vilakazi Street, which Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu – both Nobel laureates – had once called home. Tour groups stomping up and down the street. An overpriced restaurant, which, admittedly, serves a mean buffet. Sitting with Edmond, his son, Pascal, and Pascal’s wife, Geraldine. Pascal has been trying to start a business – it’s taken six months, and still he is wading through red tape, waiting for more documents and permits. Aggrieved at the contracts he’s already lost. I thought I’d left this sort of thing behind in Burundi and Congo. Pascal grimly shakes his head. You have to pay the right people, he says, to speed things along. He is losing hope. “What this country needs is a slap in the face from itself,” he says.
Sidewalk buskers, souvenir sellers. Flags and masks and batiks and bracelets and little shebeens made from popsicle sticks. A young boy comes up to me and says, “Excuse me, sir, can I sing you a song for a small donation?” His name is Mbongeni; he lives in Orlando West with his grandmother and four brothers. He clears his throat and sings the South African national anthem with a wavering voice. It is a complex song, written in five languages – testament to the hopes of this “Rainbow Nation.” When he’s finished he recites a poem. “Out of Africa comes the soul of man,” he says.
I ask about his brothers, if they sing for tourists, too. “I do not want them to be like me,” says Mbongeni. “I want them to study so they can do something.” He says he studies, too, when he isn’t hustling on Vilakazi Street. “I do not want to have one job, like a lawyer,” he says. He wants to be a singer, a TV presenter, a poet. “I want to do many things.”
Up the street a pretty young woman calls out to me. She wants to know who I am, where I come from. She says her name is Refilwe and she is opening a spa – she jerks her thumb to a storefront, where two construction workers are busily laying tiles. “Next week it will be finished,” she says. “You can take a picture and come back in a week to compare.” So I take a picture:
“Do you have a girlfriend in South Africa?” asks Refilwe. I tell her I’ve only been here for three weeks. She bats her big, attractive eyes and takes this information in. Clearly this is a problem for which she’d like to propose a solution. She invites me to the opening party for her spa the following week. I tell her I live a long way from Orlando West. “I will come get you,” she says.
Arms waving down the street – Alpha Team is moving out. I exchange numbers and complicated, South-African handshakes with Refilwe. Her friends are hooting with mischievous laughter. Inside the bus much happy chatter – lunch has lifted everybody’s spirits. It is a marvelous afternoon, blue and sunlit. Everyone is leaning across the seats, comparing pics. Someone proposes an evening of wine and photos – we’ll send the best of our shots to Mark, the group leader, and arranging a viewing party. It sounds like a swell idea. Our bus motors up the street. People outside are flashing thumbs-up and waving.
A bathroom break at the Hector Pieterson Museum – we have the bladders of toddlers, a situation not helped by the lunch-time beers. Outside a black woman is explaining to her young son the history of Pieterson’s death, and the Soweto uprising. “That is when the black people started fighting against the white people who were oppressing them,” she says. Pieterson was killed by police fire during student protests over the introduction of Afrikaans as the official language of instruction in schools. He was only 12. His death – captured in the iconic photograph by Sam Nzima, below – became one of the symbols of the apartheid struggle. Jerome is explaining the history of Pieterson’s name: it was originally Pitso, he says, but the family changed it to Pieterson, hoping that they could pass for colored (mixed-race) and be granted privileges under the apartheid system that were denied to blacks. Jerome, it turns out, who works for the railways, is also something of a writer; he’s written and edited, by his count, thousands of Wikipedia entries, including this one on Hector Pieterson.
These last, lazy hours of daylight. Barreling down the freeway, endless advertisements painted onto traffic medians and walls. Dreadlock Art. Dreadlock Artists. Cool Ideas Catering Equipment. Handsome Pest Control. The Road House Buy & Braai (“Here chilling is a factor!”). And the funeral parlors – a generation of black South Africans, wiped away by AIDS. Mashigo Funeral Services. 4 Roses Funeral Parlour (“We cover families at reasonable prices”).
Outside the Regina Mundi church – itself a symbol of the apartheid struggle – men in suits, the parking lot full of black sedans. There is a funeral service inside: Sheena Duncan, the former leader of the Black Sash – a group of middle-class white women who fought against apartheid and gave legal counsel to poor blacks. This day has had a bit of everything. Stepping awkwardly with our cameras. “We don’t want them to think we’re paparazzi,” someone says. I busy myself with bits of graffiti painted on a nearby wall. Embarrassed by how little I know about the country I now call home.
On our way home, driving through the tidy streets of Soweto’s middle-class suburbs, we pass a busy playground full of screeching kids, swinging on swings and sliding down slides. Everyone marvels at their exuberance – such joy, such reckless freedom, splashed across their faces. No overbearing dads keeping a wary eye on the kids; no nervous moms on the lookout for strangers. It is impossible to imagine such a scene on the northern side of Empire Boulevard. Even here, in hectic, modern Johannesburg, I get a sense of that same trust in the community that I’ve encountered in so much of rural Africa. The older kids are here to watch out for the younger kids, and everyone is here to watch out for each other.
It reminds me of a day a few weeks ago, when I was walking down the street in my very pleasant, leafy suburb of Auckland Park. There was a birthday party down the road – a great commotion of children’s squeals and colorful balloons drifting over the electric fencing. A gate opened as a car backed out of the driveway, and suddenly two apple-cheeked kids game bolting onto the sidewalk. Their faces were painted – little lion’s whiskers drawn across their cheeks. Soon a hysterical father came chasing after them. “Get back in here! Get back inside!” he yelled. They pouted dramatic little children’s pouts and dragged their feet behind them. The father, seeing me on the sidewalk, cracked a wry smile and said, “You don’t know who this man is. He could be crazy.”
“Even worse,” I said. “I’m American.” We both laughed at this.
But the scene filled me with sadness. Already, these children were being taught about walls, barriers, boundaries. Their most natural impulses – to be free – were learning the lessons of white South African life.
Late in the day, driving toward the sunset, we pass a busy gathering on the street: music, teenaged boys posturing, girls playing hopscotch. A few older men, sitting on milkcrates, deep in conversation.
“Look at that!” says a woman behind me. “Everything is happening out on the street. You wouldn’t see that in one of the northern suburbs.”
It is the saddest moment of the day – such regret, such loss, such longing in her words. I’m sure there was a time when white South Africans in Johannesburg, secure in the protected freedom of the apartheid era, would let their children play on the street, would walk freely with the neighbors, would enjoy the blessings that this marvelous Highveld climate has bestowed on them. Now this is a city of gates and walls and cars with their windows rolled up, a physical testament to the decades of separation that shaped this country.
Often, when I tell them about my life in Kenya, or Burundi, or Malawi, people here are stunned to hear how difficult it was to walk down the street without falling into conversation with a stranger. It is impossible for them to imagine how natural it felt – and impossible, too, for them to understand how, in such a way, you surrounded yourself with joy each day.
We reach the Apartheid Museum, where we are all brisk handshakes and goodbyes, heading to our cars. A woman is reciting, as if in prayer. “Just a wonderful day,” she says. “Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.”