Sunday, March 7, 2010

South African Sidewalks

Packed into a seat next to a passenger overflowing into my seat, I endured the 9-hour ride and a Madea Goes to Jail movie that was on repeat, finally arriving in Johannesburg, South Africa at about 3:30 in the a.m. I'd been on the fence about going to South Africa because of the high standard of living (I didn't want to be back in the US), but the political and racial history and how it relates to poverty was too intriguing to pass up. (The pic, by the way, is nuses seen in the apartheid's blurred because the museum workers were yelling at me that pictures weren't allowed...whoops...and I was pulling away, but I think it's kinda stylistic as it is)

My good friend and former cross country teammate Thomas Davis, in a wonderful article, points out the many different definitions of poverty, and how insecurity from high levels of crime can serious affect standards of living. Having more money probably doesn’t mean as much in a place where your mobility is curtailed, where you fear being robbed every time you go out. Hence my decision to skip Cape Town - which is further away and a place I’ll probably visit in the future - and start in Joburg, the crime capital of the world. I’ve heard too many stories of cloned credit cards, car jackings, and warnings just short of “You will die.” Sounds fun.

I wanted to feel what it was like, and feel I did. After a first night at Diamond Diggers (DD) hostel, I went for a run to the left, heeding warnings of the hostel owner. DD has the unique position of being right on the edge of wealthy suburban Joburg and the poverty-stricken industrial center.

The first thing I noticed were the sidewalks – uncracked, unobstructed…a first since being back in the States. Manicured lawns and canopied streets were the backdrop for razor wire and electrical fencing, stark reminders of the criminal threat.

The next day I went right (I’m an ambi-turner). Skipping over potholed and half-destroyed sidewalks, I was immediately surrounded by liquor stores, auto repair shops, and abandoned warehouses. However, the people were friendly, telling me to “keep it up” and helping me with directions when I found myself lost. The next morning I went back for more.

After the run that day – Thursday if you’re counting – I rode a local minibus into the center of town, the “no-go zone”, to just walk around and chat with people. I had some breakfast on the street, watching people go by. I ended up talking with a legal street DVD seller named Jabu. I was excited to see this, and hear him rationalize to me that we need to support actors and producers. The 42 year-old father of five lamented to me that before he was a carpenter, but because of the cheap foreign labor, he has lost his business and no longer employs his two employees. Cheap temporary laborers from Zambia, Mozambique, and other nearby countries, he said, are willing to work at a fraction of the price of locals. That money will mean much more back home. “These foreigners, they’re killing us. They’re killing us,” he said. This job/labor problem would be a recurring them, I've found. After an hour of talking and striking up a friendship, I told him I would contact him when I was in hometown of Soweto, the historic apartheid township and my next stop.

So far, the South African natives have been extremely kind to me, and rarely did I feel insecure. Certainly, I was only in the center of town once, not a 100 times – something might happen then. And the racial matters seem to be quite improved from what I’ve heard from people. But something I just couldn’t get out of my head was that if we are always looking, walking - and running - the other way, never mingling, will racial differences ever be eliminated?

1 comment:

  1. I think more of us should be ambi-turners, Rob. Glad to know where you are and what you're up to. Hope you get back to a computer soon.