I am riding my bicycle home, while passing a group of shouting white Afrikaners, having a huge barbeque and party on one of the nice campus grounds of Stellenbosch. Just a couple of hours ago I was still 1500 km away, next to Joburg in the Vosloores township. I spent six days in a world which white South Africans ignore, do not venture in and a world that made me more humble, more aware of my surroundings and showed me the side of this country which is the reality for most of its inhabitants.
My journey started last Saturday, when I got a flight to Joburg to spend the Easter holiday with my friend MZwakhe in the place he calls home, the township. Townships are the result of not just apartheid, but pre and post apartheid governance. Already at the beginning of the 20th century, laws were enacted to keep South African black people out of the white areas, which culminated in the 1950s when people were forcibly separated and interracial marriage was banned. Black and colored people were moved outside the cities in dwellings which were later dubbed townships, placing them as far as possible from white areas. MZ’s township lies 40 km from Johannesburg. Unfortunately the sprawling of squatters proliferated in the post apartheid era as well, in places like the Western Cape where the new black government translocated hundreds of thousands of black people into the squatters to dilute the white voting pool.
I ventured into a place that media describes as unsafe, which western media uses so often to “portray” the Africa westerners like to see (poor and not like us ‘good old Europeans’), in the statistically most crime infested city of the world, Johannesburg. And I got back humbled, amazed and thankful.
As Easter approached, I spent Saturday night and Sunday morning with MZ and his friends at the Christ Church next by. The Church was my first encounter with an institution which plays a great role in defining the identity of the township. It is a lively place, where people sing, dance, let go and pray for hope and a better tomorrow. I was amazed by some of the gospel singers, by their talent but I was not amazed by some of the pastors. A born and bread skeptic, I always question each word of so called spiritual leaders. Some of the speeches were oriented to make people believe that all of us can live in mansions and drive fancy cars, topics that should not be the focus of prayers and words spoken by pastors who are local celebrities and drive fancy cars. But as MZ puts it, these people need hope for a better life. Hope can come in different ways and probably a home economics lecture would help people better manage their small finances, than listening to false words.
The same scenario unfolded in front of me, as inRomania or other post communist countries or regions that were deprived from western living standards. In many cases I saw people spending money on useless car rims, expensive shoes or something to show off. But amidst this I met people of great character that made me rethink who I am, where I come from and where my life has gotten me.
Getting around the township as a white man will definitely turn heads. It is regretful that most of white South Africans never try to bridge a connection with the townships and ignore them by living in their bubble world of rugby, nice cars and swimming pools. I grew up as a minority in my home country, fought my way as an Eastern European in the West, but I never felt so conscious about who I am and what my skin color is. And coming from a society where whites are poor, middle class and rich I was amazed how people associated me with wealth and money, a reality they see among many white Afrikaners.
Being part of the township and its people means acting natural and open, not like some spoiled white kid. Once people see that you are approachable and not another upstuck ‘whitey’ they will truly open their arms. I felt accepted, understood and told them of my own background as an Eastern European. My understanding and acceptance of these people grew day by day as I got into the daily routine. And life is not easy. These places were purposely designed to be far away from the city, so you wake up at 6.45 am and catch a black taxi as white people refer to them. It is the only way to get into town, if you do not have a personal car. Small mini buses designed for 9 people, modified to fit in 15 passengers. I pulled over my first taxi, by holding my index finger and thumb together and showing my remaining 3 fingers, indicating that I am going to Joburg. And this is how I got by myself to Joburg, a white boy in a crammed little van with big mommas, papas, kids, bags and all that. The trip costs 12 Rands (1.2 euros), and you end up in the Joburg MTN Centre, a place that resembles Mogadishu. Joburg in itself is a mix of Africa and Manhattan. After 1994 the white people left the Central Business District to Sandton, and this area is now quite dirty. I ended up in minutes in neighborhoods where I was the only white guy for miles, immigrant neighborhoods with Africans from all over the continent, laid with filthy and bustling streets.
Advice for white travelers doing such a gig:
– do not talk to strangers
– if someone bumps into you, you continue your path
– if someone offers you to help, ignore him
– act confident, like you are from town and you know where you are going ( I didn’t have a map, I relied on my gut instinct)
– do not wear flashy clothes; plain simple, dark colored clothes
– keep your valuables in your front pockets and don’t act like an ignorant tourist
Joburg left me with a bitter sweet feeling, parts of it look like Manhattanwith high-rise buildings but the slums are beyond the corner. You have to leave Joburg before or at early nightfall to catch the last taxis back. There is no system how the blackcabs work. No numbers or routes. You have to ask the people which one goes where, you wait in a queue and when inside, each row of seats gathers the money and hands it to the driver. You will not be cheated. People are as fair as possible and they will give you back your last cent.
Tuesday was meant for Pretoria and I was lucky to take the black cab with MZ till Joburg and from there I went on my own with another taxi to Pretoria. Pretoria has the main government institutions but the streets tend to be filthy and you might get a marriage proposal from a black waitress in a fast food restaurant. It is worth visiting the UnionBuildings, the UNISAUniversity, the Church Square and the Kruger Street. If you have time also go to the Voortrekker museum.
Food in the township mainly consists of ‘pap’, made from white corn flower, a sort of porridge, and chicken. You might get fed up with it, and maybe it is not enough for your white stomach used to better food, but it will teach you to value food and you will know how it is sometimes to have an empty stomach.
In the townships themselves you can find all sorts of people. I met amazing characters like Mandla, who right now started working as an accountant for Ernst and Young. My esteem towards MZ grew day by day as I saw how he was one of the few people who was determined, who had visions, who took care of his mother and younger brother, built his own little house and who became a journalist for the Citizen, travelled around Europe, met influential soccer clubs and players who helped sponsor the local kids with football equipment. He was also the one to form the football team.
Wednesday caught both of us in a bad mood and we ended up fighting as we faced personal hardships and also the uncertainty of the future in our lives. But friends get passed quarrels easily. It is not easy at 26 to act as the main bread provider when the jobs are insecure. It is part of African tradition that anyone who has a job will have to support the rest of the family. As a more individualistic European it is hard to accept, especially when people will start relying on you and will constantly ask money. In many cases these family ties hold back gifted people to move on, as other family members are just not willing to earn their own income.
I saw how educated black people don’t believe in the current government’s populism and detest the corruption that unfolds on the government corridors. This also lead me to see the other side of the post apartheid era, many black government officials forgetting the struggle of their forefathers, diverting public funds and becoming the new generation of rich black South Africans, flashing their expensive cars on the streets. I was also struck by the fact that racism exists among blacks themselves. I never thought I would experience one black person detesting another for the color of his skin, because he is darker.
The rule is simple. Be streetwise, learn fast how the system works and respect the people as they will help you out. This is how I met Rethabile, a Pedi, who drove me to the Pilanesberg Game Reserve and from whom I learnt that you have to be streetwise and hustle if you want a decent living. Getting back from the reserve was challenging and I missed my last taxi back to Vosloores. Finding your way back home, from dark Joburg at 7.30 pm is not easy and a constant problem will be the inability of people to point you in the right way. People just don’t know maps (I didn’t have one anyway) and will have problems giving you directions. It might end up in frustration but the best is to ask as many people as possible and call up MZ or someone you know. This is how I got on a mini bus, ended up getting off at another stop, in the middle of a township where I met up with MZ and walked home from there.
The township made me aware of who I am and where I stand in life. It made me aware of my personal struggles of the last four years, as I chose to make it on my own. My childhood days spent in rural Romania helped me out, and I wasn’t set off from washing myself in a dish, seeing potholes in the road or be in crammed little mini buses. All the people I met were amazing. They welcomed me in their homes, they treated me like one of their own even though I was probably the only white guy that set foot there for a long time. It made me sit down and look myself in the mirror and realize how fortunate I am to be there and make the connection the local whites are ignoring to make. Whether it is my friend, the self entitled ‘passionate revolutionary’ MZwakhe, Mandla the aspiring accountant, Kwandile the bright law student or Renthabile the hustler entrepreneur, I realized that these people looked beyond my skin color, accepted me among them and made me feel like I am among people I have known for a long time. A feeling that I didn’t get so often in the West. It also made me realize how the modern day realities of South Africa are much more complex, how many of these people need to take 1,5 hours just to get to work in crammed buses but how also newly rich black yuppies forget about them and most whites ignore them. The township is the place where bright minds, soccer players, great thinkers are born but also the place where some choose to live from the pocket of others and choose to flaunt whatever they have. It made me change my view of this country, it offered me the insight I needed to have an objective image in front of me and it made me want to go back there when I will have the chance to visit Africa again. I realized that the words of Martin Luther King are still as alive nowadays as they were when he spoke them “A man should not be judged by the color of his skin, but by the contents of his character”. Siyabonga ma’bradas, sistas, mommas and papas. Shap!!!