Visiting Alexandra Township in Johannesburg with One Young World
One of the most valuable parts of the One Young World summit in South Africa was the opportunity it gave us to explore the real Johannesburg, speaking to locals and learning about the contextual reality they are living within. I and 20 or so others went to Alexandra, a township spanning just 1.6km squared that’s officially home to 750,000 people (however the unofficial figure is upwards of 1 million). Alex lies just 4km away from Sandton, the business heart of South Africa (and in that measure all of Africa) where skyscrapers, pristine shopping centres and the wealthy (predominantly white) class live and work. How can two extremes co-exist in such close proximity, and how do they cope with such inequality?
We entered Alex with a girl who lives there as our guide. First of all she took us into her “house” where she lives with her sister & daughter, which is a single room made of corrugated iron, without any windows, and small enough to be the same size as my hotel bathroom in Sandton. The paths between the shacks in the township are so thin you can only just squeeze between the houses, so densely populated is the area. It felt peculiar to be walking around as tourists in an area where people actually live, and I felt a pang of awkwardness whenever someone else in our group peered into a house or took a photo without first asking permission. I just didn’t feel welcomed there, and it seemed wrong for us to be intruding on these people’s lives.
After that we visited a women’s hostel, a large building which had formerly housed the miners who had flocked to Johannesburg from the countryside for work. Inside the hostel the women pay just 50 rand per month (that’s just over £3) for a room, and they have communal bathrooms and kitchens – it’s a huge step up from the township and copious numbers of children run around playing, asking to be photographed, and generally looking extremely happy considering their circumstances!
We then had the opportunity to meet the owner of a local graphic design company and internet cafe, and we took the chance to ask him about how he started up, how computer literate the inhabitants of the township are, and it was reassuring to see something thrive within the community where most people seem to be unemployed and under-educated. Our last destination within the township was the Leratong Joy for One Foundation, which is an orphanage founded seven years ago to house children either affected or infected with HIV/AIDS. Many of them have lost their parents to the virus, or suffer from the virus themselves and are thus rejected by their families and society in general. Here in the orphanage they receive a roof over the heads, food and nourishment and a quality education. However the orphanage relies on donations and it really needs all the help it can get to carry on providing such a vital function to these poor children from Alexandra. You can contact them by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 0027 011 882 7810.
The purpose of showing us around Alexandra was to demonstrate the dichotomy of South Africa, and to really hammer it in we were then taken to a place representing the complete opposite: the luxurious Gordon Institute of Business Science. We were treated to a 3-course meal with speakers from the university, and other people from all sectors of society joined us for the meal. I couldn’t help but feel this overwhelming guilt that I was sitting there enjoying exquisite food and wine in a brand new university campus, while not far away orphans that I had just met were reliant on donations in order to eat and survive. They had planned this contrast intentionally to show us the stark contrast, but it still left me shocked by the unfairness of South Africa and showed me the enormity of the problem. At dinner I was sitting next to the owner of the graphic design shop on my left, and a lady from Durban on my right. While eating we three discussed the situation of the townships and the conversation turned to politics and who they would both vote for in the coming elections in 2014. These two people couldn’t come from more different parts of society and it was fascinating to hear them discuss everything so candidly, and even they admitted that it was unusual to have an opportunity for them both to meet and be able to talk openly. This was hugely valuable and gave me an unparalleled insight into what South Africans truly think about their country, which in some ways has progressed a lot since the apartheid era, but in other ways still has a long way to go.
It was one of the best days of the summit and really opened my eyes to the deep divide that still pervades South African society – absolutely fascinating while also very saddening.