Sunday, October 21, 2007

A day in Alexandra and Soweto

Sunday, September 30th, we were to explore the other side of South Africa, as we planned a trip to the Alexandra and Soweto townships. First we planned to attend a Lutherans service, and then to get closer to the poverty in South Africa. I do not think any of us was prepared to see what we saw, and the new South African government is facing a daunting task to provide housing for the underprivileged black population.

To travel into the townships is nothing you should do by yourself. We had the company of Arne, a Norwegian social scientist living in South Africa and a local guide, Sepive, that gave us a first hand knowledge on daily life in these townships. Traveling by yourself may pose serious risk and I recommend that you consult, for you own safety, a local if you are thinking of visiting townships.

On our way to church we passed through Sandton, ironically the richest part of Johannesburg, and as we entered Alexandra we were struck by the contrast. It was hard to believe that this was the same country.

We visited a small Lutheran church. The service started at 9 AM and lasted for two hours. It was held partly in English, and partly in the local African language. It was a truly powerful experience, as the songs from the men and women of Alexandra brought tears to your eyes. The rhythm and joy through the dance and the songs performed in this small church room felt very strange for us strict Lutherans, raised in Scandinavia. Where we live, the religious service is a monotonous affair, where people hardly raise their voice as they sing. In Alexandra they sang a capella and marked the rhythm with their hands as they hit their Bibles. The spirit experienced in the poor church in Alexandra is so powerful, that will follow me to the day I die.

As we left the church we were joined by our guide, Sepive. He was a native of Alexandra and training to be certified as a guide. With him to take us through the townships we were in for a very interesting day.

Alexandra has a population estimated to 750 000, it may be more, it may be less, as every day there are people moving into Johannesburg from the countryside to find work, and many of these end up in townships as Alexandra.

Within the township themselves, there are large differences. New and more prosperous neighborhoods for the new black middle class is growing up not far from terrible shacks built for the newcomers. I have, however, in general never seen poverty in such a scale as in Alexandra. You will never find similar living conditions in Europe, as you find here. Within the township Sepive showed us the large blocks built by the apartheid regime in order to house workers needed to keep up this terrible oppressive system. One large block for women, and one for men, with their families living far away, out of sight for the rich oppressors.

Still, visiting these townships today, one should bear in mind that the South African democracy is young, as it has worked a little more than a decade. Things are happening, but the scale of the problems makes the progress less visible. As old shacks are torn down and new houses are built, more people move into the townships and new slums appear. This is a very difficult situation to cope with for those trying to relieve the problems for the poor. And Alexandra is filled with small enterprises that provide small scale services to the inhabitants.

Alexandra is a striking contrast to the conditions of the white population that still enjoy the same living standard as they had during the apartheid years. Some do fear that that the lacking progress in townships Alexandra, may develop into a revert racism against the white population, as it has in Zimbabwe. But our friend Arne was not that pessimistic and pointed to what has been achieved by the ANC government and that things are getting better, slowly.

After the visit to Alexandra, we left for the most famous of the townships around Johannesburg - Soweto. Soweto is even bigger than Alexandra, with a population between 1 and 2 million. Soweto has the same contrasts as you find in Alexandra, but its status as the home of the leaders of the ANC has made progress more visible here. We went to Soweto to see the house of Nelson Mandela and eat lunch, and we did both, and after this visit we went to study some native mythology.

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1 comment:

Houses for sale in soweto said...

I live in Alexandra, and I am glad you visited us!

I'm a taxi driver who also tries to be a real estate agent in my free time.

Anyways - it great to see travellers like you appreciating who we are and where we come from.