Hard township life

Norbert Herrmann lived for two years in Johannesburg, South Africa. Supporting knowledge management for loveLife, a non-profit organisation that focuses on raising awareness of HIV/AIDS among the youth, he learned much about life and its problems in the area’s townships.
Soweto, the most famous township in South Africa. Bleyer/Lineair Soweto, the most famous township in South Africa.

Several of my colleagues at loveLife were HIV positive. One morning, a colleague did not show up. This was not unusual. The buses that link the business district of Johannesburg to the townships are unreliable, so commuting can take more than two hours. Often there are not enough buses.

A call came in around noon. The colleague had been attacked on her way to the office from the Orange Farm Township. She was assaulted and raped by the same five men who had raped her three years earlier.

She only returned to work months later and had used up the annual ten days of sick leave allowed in South Africa. The next time she would be absent, her salary would be cut, even if her absence were due to illness.

She wore an “HIV positive” T-shirt. One of the rapists must have infected her. A first small step towards more safety would be to put street lights in the townships’ dark corners, she said. Routes people walk to train and bus stops should be made safe in particular.

The HIV rate is excessively high in the townships where my friend Nkosana and most other colleagues live. This is why loveLife runs sex-education programmes at local youth centres. This is where young people find distraction from their often dreary existence and develop personal interests. One of loveLife’s programmes promotes art and culture. It was in this context that Nkosana – whose pen name is “Skyto – wrote his first poem years ago. He has since built the “Skyto Poetry Movement”.

Poetry slam

Nkosana invited us to a poetry slam session at Orange Farm and we were eager to attend the event. This township is located further south of Johannesburg’s South Western Township, better known by its acronym “Soweto”. Soweto can boast of having the only street in the world where two Nobel Prize winners once lived. Both Nelson Mandela and Bishop Tutu were once at home in Soweto.

Our appointment was at two in the afternoon at the old Orange Farm Community Centre. The place was not indicated on any map. Google Maps did not help either. We asked Nkosana to indicate the location on our map, but he was clueless. Map reading had not been taught at school. Barely anyone at loveLife could read a map, which is probably why I have never got an accurate answer when I asked for the exact locations of our 20 youth centres across the country.

Nkosana could only say that the Community Centre was located on the left side, two streets before the Pick & Pay supermarket. There were no signs. A colleague said there used to be one for the youth centre, but it had quickly faded under the hot African sun.

We drove there early. After a long search, and after asking many people, we actually found the Community Centre. We were the first ones to arrive. We strolled around and saw road signs stuck full of adverts for local spiritual healers, practicing in rented garages. Street barbers offered to cut our hair on the spot. We had conversations concerning dangerous animals in the surrounding highlands, but no one had actually seen a leopard. There were not even owls in the area, although there were special projects in townships in other parts of the country to breed them. Owls feed on mice and rats.

Most of the young guests who were expected for the event did not know the exact location either. A few travelled the way from Pretoria, and one even came from remote Rustenburg. All had a hard time finding the place and had to ask their way. Most arrived late.

The event started at five, and darkness set in at dusk. Development workers were always warned not to go out after dark, because that was considered too dangerous in South Africa. The streets were considered too dangerous for young people too. Depending on the season, dusk is between 17:30 and 19:00.

Had the youth at our event even wanted to get home in daylight, they would have depended on minibuses or “taxies” with irregular schedules. To go from Orange Farm and return to their apartments, they would have had to travel in stages – transferring from one means of transport to another. There was no way they could manage that in daylight.

Over 40 poetry enthusiasts were gathered and the recitation began. The young men and women knew their poems by heart and performed well. The majority was female. The lyrics were about love and pain, but also dealt with the mud that turns townships into islands one cannot leave when it rains. Some of the recitals morphed into hip-hop and beat-boxing.

We heard poetry in languages we did not understand. South Africa has eleven official languages. English is common in Johannesburg and surrounding areas, but it is normally people’s second language.

Omnipresent danger of crime

Many of the performers carried their backpacks all the time, even on stage. Nkosana told us the reason: in the townships, one must always be ready to flee in a second. The danger of being attacked by criminals is omnipresent.

Some place have particularly bad reputation. At the time, the Ponte Tower in Hillbrow was infamous and dangerous. This high-rise building was inaugurated in 1975. It was supposed to serve as luxury accommodation for rich white people, but decline set in when the government stopped funding for a peaceful Hillbrow, which was called a “gray” neighborhood due to its mixed black and white residents.

From the mid-1990s on, Ponte Tower became a centre of crime. Criminal bands moved in and set the pace. The residential tower was rehabilitated only a few years ago, with high security efforts ensuring that only residents can enter the building.

We never went to Ponte. Instead, we often went to the Carlton Centre, the tallest building in the country. As an unaccompanied white couple, we used to attract attention. One local guide who was escorting two Japanese women pointed at us once and said: “See, it isn’t that dangerous here. Those two are definitely Germans, and they dare to come here by themselves.”

When I told my black colleagues about our downtown excursions, I would often be warned of dangers. They never went to downtown Johannesburg. Brutal robbery was not uncommon. Three friends were mugged in Delta Park while biking. They came home without their bikes and cell phones. Another friend, a blonde woman, was bold enough to negotiate with a thief and he actually allowed her to keep her phone.

Malls and gated neighbourhoods are generally considered to be safe, although one can get robbed there too. To Nkosana, shopping malls, which are blatantly advertised as being “for the fortunate few”, are the epitome of progress and security. This is especially true of the malls in Sandton, a wealthy district.

Even the police would sometimes say it was “stupid” to stop at a red traffic light at night. Signs warning of criminality were displayed in many places, even at motorway junctions, revealing the powerlessness of the South African government. Instead of effective crime prevention, stickers are distributed.

“Smash and grab” is one of the risks. Thieves smash car windows and grab what they can get. Some people use protective stickers on the glass, but that just leads the criminals to use heavier instruments or bigger stones.

On the days the garbage was collected, streets were always busy early in the morning. The poor would go through each garbage bag searching for useable ware. This was an informal first stage of waste separation.

When the municipal disposal service went on strike for several weeks, the regular garbage man rang our friends’ doorbell. He offered to pick up the garbage for “only” 50 rands – the equivalent of three euros – and dispose of it “privately”. This episode was symptomatic of many infrastructural problems in South Africa.

Norbert Herrmann spent two years as a development worker in Johannesburg, South Africa, working for the HIV/AIDS awareness group loveLife. He recently published a collection of essays containing his impressions and illustrations by Enikö Gömöri.
Herrmann, N., and Gömöri , E., 2015: Black and White | Black on white – experiences from South Africa. Books on Demand, Norderstedt.


Poetry from the Orange Township Farm:

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