Posts Tagged ‘township’

I can’t use the ‘I didn’t know excuse’ for the second time

Phomolong

Although the Hewitt’s experience Mamelodi for a Month has been written and talked about (and hit the front pages of newspapers around the world), I heard about it last week when Julian Hewitt came to Rhodes University to talk at the invitation of Prof Pedro Tabensky.

In case you need a bit of info: Hewitt is one of those people who calls himself a “social entrepreneur” and he and his wife Ena and their two children, four-year-old Julia and two-year-old Jessica, decamped to a corrugated iron shack costing R170 a month in Phomolong informal settlement in Mamelodi to spend a month living there on R3000 (the median SA household income). If you go to the New York Times article you’ll see the aerial photos showing just how close the Hewitt’s home in a gated community is to Phomolong and how dense by contrast the living is in the squatter settlement.

I knew what some of the reactions to this venture would be (for instance see this Thought Leader piece by Sibusiso Tshabalala) but I was drawn to his talk because I’ve had my own Mamelodi experience and I was interested to find out about his.

My experience of Mamelodi dates to 1985 when casspirs surrounded the township and you needed permission from the police to get in. Ds Nico Smith who had moved into the township and was living there legitimately on church land as the minister of a congregation deliberately set up the encounters to get white South Africans to come into townships and meet fellow South Africans and get to know them. Hundreds of us from all over South Africa descended on the township and were smuggled in via the back routes and housed with willing families who were as curious about us as we were about them.

I had many of these kinds of experiences during the last half of the 80s when freedom and democracy seemed very far away, but when various people in the churches were already thinking about how segregated South Africans were ever going to live with each other if they knew almost nothing of each other’s lives and ideas. Cedric Nunn, the photographer who is at Rhodes as a Senior Mellon Scholar, reminded me this week that the churches were playing a very particular role in that time when most organisations were either banned or paralysed by apartheid repression.

Those encounters and conversations had profound effects on me. As a young adult I made decisive choices about where to put my energies and convictions as a result of speaking to and hearing black South Africans on their home turf.

When I listen to Julian I get some of the impetus that drove them into the township. The smothering love of families that want to keep you and your children safe from harm; the dinner table conversations that blame, blame, blame (the poor if not the government); the endless talk of ‘entitlement’ and decay; the powerful sense that we are cocooned in a white world.

But it seems that the strongest reason was the simplest; Julian says if his two daughters are to make a home in South Africa in the future then they have to know, feel comfortable and connected to all South Africans. “To be a responsible parent, I don’t want my children disconnected from social realities,” he said.

But there’s another: Julian is a Christian and while he is not an evangelist, he asked the audience one simple question: “Do you think if Jesus came back today he would be living in a suburb or a township?” He seeks ways to “make my faith real” against the attitude of many whites that “I pay my taxes” and therefore have no further responsibility to do anything else.

He reminded me that gestures of solidarity, reaching across divides and extending oneself to find out and understand were important features of the churches’ activities in the late 80s and how we arrested that process and called a halt when the larger political events overtook us.

But he also had pointed comments to make: “The second transition is coming our way, the economic transition. As a white South African I cannot for the second time use the excuse ‘I did not know’. I must expose myself to the context.”

The result has been “a whole new lens” on life in South Africa for the majority of people, and Julian says “it’s a burden, it’s hard to integrate and translate this knowledge”.

When the Hewitts returned home, the day they arrived a tree in their garden was uprooted by a storm and fell over, clearing the view between their house and Phomolong. A giant township light fitting which worked intermittently while they were there, can now be seen shining brightly from their house. Julian takes it as a symbol of connection to their neighbours and community in Phomolong.

For the Rhodes audience he summed up the lessons he takes from the experience:

  1. Newsworthiness = national disconnect. The irony that a white family living for a short time the way the majority of South Africans live all the time being news is clear to him. The way this is reported, he says, shows a powerful disconnection from that reality. And of the role of the media in shaping public opinion, he says: “Oh my word, this was so not the kind of message I wanted to send out.”
  2. Transport costs are the highest costs and eat nearly half of everyone’s income in townships. This is a political problem that needs addressing. For Julian to get to his office from Phomolong cost R37 on the Gautrain and R45 by taxi. Taxis need to be subsidised. Transport costs are a massive disincentive to look for work which is far away.
    breakdown of month spend
  3. In response to the criticism levelled at this from of ‘slum tourism’: “the critic isn’t in the ring, the acid test is how we were received by the community we lived in”.
  4. South Africa needs new levels of leadership: open-minded and open-hearted, able to create empowering environments for resourceful communities.
  5. If we don’t create the conversations, the context will create them.
  6. Small things matter; the way you carry through your humanity.

Where a hippo refused to leave

The area where Ginsberg Township is situated is best remembered for two things: as the birth place of Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko, and as the site where the hippo – Huberta – walked to!

The township is separated from King Williams Town by the Buffalo River. The establishment of the location enabled authorities to start segregation policies under the banner that the advent of the bubonic plague necessitated better housing for the natives (amatole museum.net).

So in the heartland of the Eastern Cape you have a situation that plays out in many towns and cities across South Africa: separation of people along the lines of race and class. The leafy suburbs are in the north, and the dusty streets of the township in the South; between them a river which; for the longest time had to be crossed using a rickety old bridge.

From a mere fifty huts, constructed because of the sweat of respected councillor Franz Ginsberg, the township has grown into a large residential area with a shortage of housing. This is ironic because when the 10 shilling huts were first constructed in 1901, the area was slow to intake inhabitants but it later picked up (amatole museum.net). Obtaining statistics for Ginsberg is near impossible but the municipality which it is under (Buffulo City) has just under 800 000 inhabitants. The larger area, King Willaims Town is home to over 200 000 of those people (geohive.com). One could make the rough estimation that the location that was slow to grow has roughly 100 000 living souls.

King Willaims Town is still largely an agricultural area with many living in the rural areas. The areas close proximity to Bhisho; a township, the Eastern Cape capital, and parliament has steadily insured the areas reliance on government for employment. Over 45% of the population is in the expanding unemployment ratio; a figure that includes those not looking for jobs (Miti, 2013). This gives a starker view of the area, beautiful plain lands, dusty streets and lots and lots of unemployed people. And it also follows that the poverty ratio is very high.

The most profitable enterprise next to pig farming and funeral parlours is operating a shebeen. The daily life or routine of a majority of people in Ginsberg is to drink the cheapest liquor that can be found. Weekends look like a scene in a Zombie movie, the walking dead staggering home. Most schools surrounding the area are a street away from a liquor store, recess soon becomes a break to the watering hole.

It sounds like a story we have all heard before, a story about doomed black youth who face extraordinary challenges. The story in this case however is not about doom but activity. The question is what do these people think? How do they understand the world around them? How are their views different from people in different circumstances?

My study of the audience seeks to find these answers. I am looking at the importance of the context of viewing when looking at a text. John Fiske (1984) writes that we need to shift emphasis away from textuality and ideology to socially and historically situated people. Ien Ang notes that the audience cannot be aggregated because the way that the programme is watched is part of the act of watching. Therefore the shift within audience studies emphasises understanding specific people rather a general number.  What does this have to do with Ginsberg location?

Well imagine what is going through the minds of these particular youths as they watch the most popular soap in South Africa. Imagine what they get up to when they watch? Are they watching? The reality is that for those living on the other side, it becomes hard to imagine.

References

Fiske, J. 1987. Television culture. London.

Morley, D. 1991. Changing paradigms in audience studies. In Sieter et al (eds). 1991. Remote Control: Television Audiences and Cultural Power. Routledge.

Miti, S. 2013. Eastern Cape jobs continue to take knock. Daily Dispatch. Published 7 May 2013.

Pienaar, S. 2003. Ginsberg: an early history. Imvubu. 15:3. Retrieved 22 May 2013 from http://www.museum.za.net/index.php/imvubu-newsletter/92-ginsberg-an-early-history-researched.

King Williams Town population figures. Retrieved 22 May 2013 from http://www.museum.za.net/index.php/imvubu-newsletter/92-ginsberg-an-early-history-researched

Township Tours and the human spectacle

I wrote an article last year about a ‘township tour’ that I took part in. The piece was literally dripping with tears of emotion and sentimental guilt. I could not believe that in my fourth year at Rhodes University, after resisting so many of those guided tours into the black populace, I was roped into one.

The trip was a mandatory part of our course, we had to write about the experience, and I guess it was for the purpose of broadening our horizons. However, I believe that is the first major wrong about the situation. We had to go into people’s spaces as voyeurs, as writers, as plunderers, as seekers of material and as exploiters of chance.

Our aim and goal was never congenial, never for the purpose of reaching, touching, smelling, or seeing beyond the surface. We did not have the time to witness brick upon brick the building of a house, or a family of five, previously homeless, making the harsh environment a home. We were not the neighbour that greeted across the fence, or the passerby that looked in or the lost traveler stumbling through, or even the stray. We were lookers through the glass window. We were prying eyes in a combie, leaving a cloud of dust behind us. We were on safari, wide eyed, staring, gaping, gawking, pointing, marveling, pitying, reassured, and glad that this reality was not ours.

We held starving babies and made weird ‘aawh’ noises that sounded strange the minute they escaped the lips. We took pictures of wry smiles and understandings that we were uselessness personified. We stayed as long as we had to knowing that plenty awaited us on the other side. We hated ourselves for crossing the divide. We hated ourselves for being ourselves and loved ourselves for being ourselves and not them. The ‘other’ from across town, the ‘others’ from the hilltop where the sun squats half the day looked through us.

We noticed the lack of trees, and quiet, and plenty, and the abundance of scarcity. Soon it was time to go and it was not soon enough. We waved; it was awkward. They waved, a little embarrassed and amused that we had come all the way.

In retrospect I guess the trip was a success. Some people probably never went back to the township; the tour was their first time. To them black locations are an experience, one they won’t have again, and one that makes for good story at a dinner party.

Is it useful? It’s sometimes necessary to force people to go, to make them leave the comfort of campus and see how wider Grahamstown lives. I have no qualms with the principle of the tour. My problem is that if we look at it, it’s a space that needs to be scrutinised and evaluated. We need to assess the way that it is done and see if there aren’t better ways, more useful ways we can introduce different cultures, classes and races to each other.

The current model threatens being a zoo-like experience; the better-off going to view the human animal. Hopefully with the help anthropological studies conducted Dr Joy Owen (Lecturer in Anthropology at Rhodes University), theory will formalize these ramblings of a destabalised mind.

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