Hope in the Shanty Towns


I arrived in Johannesburg late last month to the news that South Africa, for the first time in a generation, was back in the black. After 25 years of deficits, the ANC-led Government in power since the end of apartheid in 1994 had balanced the books and recorded a surplus of almost 11 billion rand.

The Finance Minister Trevor Manuel announced the Government would focus all its energy on nation-building: investing heavily in housing, education and health; and engaging in an ‘assault’ on the grinding poverty in which the majority of South Africans have lived for decades.

Such an assault can’t come too soon for people like Gladys, whom I met in Soweto. Gladys lives with her four children in an informal settlement, a ‘shanty town’ on the outskirts of Soweto. Her ‘house’ consists of two rooms, assembled from corrugated iron and cement sheeting, and has no electricity or running water.

She tells me that she and her youngest three kids, who are seven, nine, and 11, share the double divan that takes up almost all of the cramped, cluttered bedroom, while her oldest boy, aged just 13, sleeps on a mattress on the dusty floor of the all-purpose living room. Here, during the day, Gladys cooks on a single gas ring, which is perched precariously on a rickety table. In winter which she says gets ‘bitter cold’ she stuffs roots and coals into a rusty stove. The chimney has split in the middle and leaks noxious fumes into the family’s tiny home.

A series of plastic tubs outside the front door serve as bath, toilet and laundry. Her son carts water in old petrol cans from the tap at the end of the street.

Gladys is around 35 but looks far older. Her smiling face is lined by hardship and most of her teeth have given up their grip on receding gums. Her feet are clad in slippers and she wears a pale pink, scrupulously clean cotton housecoat. She is generous and good-humoured, welcoming our little group of tourists into her home, and laughing at our obvious discomfort in the sauna-like air inside. But behind the smiling face and warm hospitality Gladys is angry.

‘How long have you lived here?’ I ask her. She barks a hoarse, bitter laugh:.’Twelve years,’ she says. ‘Long time. Long, long time waiting.’ She throws her hands up in resignation. ‘They tell me, you vote, we get you a house. House wit’ electricity. But 12 years, no house. Nothing. I’m not goin’a vote no more. No more voting till I get a house!’

I thank her for her time, for welcoming us into her tiny, cared-for home, and walk out, waving back at this tough young woman as she stands in her doorway and watches the rich foreigners walk away. ‘Good luck!’ I call, and regret it immediately. Since when did luck play any good part in a life like hers?

Gladys is typical of the single mothers who inhabit the lowliest settlements in this the poorest and most populated part of Johannesburg. Our guide, a local man, tells us that the majority of adults in the shanty towns now are women widowed by violence or AIDS and struggling to raise their children alone. Yet their pride in their homes is obvious; their gardens are lovingly tended, and their children cheerful, looking out for one another as they play in the dirt roads between their wire-fenced yards.

Gladys in the doorway of her current dwelling

It’s only human nature, I suppose, to take pride in what you have, and hope for more. But, in this place, it seems heroic.

The last week in Johannesburg has been a revelation at once, everything I had expected and nothing like I’d imagined. As we walk back to our tour bus, we’re chased and grabbed at by beautiful, bright young boys, who kick a soccer ball towards us, beg us for change and to be taken home with us. I gladly give them everything in my wallet, unable to suppress my smiles at their cheeky grins and clever talk. They chatter excitedly about Johannesburg hosting the World Cup finals in 2010, and I boot the ball back to them, calling, ‘Goal!’ As they scuffle in the dust, squealing with laughter,

Back on the air-conditioned bus, the guide tells us that this ‘informal settlement’ will soon be a thing of the past: the Government is busy building housing estates in the nearby township of Soweto, and the last of these stoic people should be re-settled within five to 10 years. That will be more than 20 years’ wait for Gladys. Her kids will have moved on by then.

However, 20 minutes later, as we drive through the new developments, along recently tarred roads, hope is palpable. These housing estates remind me of the places in which my parents grew up in the north of England, and where my 87-year-old grandmother lived until last year in a home she started renting from the local council in 1948.

The new settlements

It is simple, semi-detached housing, formed in semi-circles around cul-de-sacs and spread out along the edges of narrow streets; comfortable, if basic, accommodation with indoor plumbing and electricity consisting of a small kitchen, two bedrooms, and a good ‘front room.’ It is compared to Gladys’s shanty town shack sheer luxury.

Clustered around burgeoning shopping centres and new, brightly painted public amenities, the new settlements represent a huge leap forward for people who, just over a decade ago, were still denied the most basic human rights in this relatively wealthy country. They might be 100 years behind similar developments that gave my English grandparents a place to call home, but to make a century’s progress in only a dozen years of democratic rule is a significant and admirable achievement.

I know this isn’t the whole story. I’m sure my experience of Soweto is superficial, and that I’m looking for the best perhaps too eager to find reasons to applaud post-apartheid South Africa. But still, in Gladys’s canny understanding of her plight and her switched-on engagement with the politics of her position; in the genuine faith of those soccer-mad boys in the future of their World Cup city; and in our guide’s obvious pride in the progress he sees in his home town there is something that lifts the spirits, and gives me hope that people, when allowed to dictate their own destiny, will find the best way forward.

I feel lucky beyond belief lucky to have been born to the children of people that fought their own way out of poverty; lucky to have arrived in the Western world in the late 20th century; and lucky, above all, to have been raised in the paradise that is Australia.

This feeling lasts until, on the way back to our hotel, I hear another member of our comfy tourist group lean forward to thank our guide. ‘We just don’t have this sort of poverty in Australia,’ he says. ‘It’s just not something we could ever see at home.’

Of course, he’s wrong, but, like most of us, he’s never ventured outside of his domestic comfort zone. He’s completely forgotten about our own Indigenous people, our own poor Blacks.

And it hits me that, shamefully, race and colour now bode more ill in Australia than they do here in South Africa.

Suddenly, I don’t want to go home.

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