Joburg’s Unfinished Journey

In Joburg’s old Prison Number 4 stands a flogging frame. Here political prisoners would be instructed to step on to it and be beaten with leather, wood, or metal. Colin, who is showing me around, steps on to it and assumes the position of the prisoner. “Take a photo, take a photo,” he says. It feels mawkish and shameful. “Take a photo. This is our history.” It is not a story of victimhood, he insists, but of survival, defiance, and victory. In the tiny isolation cells the prisoners wrote “A luta continua” – the struggle continues. And now the old prison is the site of the country’s Constitutional Court. On the same land where rights were most violated, they are now guaranteed. And in the court building, a special corner window provides a view of the old prison, to remind everyone from where the country has come.

For all the criticism made of the new South Africa, the word miracle is still justified. When twenty years ago I went from England to live in a black township, white South Africans overwhelmingly thought I was mad. Now white South Africans go on day trips to Soweto, to pay homage at the former house of Nelson Mandela, shop in Soweto’s markets and dine on pap and tripe while joining in freedom songs played by African bands. In a recent public attitudes survey, only 53% of white South Africans agreed that Apartheid had been a crime against humanity – but that’s a massive increase on twenty years ago, and many white South Africans are genuinely determined to live differently from their parents.

And there have been real improvements for black South Africans. Seeing in Soweto a new university campus, new gyms and car dealerships, new clubs and cafes, new houses and new modern public transport reveals a place of progress and aspiration for a substantial number of its residents – not a place only to aspire to escape from.

But millions remain trapped in poverty, and the entry of a minority of black South Africans into the white-dominated middle class has not uplifted the majority. Indeed, economic inequality – the gap between rich and poor – is now even greater than it was at freedom in 1994. In Sandton, Joburg’s centre of commerce and home for the wealthy, people complain about “loadshedding”, when the electricity cuts out for a couple of hours and people turn to generators. In an informal settlement in Soweto I meet Gladys who lives without any electric supply at all. There had been an electricity line that went over the settlement which some families, too poor to pay, had made unauthorised connections to. In response, the authorities cut the whole line. So Gladys cooks with a gas container and lights her shack with paraffin. Her energy costs per unit are higher than those of the rich. She earns money cleaning houses in the suburbs, but most days there is no work to be found.

Returning to the other South Africa, I go to meet a friend in a fancy rooftop bar. Twenty years ago, everyone in the bar would have been white. Now the crowd is a mix of black and white, but no single table is mixed except for ours, and both of us are foreigners. Not even wealth unites this room full of South Africa’s glamorous and successful. “Ah look,” I say hopefully as two white men walk across the room with a champagne bottle to sit with two black women, “finally some integration happening”. “I think you’re being a bit too hopeful there,” replies my friend. The men’s approach was uninvited, and their attempt to impress the women with their willingness to spend on champagne rapidly escalates into bullying of the (all black) wait staff. “Quickly, man, glasses, now!” Then, when a glass is poured too quickly and some bubbles overflow “What the fuck are you doing, man, for fuck’s sake!” and later, as a male waiter apologises, one of the men smacks (taps? hits?) him on the backside. My mind casts back to the flogging frame. Oscar, the waiter, ignores it. At last the men leave.

I ask Oscar how he managed to stay calm under such provocation. “It’s nothing,” he says, “I’m used to it.”

A luta continua.

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Ben Phillips

About Ben Phillips

Ben Phillips, currently based in Nairobi, is co-founder of the #FightInequality alliance, the growing movement for a more equal world. He has lived and worked in four continents and a dozen cities, and led programmes and campaigns teams in Oxfam, ActionAid, Save the Children, the Children's Society, the Global Call to Action Against Poverty and the Global Campaign for Education. He began his development work at the grassroots, as a teacher and ANC activist living in Mamelodi township, South Africa, in 1994, just after the end of apartheid. All his posts are personal reflections. He tweets at @benphillips76