(To any mother-in-law types out there worried after my last post – I’m fine. I just needed a little sleep.)
Another day in another of Johannesburg’s larger townships. I spent this morning in Alexandra, amazed at how much activity there was for a weekday. Densely-packed informal housing line narrow, dusty roads as people and cars try to share the right-of-way. An estimated 470,000 people live in a 5 square mile area. Each ‘lot’ can have up to 10 or more cinder block and corrugated metal houses. Yes, there’s poverty and crime and all the bad stuff we hear about. But when I was both in Soweto and Alex, the overwhelming feeling I got was that for the most part, people are generally content — even happy. I’m not saying their elated to live the way they do, but they don’t wallow in it, either. This is their life. They enjoy it. They do what they can to make it better.
My fixer, Nandi, said there are many families in Johannesburg that trace back to Alexandra. Especially with the younger people, there’s a feeling that living in Alex is temporary, and that with education and other opportunities afforded them, they can obtain a better life. The problem, she said, is that most people who make it out of Alex don’t really come back, so there’s no reinvesting in the community to make it better.
So, here’s the interesting thing about Alex: this community sits right across the freeway from one of the most upscale areas of Johannesburg. It’s true for all the townships. They aren’t way out on the outskirts of town. They’re kind of just plopped right in the middle of things. My guess is that since the townships have been around so long, the rest of the city just kinda grew around them. I’ll touch on this phenomena later. (And, yes, it is a phenomena!)