Johannesburg, Ten Years Later

Writer: 
June 1, 2004
A campus gargoyle


Johannesburg is an easy place to be American. It feels familiar. Radio stations play the same hits. Movie theaters run recent Hollywood films. The amenities and comforts are all here (minus good Mexican food). It reminds me of my hometown of Atlanta--a city of suburbs and shopping malls, with tons of traffic and beautiful trees.

People often say it's not the "real" Africa, which irritates me. Of course it is Africa. True, it isn't rural and it doesn't have the romance and charm many of us associate with other parts of the continent. But it exemplifies one of the things I love about Africa, and one of its most overlooked qualities--diversity. Johannesburg is different from Dakar, different from Nairobi, different from Allada, Benin. Each contributes something unique to the continent.

My route to this city began long ago, though I didn't know it then. The year I graduated from Duke, 1989, the anti-apartheid movement was gaining ground in the U.S. Students set up township-style shanties on the quad, just outside the C.I. I am ashamed to say I walked by and remained, for the most part, ignorant of what was happening in South Africa. Yet, I took a class on African-American history before 1865 in which we studied the slave trade. This piqued my interest in Africa.

I got an internship at Africa News, a service run by two Duke grads out of a basement on Ninth Street. The summer after graduation, I compiled news clips from all over Africa, which were packaged into a newsletter sent to subscribers. I was hooked. My passion for the continent ultimately led me to a job as CARE's press officer for Africa. All of which brought me to Johannesburg.

The city does not immediately grab you. Lacking an obvious allure, it requires a little digging. Once you scratch the surface, you find a vibrant, creative, stimulating, and challenging place. Challenging because of the political and social complexity. This May marks ten years of democracy in South Africa. A decade into this experiment, Johannesburg is a place that forces you to examine your beliefs.

You may consider yourself a broad-minded, tolerant, and inclusive person, one who respects all people and believes in equal opportunities, regardless of race, class, and so forth. But what does that look like in a country with only a brief and recent history of equality, where 90 percent of the now 45 million citizens were oppressed by a white minority until a little over a decade ago? Consider the challenges of the South Africans and their government: They must find a way to raise the standard of living for tens of millions of people denied education and decent jobs for decades.

Where do they begin? On a limited budget, they are trying to provide housing, water, and electricity for people who never had them. The country is facing an AIDS catastrophe, with an HIV prevalence rate of roughly 20 percent for people aged fifteen to forty-nine. I spent Christmas changing diapers, bathing, and playing with infants at an orphanage where one wall bears the names of children who have died from AIDS.

Children younger than fifteen are entitled to a free, good-quality education, but many people in their twenties, thirties, and forties missed that chance and lack the skills for viable work. The country has an unemployment rate of at least 31 percent. Thirty-six percent of people live on less than $2 a day.

The crime problem is renowned; according to one police report, two out of every 100 people have suffered a violent crime. In our small office, two women have been carjacked this year. Like most who can afford it, I live behind a gate. Such affluent neighborhoods are still primarily the domain of whites, except for black women in maids' garb and black men in blue jumpsuits, indicating they work as laborers. Black South Africans old enough to be my grandparents call me ma'am and, by habit, address white men as boss.

People are free to buy homes and get jobs wherever they like. Those who can, do. Yet, it will take generations to overcome the effects of apartheid. Decades will pass before most black South Africans reach a standard of living whereby they can participate in society on their own terms. But, for the first time, the chance is there.

In stores, schools, theaters, homes, and restaurants, people of all races socialize. Sometimes I watch and wonder at the fact that, just twenty years ago, this would have been unthinkable. The country has gone through mind-blowing changes in an incredibly short time. And the South Africans have done it in a way from which we all could learn. Leaders preached messages of forgiveness and inclusiveness. Businesses and government are attempting to create job opportunities for "formerly disadvantaged" people, while not discriminating against the "formerly advantaged." The country grapples with real and perceived crime fears, and issues of trust and misperception. In short, they have integrated and are trying to build a society that benefits everyone. They are setting an example of reconciliation and collaboration.

So, where does this leave a white, foreign-aid worker who has been sent here to "help?" Sometimes confused, sometimes guilty, and always grateful. Grateful for the chance to live in such a fascinating place at a critical juncture in its history. Guilty for enjoying a level of comfort while most people are struggling. Confused by what to do--is it best to give money to the children in the intersections and to buy unneeded items from street hawkers? Is it justifiable not to? And, inspired. Inspired by the opportunity South Africans have to build a more equitable society, and the intelligence and thoughtfulness with which they are going about this complex task.

It's easy to find the negatives here. But it's the positives that intrigue me. Johannesburg forces you to think, to question, to feel. And that is something to celebrate.