Archive for August 2013

Train Travesties – Shame Abantu

There is no better way to sum my up the duality of my current existence than to follow me on my weekly trip to my office in Johannesburg.

My day starts off at 3h40 and is followed by a 4km walk to the nearest Metrorail Train Station at Mamelodi Gardens. I pay R6 and then hop off 20 minutes later at Hatfield and then cross the road to the Gautrain station and arrive in Sandton 34 minutes later.

This is the theory. In reality, the road that separates these two Hatfield train stations might very well be as wide as the Indian Ocean.

Based on 2012 stats, the Gautrain has a 98.6% success rate for trains leaving within a 3-minute window period of its scheduled departure. This puts it above global benchmarks such as the London Overground and Heathrow Express.

Quite rightly then, the Metrorail and I have an unhappy love affair. It has met its scheduled departure time exactly 0% of the four times I have graced its platforms. In fact, the trains have been 40 minutes late on average. If I had made a daily trip to Joburg this week, the 4h30 train I should have caught would not have arrived at all. It was broken with no serviceable replacement on standby. So the default would have been the 05h00 train with a double commutership clambouring for precious space onboard.

Today was just another depressing Metrorail interaction. This time a goods locomotive was on fire and had stalled on the track. Together with my landlord, we had to walk for 60 minutes to get to the next train station down dusty and dark service roads. He had no cash for a R14 taxi trip and neither did I. From the milling crowds at the “Eerste Fabriek” station who had also made cross-country treks, I heard the platitude “Shame umlungu.” Hardly shame for me. This is a transient experience. My daily livelihood does not depend on such an unreliable service.

And then I cross the road at Hatfield, I am crossing over into the developed world with lighting, security guards, signage everywhere, seats on a heated train and a passenger service that leaves to the second. The optimist in me says that surely if we can do it for the Gautrain, then why can’t we can do it for the Metrorail. After all, they both run on train tracks and leave and arrive at stations.

I hope that the R51 billion upgrade and expansion of the current rail infrastructure will actually start benefiting the voiceless because it is “Shame abantu” right now.

Highs and lows of the last week

The month is almost over. In a way it’s gone fast but in another sense it feels like we’ve been here for a very long time.

Here are some of the highs and lows of the last week.

1). Our weekend street party. The wonderful meeting of two worlds. A true feeling of embracing our rainbow nation. Sharing this experience with some of our friends and family from home and about 150 community members

2). I’m in Mamelodi alone tonight. Julian is away for a work trip and the children are having their first sleepover at their grandparents house. Before coming here, I would have been terribly afraid of spending a night on my own but I am really not in the least bit scared. As usual I am in bed early but I know I am surrounded by a loving and caring community. It is wonderful when fear is replaced by understanding and a small sense of belonging.

3). Buying sugar cane from one of the shacks here (several people have sugar cane growing in their back yards) and munching it happily with Julian and the children. A treat after a month with no snacks or sweets.

4). Anticipation of that hot shower I only have to wait a few more days for. It’s going to be bittersweet leaving but I am really starting to look forward to home. Counting down sleeps.

5). The turn of season. It is no longer so cold at night or in the early mornings.

6). Our health. We’ve managed to make it through the month with only a bout of flu right at the beginning. Otherwise been strong and healthy.

7). The children have really formed some wonderful friendships with the local children and have both grown in confidence and independence this month. They love going to the spaza shop in our street on their own to go ‘shopping’ for us.

And the lows.

1). Late one night over the weekend we ‘experienced’/ overheard one of our first township fights. We were in bed already but woke up to a huge racket near our shack with screaming, shouting and revving of a car. One guy wanted to hit another with a brick, everyone was shouting and it was fueled by alcohol. I’m not a fan of fights and even though we were locked safely inside our shack and it had nothing to do with us I did not like it one bit.

2). This week it seemed like the clothes washing was never ending. The children constantly dirtied their clothes then put on a new set and I spent hours hand washing. My hand washing skills are still not quite up to scratch and a few times I’d hang something up and when it dried would realize it was still dirty.

3). Getting tired of eating oats for breakfast everyday and too many beans, lentils and pilchards

4). The socio economic burden this month has placed on our hearts. Now we know. Feeling overwhelmed by the needs of the community.

5). Jessica throwing a temper tantrum in a taxi: ‘I don’t want to go to Mamelodi’ (luckily some kind lady had a sweet she gave Jess who ate it and promptly fell asleep thereafter avoiding a full blown melt down)

6). Passing some of the nyaope guys in the street twirling a beautiful diamond studded wedding band on their fingers. Feeling for the person it was stolen from (I’ve been a victim of an armed robbery in the past and it scars you) Angry at the drug/crime link and the fact that the police aren’t doing more about it.

A National Emergency?

IMG_3095 - CopyThere has been much interest in what happens after our time in Mamelodi. What are we going to do? What are we going to change? How are we going to make a difference?

For Ena and I, Mamelodi for a Month has always been about a journey and not a destination. It has been about creating a conversation rather than creating action.It has been about changing ourselves, not others.

In some ways, this frees us from the responsibility of having to start something, build something or create something. But we will forever be burdened by knowing that if we sleep in a warm bed, millions won’t.  When we go to our jobs, millions don’t. When our kids go to good schools, millions can’t.

This is no longer an academic concept for us. It is a real experience. I will forever be haunted by the wasted potential of the army of jobless in Mamelodi I meet on a daily basis. They should be welders, salespeople, accountants, teachers and so much more.

Are we really “Born to Suffer” as we saw graffitied on a nearby shack or are “Friends Few When Days are Dark” that was painted on another?

The problems with places like the Mamelodis of South Africa are too complex for any individual to influence. There are too many glass ceilings at play. Too many pieces of string to unravel. Sure, if an Early Childhood Development centre was started, that would be great, but what of the low quality schooling thereafter. What about the lack of electricity to study at night, what about the high rates of drug addiction and alcoholism that pull families apart. What about the exorbitant cost of transportation on the family budget. Even if all of these were addressed, where are all the jobs to strive for in the first place.

Surely this should be a collective National Emergency. We seem to have national key points around far more peripheral things. Do we want to have collective conversations that change contexts or are we happy for the context to define us.

If we sit back, can we really expect a mythical hero-leader to stand up and and rescue us from futures that increasing look like Nationalisation or Higher Tax Burdens to share the wealth around? How do we build stronger bridges rather than higher walls?

There is only so much we as a family can do. However, if this month of ours can inspire other people to be more proactive with the people their lives intersect with, surely more can come from it than just waiting for politicians to rise to an increasing loud call for action?

Mamelodi Street Party – A Meeting of Worlds

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Our Mamelodi Street Party on Saturday was our opportunity to introduce forty family and friends to our life in Mamelodi. It was a celebration of the meeting of two worlds – spanning not just the black and white divide but more definitively the rich and poor divide.


Crossing the first divide for our guests involved catching a taxi from Pretoria East to Mamelodi. Itumeleng was their very willing taxi driver. Earlier in the morning his passengers had been chatting about the white family in Mamelodi and this was his chance to be a part of the action.


What impressed Ena and I was how important this event was for Leah and her immediate friends. It gave them a face and a sense of importance of being central to hosting such a unique event. Behind the scenes, they had worked hard to brew umquombothi and pineapple beer for the festivities. I was amazed at their initiative and coordination in finding huge pots for the pap and the marshaling of an army of helpers to prepare the food. This was the community contribution. Everyone else brought the piles of meat and the result was an impressive feeding of a crowd that soon swelled 200. And unlike the biblical event, there was absolutely nothing left over.


Jan, our neighbour, was keen to make the point that this was not a Party but a braai. He was disappointed that Black Label quarts were not part of the equation and that its cheaper cousin, umquombothi was an unappreciated free alternative. But for the rest of the rest of us, it was a happy experience with kids running wild between the shacks and new friendships were crafted around the local shebeen’s pool table.


But when it was over, our friends caught taxis back to their cars and then drove back to homes with lights, heating and hot water, while Ena and I stayed on as the inside-outsiders. The local Sangoma had started conducting divinations for some of the revelers and we had the interesting task of politely asking him to do so out of the comfort of Leah’s living room. We also had to deal with Jan’s drunken monologue about the absence of Black Label and a rather scary drunken brawl a few meters outside our shack in the wee hours of the night.


And it was back to bucket baths, primus cooking, cold evenings and handwashing for us. At least for the rest of the week…

The Challenge of Charity

One thing that has started to plague us and I think plagues many others too is the question of how can we help or even if we should be helping in the first place?

This morning Leah came up to us and said please do not give anything to people who come and ask. We haven’t been (as we have no spare cash this month) but the reasoning went as follows: if we help someone, more and more people will follow causing a real problem for Leah and our other neighbors when the stream of needy becomes too big (as there are hundreds or thousands who need help) and eventually when the real needy are replaced by criminals. There is also a feeling of ‘handouts’ leading to complacency and laziness rather than addressing the underlying problems. Yet there is clearly a large need (especially where children and the destitute are considered) but how should this be addressed?

We’ve had several people contact us via our blog stating their willingness to help with a few offering to match our monthly spending in terms of a donation to a charity of our choice. We’ll now outline some of our own thoughts on what we can do with this money but what we’d love is to hear from some readers (many of whom have grown up or are still living in the context we are in but have infinitely more experience than we do about what forms of charity work and what don’t).

Some thoughts are (and again please feel free to comment and educate us):

  • The Neutral Approach: Give to one or two known charities in the area who we know are doing a good job.
  • The Targeted Approach: Give a whole lot of books to some of the crèches in the area. This will hopefully be to the benefit of the local children even though these are private institutions
  • The Long Term Approach: Support a child or children’s education (but how do you choose who to support? There are so many children and Leah doesn’t have young children.
  • The Networked Approach: Link up people like Elena (see WWYD with organizations that can help
  • The Localised Approach: Support to assist Leah in adding another room to her shack or upgrading the two long drops near our shack (
  • The Individualised Approach: Support one or two individuals who have shown ability but need a helping hand to assist in their economic empowerment
  • The Non Dependency Approach: Not provide any support as this might perpetuate the disempowering charity relationship that seems to already exist in such a marginalized community and further stereotype the haves from the have nots.


The floor is all yours!

Highs and lows of the last week

It’s been a busy couple of weeks. We thought that a weekly ‘highs and lows’ post would be good just to give some insight into some of our daily challenges and joys so here goes:

The highs this week have been
1). Afternoon strolls. Meeting people, hearing their stories and discovering some really beautiful gardens outside some of the shacks here in ext 6

2). The municipal park. The kids love playing there and it has served well as a school holiday outing change from home.

3). The positive response we have received from a lot of members of the public on our blog. It’s been very encouraging and much needed when things are tough

4). My parents arriving back in South Africa after 4 years abroad. Being able to show them where we are staying and spending an evening with them (I also had my first bath and shower this month while with them which was AMAZING)

5). Being taught the techniques behind successful hand washing of clothes by my friendly neighbours who clearly thought my clothes didn’t look clean enough after my attempts at hand washing

6). Getting used to sleeping on the thin mattresses on the floor and the cold and actually having a few really good nights of sleep

7). Julia befriending the lovely ladies at the spaza shop near us and spending many hours there getting her hair braided or just chilling with the girls.

And some of the lows

1). The all permeating smell of paraffin. Our shack smells of it. Our clothes smell of it and I’m sure the hacking cough I have is partly as a result if it

2). Bucket baths. Washing hair and bodies in a bucket with one kettle hot water and some cold water does not do it for me. I miss my shower

3). Hearing the very sad story of a lady a few shacks down from us who was arrested for selling dagga (marijuana) earlier this week leaving behind a 4year old who now lives in the shack alone with only the Nyaope guys as company at night. (Update: the department of social services has taken the girl so she’s not alone. Good news. )

4). Feeling completely overwhelmed by the media interest our month has generated. Torn between talking to people to generate much needed conversation in this country and telling the media to go away and leave us in peace

5). Leaving my parents to return to Mamelodi when we would have loved to spend more time with them.

6). Julian’s 4am wakeup to catch the metro-rail only to have to wait 45 mins in the cold for a delayed train

Rudolph and the Illusion of Meritocracy

Rudolph is a really smart guy. He has a matric exemption and a thoughtful, bigger-picture perspective that transcends his context. You would never know this from his appearance though. The mid-morning sunshine is already up in the sky and Rudolph still has his hoodie on. He has sunken eyes, his clothes are unkempt and his greeting is softly spoken outside our Mamelodi shack.

Despite what looks like a tough life, Rudolph refuses to be defined by his situation. He looks at the shacks all around us and says: “These people still have choices to live in these shacks. For most of them this is their second home. They choose to live here because it is closer to work” And to an extent he is right. My landlord is building a brick house in Mpumalanga for his wife and child. Leah has brick house in Mabopane. I caution Rudolph though. “Yes, we all have choices,” I say, “but remember because of my financial situation, I have many more choices than these people do.”

And herein lies another riddle of our country. I worked hard at school. I applied myself at work. I took initiative where I could. In this, it might be comforting to think that I deserved the subsequent merit. But then let’s think back to Rudolph’s case.

Let us stretch our imagination a bit. Imagine if Rudolph’s mum gave birth to twins. His one twin (we can call him Steven) was adopted at birth by a middle class family while Rudolph lived exactly the same life he has lived.  With access to much greater resources, Steven would have a much higher chance of benefiting from a good education and obtaining a tertiary degree (Economists reading this: I would love to know stats what these stats are!).

As a black South African with a degree, Steven’s chance of formal employment stands at 91%. (CDE: Graduate Employment in South Africa – A much exaggerated problem). On the other hand, Rudolph only has a 53% chance of being employed. (2011 Census: Black South Africans, Broad Unemployment Rate incl discouraged workers).

I call these odds the ‘Illusion of Meritocracy.’ As much as I would love to comfort my ego by seeing my own success in life as being self-made, I started off from a position of privilege and this made all the difference. My parents could own land, they could live where they liked, they had no restrictions on starting a business. My life was by no means easy, but these opportunities conspired to afford me private education. At university, I still needed a student loan to make ends meet. But again, my parents had collateral to offer the bank that financed my degree.

Rudolph’s contribution to the broader South African society is very negligible right now, but his potential is a different story. The bigger question out of all of this is : How we can create a situation where the Rudolphs in this country are not just surviving but thriving like Steven. This would be to our collective benefit.

The Illusion of Meritocracy is of course not limited to South Africa. Here are some closing thoughts from Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the Federal Reserve, discussing Meritocracy at the prestigious Ivy League institution, Princeton University

“The concept of success leads me to consider so-called meritocracies and their implications. We have been taught that meritocratic institutions and societies are fair. Putting aside the reality that no system, including our own, is really entirely meritocratic, meritocracies may be fairer and more efficient than some alternatives. But fair in an absolute sense? Think about it. A meritocracy is a system in which the people who are the luckiest in their health and genetic endowment; luckiest in terms of family support, encouragement, and, probably, income; luckiest in their educational and career opportunities; and luckiest in so many other ways difficult to enumerate – these are the folks who reap the largest rewards.”

Through the eyes of a child

I’ve been asked by some readers to give a little more insight into how the children are handling this huge shift in their daily lifestyle and routine. In a nutshell: remarkably! Give a child love and attention and they will be happy anywhere. There have however been some difficult moments.

During the first week in Mamelodi, the children still had to go to school which meant we had to get up really early to get them there on time. The mornings are very cold and waking a sleeping child to get them to catch a bus at 5am is not really fun. The early morning wake-ups also resulted in tired grumpy children in the afternoon where all the attention from neighbourhood kids sometimes got a bit much resulting in every mom’s nightmare: the temper tantrum/meltdown.

The children are now on school holidays and in a way it has been easier (no transport issues) but it too has some challenges. All the other kids are still at school so mornings can be a little long and boring. We have however discovered a municipal park about 20 minutes’ walk away that we go to most mornings. The kids love the park and we can easily spend an hour or two there with a little picnic. We’ve become really creative in terms of toys and activities. One fun ‘game’ is building letters, houses, train tracks etc with matchsticks. Julian has also become the master paper airplane maker and some afternoons when he’s around he’ll have to make up to 20 planes for all the children who play in our backyard. Every afternoon there are tons of friends for the kids to run around with, play hide and seek with, roll around in the dust with etc.

The children love helping with the daily activities such as washing the clothes, cooking and cleaning the shack. What I do find though is on a day where I don’t have to work and am home all day long with the children I am exhausted by the end of the day as I have to constantly be involved and playing with them: there is no TV as a distraction.

Food has been another area that has amazed me. The very first day we arrived in Mamelodi the children pulled up their noses at the vegetable soup I’d made for supper and said they weren’t hungry but since then they have never complained, asked for sweets or other food etc. Our diet is completely different to what we eat at home: lots of beans, lentils, pilchards etc. Yet they eat it all, say it tastes good and never complain.

We all sleep in one bed here (a habit I am sure is going to be difficult to break once we are back at home) but the kids love it. It’s warm and they feel loved and get lots of cuddles at night when it’s cold .

So all in all I can’t really say the children are easier or more difficult than they are at home: they are young, enjoy being around their parents and playing with friends. Have the odd melt down, but overall are having a great time but will also enjoy being home again after the month is over.IMG_3082

The Economics of Transport

It is almost halfway through the month of August and what has probably been the biggest logistical illumination so far is how expensive it is to get from Point A to Point B. Our shack rental for the month is R170 and by the end of today, our transport costs will have amounted to R432 already. These proportions are crazily out of alignment and I shudder to think what this equation looks like if you are a temporary worker in Sandton and live in Orange Farm or Soshanguve.

What sticks in the back of my mind is a recent quote by Professor Karan, a National Planning Commissioner, who said “What makes society most unstable is the cost of living.” It nags me then that taxi prices will rise in a week or two to mirror the increased petrol price and add burden to us and many other people trying to balance the budget.

Imagine then that you are a Mamelodi resident with 3 children and qualify for a child support grant of R290 per child. Lets looks at two scenarios. In the first scenario, you stay at home with your children and have no income other than the child grants. There are no transport costs as you do not work. Your household income is R290x3 = R870 for the month.

In the second scenario, you have a job paying R2900 per month (the threshold to qualify for a child support grant is a salary of R2800 or lower). Now you need to pay R200 per child per month to put them in creche for the day and lets assume that your taxi costs are 40% of your income (R1160). At the end of the month you are left with R2900-R1160-R600=R1140. Given the long hours and time away from your children, there is no a huge incentive to get a job in the first place (if you can even find one in the first place which is a whole new question) if you are only R270 better off because of it.

Of all the public transport I have caught over the last week (Putco bus, Metrorail, Taxi, Gautrain), by far the most efficient have been taxis. But they are also the only transport not subsidised by the Government (My R43 Gautrain ticket last week should cost the equivalent of R129 if it were not govt funds).

Wouldn’t it be great if the government could subsidise 50% of the taxi fare (fuel subsidy) in exchange for undertaking an annual roadworthy check, implementing a smart chip payment system (collect more taxes?) and allowing cycling lanes to be built along key township to work nodes.

If you were earning R2900, you would now be left with R1720 after taxi fares – practically double what you would have received if you just stayed at home. This seems like much better economic incentivisation to start unraveling the apartheid-era, remote township planning that still defines the livelihoods of vast swathes of the populace.

WWYD: What Would You Do?

Elena was the name of a lady we met on the streets of Phomolong Ext 6 while going on an exploratory family walk this morning.

She is a tailor by trade and was recently awarded a contract of R115 000 by the Department of Social Development to make just over 300 uniforms for learners of a Mamelodi school. Each uniform comprises of a jersey, skirt and socks.

Elena gets a 30% upfront fee to support operating costs. She has used this to buy material from Joburg and some labour costs.

Challenge is this. With 80 uniforms completed she has run out of money to pay her employees. She is now feeling very stressed and no bank would offer her a loan. The local micro lenders charge 50% interest per month. She needs R10 000 to cover this operational gap.

Sounds a bit like one of those tricky interview questions but for Elena, this is a real life challenge.

Now here is the question: WWYD – What would you do?


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