Archive for September 2013

The Beat Goes On

It was a rather pleasant experience revisiting our shack. Nothing stays still in ekasi for long and our home for the month of August already had new tenants.


It was a bit embarrassing to see how they had transformed the same space into something way more liveable than our ‘cheap-foam-mattresses-on-the-floor’ arrangement. In its place was a double bed complete with mosquito net, a two-seater couch and a fully fledged sound system with generator to boot.


What intrigued me even more about the new tenants was the unexpected joy in happening on two talented and ambitious musicians. I had previously met Doctor  around our evening camp fire. This time though, I found myself sitting on their couch enjoying an impromptu hip hop and Afro pop rendition. Fortunately, I had my iPhone to record two of their ad-libbed tracks, sans back beat. The raw talent is still impressive:


Track 1: Mohamba (Afro pop)

Track 2: GTI (Johannesburg Hip Hop)


As a bit of background, about three months ago, Doctor and his girlfriend Lettie moved from the South African Province of Mpumulanga to Mamelodi. Like many people in their shoes, the dreams of the big city are dreams of realising potential and finding a rewarding livelihood. Doctor is the creative genius of the partnership, writing all their songs and is their hip hop contributor. Lettie has a beautiful, Zahara-esque voice. They already have 30 tracks to their name and Doctor knows exactly which 13 will be on their first album. They call themselves Mbombela after the capital city of Mpumalanga Province.


Doctor and Lettie have been unemployed since arriving in Mamelodi, unsuccessfully trying to craft out a space for their musical ability to blossom. And all they would love is a bit of studio time to record a demo album. Given that the predecessors in their shack had quite a bit of studio time for very different reasons, I thought to would be a fitting end to a chapter of our Mamelodi experience for the beat to go through the wonderful talent of Doctor and Lettie.

Let me know if you or someone you know would like to help out?

Economics and Expenses

Our month in Mamelodi would not have been the same had we not set a strict budget for ourselves, a budget representative of what many in the same context live by. In line with this reasoning we decided to try and live off R100 per day or roughly R3000 for the month (based on the median black individual income of R2167pm as per the 2010 stats SA data[1] and extrapolated to an estimated household median income). Due to family and friend commitments, our month was not quite the full month as we moved in on the 4th and left on the 30th of August so to be fair we revised our actual budget to R2700 for the month. Our expenses came in as follows:

Costs breakdown








So based on our R100 daily target we actually spent R94.48 per day.

Or visually as:

Costs breakdown2








This picture shows us a glaring problem. 47% of our disposable income was spent on transport. And transport costs have gone up enormously over the past few years.

At the end of last year taxi fares were R12 for a trip; they are now R14 and will go up to R16 in the next few weeks. This 33% increase where transport constitutes 47% of your budget translates into a roughly 16% annual inflation number if everything else stays unchanged (which it hasn’t): way above the 2012 CPI of 5.75% and significantly above the raise most people give their workers on an annual basis.

In light of the extremely heavy weight of transport in our budget mix, we have decided to strip out transport costs from Leah’s wage from now on to more effectively align her efforts to her pay rather than her being disadvantaged by transport costs.

We struggled to get by on the median income and yet the definition of a median income is that half the people in that context earn less. You will also notice that our expenditure list excludes items such as furniture and fixture costs, school fees, school uniforms, cell phone minutes, travel to and from funerals, sending money home to family, supporting a large extended family etc. These are all real costs faced by the workers in a community.

Had we needed to cover any of these expenses, it would have pushed us over budget. Small wonder then that micro lending is a thriving township business (often not at all sustainable resulting in debt traps) and that stokvels (group saving schemes that are actually quite a good idea if all the members diligently contribute) are often used to cover some of these incidental costs.

In 1994 South Africans were all granted democratic freedom and equality but now, 19 years later economic freedom is still a distant wish/goal for many. Although Julian and I disagree with Julius Malema’s policies he points out many real problems faced by the people in this country that have yet to be adequately resolved. Economic freedom is something that is still a pressing problem in this country that should concern all of us. If not, it will increasingly become the playground of populist leaders.


A Poigant Challenge from Professor Jansen

I love Professor Jonathan Jansen‘s candour in calling a spade a spade. In his latest book “We Need to Act” (and a symbolic follow up to his 2011 book “We Need to Talk“), he lays down a very direct and personal challenge “asking citizens to leave their comfort zones and contribute to righting the wrongs of our society.”

Here are his seven compelling reasons (there always have to be seven!) on why we need to make the move to active citizenship with a sense of urgency:

  1. If ordinary citizens do nothing, we face even greater social instability in the light of stubborn  unemployment and crises in the poorest of schools
  2. If we do nothing we become part of the narrative of hopelessness
  3. Without our action, millions of marginalised people could be doomed
  4. If we do nothing we fail to demonstrate to the next generation how to live full lives
  5. We must serve to compensate for the wrongs of our shared past
  6. We must give back once we have been able to move ahead
  7. We must take our place in the long chain of activists who have over the centuries opposed poverty, illiteracy, government and gangs to give us this tender young democracy to work with

Thanks Bernard to bringing the book to my attention. I am challenged. I hope you are too.

We Need to Act

‘I believe that citizen action is vitally necessary as we come out of the heady days of post-apartheid euphoria.’

The Month That Should Not Have Been

Conventional ‘wisdom’ dictated that Mamelodi for a Month should never have happened. It did though. And here are some insights into how challenging it can be to go against the status quo.

Before moving to Mamelodi, close friends and family shared strong reservations about the risk involved in our venture. This was particularly in exposing Julia and Jessica to all the perceived riskiness of a township. “If you want to take a decision to move to a township, please don’t take your kids along.”

Apparently we were being reckless and irresponsible parents by willingly opening our children to the multitudes of social ills that ekasi life is ‘synonymous’ with from illness, lack of seat belts on taxis to violence and child rape. If we had listened to this discourse, either Mamelodi for a Month would have been dead in the water before it started or Ena and I would have had quite a soulless experience of living in Mamelodi sans children.

The other mindset which came through as an undercurrent to our month was that “We were making a mockery of poverty and essentially had no right to live in a township.” The significant media interest we received definitely added fuel to this fire. Why should a white family living in a shack for a month warrant so much attention when this is daily life for millions of black South African families? To this assertion, Ena and I would agree.

However, the anger in these messages could have been enough to stop the bravest plans in their tracks. To get a sense of how this social commentary played out, read a couple of the tweets below that came our way before the Month in Mamelodi began and ask yourself how you would have responded to them?

These were some lessons that stood out in swimming against the current. They are important takeaways in guiding future experiences:

1. Trust Yourself: Listen to others but not at the expense of trusting yourself. If you are doing something for the right reasons, do not be afraid to transcend conventional thinking. It is not about trying to please detractors. Significant decisions will always have critics.

2. The Litmus Test of Real Life: Despite the misgivings of some of the ‘intelligentsia’ regarding our Month in Mamelodi, we never met a single detractor in Phomolong. Rather, we were overwhelmed the love shared by the people around us. They completely understood and appreciated why we were there. Real life should be the litmus test not academic or social discourse.

In all of this, the question that stands out is: in a country as culturally and historically complex as ours, should it really be so tough for people to cross over boundaries? Should the social conversations not be more encouraging of authentic intent to bridge chasms?

The reality is that divides are in our heads not our hearts and perhaps it is time to be led more by our hearts.

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