Archive for Julian Hewitt

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?

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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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.

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…

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.”

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?

Profoundness in a Shebeen

Sometimes alcohol can bring out the best in people. It happened on Sunday when we took a walk and happened on a packed Shebeen glued to the Pirates v Supersport match.

The instant our family entered the scene, the whole place stood still for a moment to take in the unusual scene of two blonde girls entering with their parents and a friend.

Two patrons immediately came forward with Orlando Pirates’ misery of being a goal down having been quickly forgotten. It was clear that they had enjoyed a few quarts that afternoon but what they said seemed incredibly profound for the interior of a Shebeen.

“Seeing you here makes me believe that God is alive,” said the first gentleman. The second then starting quoting Mandela’s closing Rivonia Trial speech. “This is the ideal for which Mandela was prepared to die for,” he said while gesticulating at our family.

And in that out of place setting of a white family going for a walk around the shack lands of Mamelodi, it seemed like much more than just a walk.