Archive for Daily Life

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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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