Johannesburg – a Monument to Inequality

The disparity of wealth in South Africa, for me, seems set in stone.

I’ve never known any different. And history tells me that socio-economic parity hasn’t existed here since the San roamed free and alone, valuing only the land and the tools that helped them to live from it.

The present doesn’t provide much hope for change either. And if there is any hope, it certainly doesn’t lie in Joburg. The city is a microcosm of the severe inequality that defines South Africa – it concentrates it, boils it down and evaporates the veil of first-worldness that exists in a city like Cape Town. For some reason, I’ve never felt it more than I did on the drive in to Ellis Park from Benoni, last Saturday.

As you make your way West down the N12, Joburg’s skyline comes in to view and there’s a steady shift in the level of infrastructure. The buildings grow more stories and the traffic increases until your met with the monstrous intersection that is Gillooly’s interchange (it’s a name that always makes me think of goolies, and it sure can be a balls-up).

When we got to this juncture on Saturday, it turned out we were ahead of the friends we were meeting for the Lions-Sharks match and so we decided to kill some time in Bedfordview –  one of the city’s more oppulent, outlying islands of wealth.

We ended up buying some very fancy, very overpriced coffee.

People here are haves. They have expensive cars, they wear expensive clothes and they shop for expensive things. If Bedfordview was all you saw of Joburg you’d think it was a pretty lavish place. Drive on down the road though and you’d discover the truth. And drive on we did.

At Bruma, the Albertina Sisulu Freeway bleeds into Albertina Sisulu Road and with it, affluence bleeds into poverty. But at least the road name’s been changed. Thank God for transformation.

Flanking this main vein in to town are the forboding-looking houses of degraded suburbs like Bezuidenhout Valley, Bertrams, the outskirts of Kensington, Jeppestown and Troyeville.  Litter lines the pavements where children in tattered clothes – children that are so far away from being able to attend a Super 15 Rugby match – can be seen playing games like plastic-bottle soccer.

This isn’t a particularly shocking thing to witness but it’s unsettling to think that 500 metres up the road, kids of the same age have the best of everything. The don’t haves are intimately close neighbours with the haves.

It wasn’t long before we were close enough to the stadium to park. We looked for a spot with the lowest dodgey-to-distance ratio and eventually pulled in behind the car of another nervous sports fan on some, grey, nondescript street. A smiling man, one of many who had designated himself a security guard for the day, greeted us as we got out the car.

“Sho, bas. My name is John. Watch it for you nice.”

In the end, we paid John R50 for watching it nice. Not a bad wage for simply existing in a certain spot, and not a lot to part with for a couple of haves.

As you get closer to the stadium on game day,  you begin to feel the safety of numbers and fear is replaced by a carnival atmosphere buzz. Once inside, it’s happy days. You can spend as much money on booze and hot dogs, crammed with unrecognisable meat, as your privileged heart desires.

 

IMG-20150411-WA0027 (1)

And of course, you can do this in the company of thousands of other privileged rugby-watchers

 Making my way up the alarmingly steep stadium stairs, I was content. I was with my brethren, the haves, and we were here to watch rugby and drink beer, damnit! But then I set down and was met with this view.

Johannesburg from Ellis Park

Note the floodlights of economic depression.

Perhaps that photo doesn’t quite do it justice but that sight hit me right in the feelsies, in all the wrong ways. I had a great view of a major city skyline and it made me feel sad.

It looked so stark, so grey. It’s a skyline frozen in time. The buildings look more than old – they look tired. Little or no new buildings have come to join them, to hide them or protect them from view. They’re less sky scrapers than they are sky squatters – just hanging there, empty and cold.

However, night soon fell and then I was looking at this.

IMG-20150411-WA0033

 Suddenly the disheartening skyline was gone (it hardly lights up at night) and I was looking at a very first world scene. Two teams of 15 highly professional and well-paid athletes trying to hurt each other badly and score points along the way as part of a big-money competition involving Australia and New Zealand.

Yet all around us were more poor, dangerous suburbs like Hilbrow and Doornfontein. The stadium was just another island of wealth in a sea of poverty, crime, drugs and orphans. It’s a phenomenon mimicked all across the city where well-to-do Joburgers do shots and eat expensive meals, racking up bills that could feed a poor family just down the road for a month or longer.

I’m not trying to make anyone feel guilty here. I’m not rich by any means but I’m still a have. I was at the game too, spending money in ways John the security guard or the plastic-bottle soccer team might never be able to. My point is that it seems like a large part of South African society has missed the point in recent weeks.

Instead of removing statues, we should be removing the bad things that truly define our society. Is racism one of those things? Only if we let it be. But surely it’s more about class, about our standing in society.

Is a black man living in relative squalor in Alex or Diepsloot pissed off because white people have it better than him? There’s every chance he may see it that way. But I argue he’s only pissed off because his life sucks. Simple as that. Give him a good education and a well-paying job that befits that education, so that he may live a relatively comfortable middle class life and his racism will likely dissolve in to a benign distrust, if that.

 

Why? Because it wasn’t really racism to begin with, it was class-ism associated with white people (and other races). It is the gulf between the classes that must take the blame for the country’s current unrest.

Throw shit at the ineqaulity. Tear it down. Replace it with fairness and liberty. And remember that there is no quick fix. Apartheid happened. Accept that and accept that it takes more than 20 years to put right those kinds of atrocities (especially when the ruling party are so very inadequate).

If we can get that right, there’ll be no need to remove old statues because we’ll be the kind of people they make statues of. 

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2 thoughts on “Johannesburg – a Monument to Inequality

  1. Very true about the state of South Africa at the moment. Statues and road name changes are issues of no consequence…we face bigger issues in this country that our government and most of its followers seem unwilling or ill-equipped to handle. Many ‘haves’ as you put it are unaware or turn a blind eye to what is happening around them. Hopefully more people read this and it opens their eyes to the side of South Africa that is being neglected.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment (I’m only seeing it now)! You’re right. It’s easier to live in partial denial of what’s really going on around us. But then again, each of us know it all too well. What can we do to change it? Those in power are responsible, and unfortunately I think they’re more unwilling than ill-equipped.

      Like

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