Thomas Digiano

Around the World in 80 Hours #15: Soweto

Blog Post created by Thomas Digiano Employee on Mar 8, 2016

Johannesburg is a city of extremes. Within less than a mile of each other there are areas of affluence and areas of abject poverty. Without mincing words, it's a dangerous city. To be on the safe side, Eric Chiang and I stayed in one of the nicer areas, Sandton. Due to the generous exchange rate (15 rand = $1) we were able to stay at a pretty swanky hotel for less than $200. Why not just a normal Hilton? In order to visit the not-so-nice places like downtown Johannesburg, you need a hotel with a good concierge service to find you a driver/guide to take you there (they're supposedly that dangerous). I promised my fiancee I'd be back in one piece and I also promised my new bosses I'd bring Eric Chiang back in one piece, so we opted for a nice option and we got Elias, so good call there. Here's a picture of Mandela Square, which was right next to the hotel:

 

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Sandton has the look and feel of Beverly Hills, so we wanted get out and see what downtown Johannesburg was like. Typically highest crime and poverty rates are on the outskirts of townships, ironically called "suburbs", where truly low income individual were forced from government housing. Elias told us that the downtown of Joburg was actually a pretty nice place up until about 15 years ago, but when wealthy people flocked to areas like Sandton, where newer, bigger, and more luxurious housing could be had, it developed a serious case of urban blight. There are a few remnants of the former affluent culture: a heavily barred BMW dealership, but for the most part it's a lot of urban blight:

 

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Elias wouldn't let us out of the car here, but honestly I've seen areas of the Bronx and Brooklyn that looked just as rough if not rougher. Still, we didn't want to risk it, and after we got an impression of the place, we continued on to Soweto.

 

As I've mentioned, Soweto is the area of Joburg where both Bishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela are from (the same street actually):

 

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Like some of the area names in New York (ie, SoHo), Soweto actually simply stands for Southwest Township. It's actually a collection of neighborhoods that were formally incorporated when the apartheid government decided to build tracts of ramshackle housing in order to relocate Bantu people from more desirable area. It's the largest township and was the seat of the anti-apartheid movement for almost 40 years.

 

if the 2 mile or so distance between Sandton and downtown seemed like a case study for income inequality, then Soweto is a thesis in itself. The houses at the top of Soweto's sloping streets, are decent brick affairs that you might see in Southern California, except for the fact that they are all walled in and most have either razor wire or cameras on their exterior. Mandela's house is towards the bottom part of this neighborhood and it's interesting to see how a restaurants and shops have sprung up around it from the tourist dollars it draws in (the house is a museum).

 

As you move down the hill, the houses turn to more regimented government-built affairs. Minimal electricity and running water, and to me at least, they look a bit like German POW camps from WWII:

 

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Finally, beyond these houses are the "suburbs" where the poorest of the poor have been relegated. These are the types of shanty towns you see in National Geographic: tin shacks, burning trash, goals and livestock roaming around, and one spigot to provide water for the whole village.

 

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I struggled with writing this post. We were being driven through these scenes in a new silver Mercedes with a driver who came from a similar area (the hotel owned the car). Part of me still feels guilt over this, but then the reason why we were there in the first place was to help educate people about terrible economic problems like this. Mandela's fame is obviously the big tourist draw for the area, but I know that we weren't the only tourists Elias drove through these other parts of Soweto, and I really think he does so for the harshness of the economic reality to hit home. I could hear it in his voice when he spoke about the place.

 

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The last I want to mention about Soweto is that the Chris Hani hospital is located there. This is the hospital I mentioned in my first Africa post - it's the third largest in the world. Like much of Africa, Johannesburg is suffering from an HIV epidemic, and the Hani hospital treats literally thousands of patients suffering from AIDS. Elias mentioned this as we drove by, and pointed out that it was visiting hours. On the bright side, we did see evidence of a pretty substantial government campaign promoting safe sex, and there were other clues as to the government's efforts to Reduce poverty and lessen the income gap.

 

Next up, a lighter post: LIONS !

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