Increasing poverty and the state’s indifference to the plight of disenfranchised urban communities cast a pall of gloom over South Africa. Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya tells the stories of ordinary people trying to eke out an existence — legally and illegally — and calls for a united response by faith communities to help restore public morality and put pressure on government to uplift poor communities.
Driving around the Johannesburg inner city and spending some time in one of the oldest townships in the city, Kliptown, as well as in Diepkloof in Soweto, it struck me just how insulated from reality many middle class South Africans are.
While the Church speaks of a preferential option for the poor and successive governments make promises to eradicate poverty, the poor in our country are on their own.
It is apparent that overwhelming poverty and gloom is not something the state alone — nor one religious community working on its own — can overcome.
The poor have found a way to survive
The raw sentiment in these streets is that the poor have been forgotten and they should therefore see to their own survival. And survive they do, in spite of the decay in social morality and environmental degradation.
The Johannesburg inner city communities of Hillbrow, Berea and Yeoville resemble scenes from a dystopian movie or novel. Gangs of men, who may or may not be drug dealers, can be found at any time of the day manning their corners, eagerly turning to watch every car that passes by.
The term “ladies of the night” to describe women involved in prostitution seems to be anachronism. They trade in broad daylight alongside the fruit and vegetable sellers. Many of them, who at face value sell sweets and cigarettes, sell a bit more than that.
As my colleague and I drove through some of the most dilapidated parts of the city, we saw a man walk towards a police car, drop off a parcel and walk away. Then the police van drove off.
In Diepkloof, locals have named one street “Columbia” after the South American country’s reputation for producing and trading in drugs. The street has become something of a drug dealing “mall” with several options for those who want to buy a fix.
As usually happens with drug dealing, prostitution is not far off in “Columbia”. Young women readily throw themselves at men for as little as R50 for a bout of sex.
Someone who understands these streets clarifies that R50 is the price of the cheapest fix and the price of sex is benchmarked accordingly. This most probably underscores the urgency of feeding an addiction.
As is the case in the Joburg city centre, a SAPS van or the city’s Metro Police department can be sighted regularly. Yet it is business as usual.
The increase in the use of drugs has inevitably caused a spike in the levels of crimes in those communities.
One Diepkloof family had to make a difficult decision to have one of their own – a son, brother and nephew to his aunt and uncles – arrested because he stole from his own home, probably to feed a drug habit.
The family recently had a car stolen and, though they have no evidence, suspect that the same young man knows something about how that car was removed from the family garage.
In Kliptown, life consists of picking through litter from the many rubbish dumps to find something that can be recycled. Streams of dirty water run down the narrow pathways of the community that was the site of South Africa’s most ambitious document of the 20th century, the Freedom Charter.
Those who can and have the skills, have taken over spaces that were once filling stations to set up car open-air mechanic and spray-painting shops, which – despite the fumes filling the air – do not seem to disturb others doing their own work.
A stone’s throw away from Kliptown, a new health centre being built next to a spares shop on the busy Chris Hani Road that cuts through Soweto, has taken away many mechanics’ livelihoods. They used to be an instant resource for the car owner who, having bought a car, needed someone with the know how and the tools to fit it.
One mechanic expresses his fear that once the health facility is up and running, “they are not going to allow us to fix cars near a private clinic. This government seems like it does not want to see us try to make an honest living”.
The sentiment of a government that does not want to see its people make an honest, even if informal living, is one shared by those in informal business in the city and in the townships.
It is clear that the toxic mix of hopelessness, a decay in moral values and indifference by the state and the relatively better off, spells doom for society.
It is an urgent matter that the ecumenical community place the issue on the table and demand that the state treats the situation as an emergency. If it does not, we might as well expect more crime, more xenophobia and a Church that is increasingly irrelevant in facing the challenges of real life in South Africa today.