MINNEAPOLIS – The popular image of sub-Saharan Africa is usually a hungry child standing in a dust- and dirt-floored hut.
During my time in South Africa over recent months, I witnessed something different. In the bustling cities of Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban, life did not conform to that picture of want and poverty that so often comes to mind. Life on the whole, of the entire population, was not so dire – or it was at least played out in a different context.
More luxury Mercedes and BMW cars passed us on the freeway near Joburg than would on a given day driving down the I-95 to New York City – and this was despite the prohibitive import tax that would have made those cars even more expensive – evidence of the riches that some South Africans clearly possessed.
South Africa has the most developed infrastructure of any of its sub-Saharan neighbors, even more so now because of the expansion and refurbishing that took place in preparation for the World Cup. Being more developed, the country has a particular brand of urban poverty, rather than the rural variety that many Americans associate with the area.
Places like Kliptown and the squatter camps outside of Joburg are full of people chasing the mirage of urban opportunity, an illusion that evaporates only to reveal rampant unemployment, scarcity of unskilled jobs, and thousands of others just like them pursuing the same dream.
“The rich get richer, while the poor get poorer.” It’s a familiar, age-old saying – overused, maybe, but the reason for its endurance is that there is some truth to it. The gap in wealth, resources, and quality of life is astounding in South Africa.
Near Mtubatuba, my place of residence during a one month+ stint of employment, the view of Africa as epitome of desolation and pinnacle of poverty was contradicted simply by the landscape. I was surrounded by lush vegetation, much of it part of the industrial farms that produced gum trees and sugar cane for the local paper and sugar mills.
Poverty in South Africa was not worse than I expected. Near cities, in tightly packed rows of ramshackle housing, life seemed more desperate than it was in the countryside – perhaps the idyllic setting of rural areas tricked me into an unrealistically rosy perception, or the fact that misery was never as concentrated there as it was in highly populated urban townships.
The “township tours,” which show off poverty in order to make a profit, are popular attractions for foreign tourists. They make me uncomfortable, in spite of the fact that some of the money goes to people in need who might have no other source of income. I feel that I should avert my gaze, rather than risk offending or shaming them, but I wonder how much of this sentiment comes from a sense of impropriety, and how much from a desire to push the bad/struggling parts of the world aside so that I can continue living my comfortable life and attending Yale University.
Does merely raising awareness of conditions of need, whether it’s in South Africa or somewhere closer to home, lead to improvements? There must be more.
The other day, I heard a man say that the problem with direct service is that there will always be more to do, another person to help. Maybe the best way for me to help, at least for now, is to get involved in groups that can have a long-term impact on situations like those in Kliptown, South Africa.
Or maybe that’s just the easy way out.