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Challenging Perceptions: Part 1

Here’s a screenshot my friend sent me before I arrived in Joburg. It sums up what I had heard a few times about the city: 

Warnings about Joburg
Warnings about Joburg

There’s some truth to the narrative that Johannesburg is unsafe. The fences struck me right away. Nearly every house has a fence around it, most topped by barbed (and sometimes electrical) wire. Others are adorned with a sign proclaiming an armed response by a private security company of choice. CSS Tactical. ADT Armed Response. NYPD (Yes, NYPD). I’ve seen CSS drive around a few times in an all black pick-up truck, with pistol-toting guards propped up in the truck bed.

My own house in Jozi is surrounded by a magenta fence, which looks more ornate that truly menacing. To get into my house, I first unlock a padlock in our perimeter fence, and then take a few steps up to the patio. I then unlock the gated, steel screen that separates our front door from the patio. If no one’s home, I next unlock our actual front door and step inside, making sure to lock everything as I come in.

Our ornate, possibly scary, perimter fence
Our ornate, possibly scary, perimeter fence

I was complaining about this level of security to a friend, calling it excessive and further segregating in a city that’s already split into various white and black neighborhoods. She agreed, to an extent, but rattled off a few experiences of residents here. She described a friend held at gunpoint in broad daylight, and another friend who was robbed at a supermarket. An AirBnB host I know described her friend’s home invasion — she and her family were tied up while their home was plundered and looted. One of my South African roommates was nearly robbed at knifepoint, while an acquaintance was actually robbed at knifepoint. Anecdotal as these experiences are, Joburg’s crime stats point towards a prevalence of robberies, vehicle thefts and break-ins. A few weeks ago, a police officer came to my street and rounded up my neighbors to form a community policing group, imploring us to report suspicious people in the area after a few purported robberies nearby. 

I say all this not to scare my program manager, but to highlight what the prevailing narrative is, what truth there is to it, and now, what some Jozi residents are doing to challenge it. Over the next two blogs, I’ll present a few stories from my last few weeks, mainly from tours I’ve done throughout the city. I admit it’s hard not to feel a bit weird doing these tours — as visitors, we dip our feet into a township or neighborhood and then leave a few hours later. But each of these organizations has also established deep ties to their communities, and are trying to eschew cursory interactions for meaningful engagement. They are working hard to challenge stereotypes of this sprawling metropolis.

Biking through Alexandra Township

“No, no, you put it down now” said Msiwe, a very muscular man, imploring me to wait until he finished his bicep curls before I started mine.

So it continued for five minutes — him, powering through progressive sets, breathing deeply, muscles bulging through his ribbed shirt. Me, cruising through curls with the light weight I was offered, feeling slightly patronized he didn’t think I was stronger.

I ended up lifting on this fateful Friday not by conscious choice, but as a stop on Jeff Mulaudzi’s acclaimed Alexandra Township bike tours. Jeff, in his early twenties, is a gregarious serial entrepreneur  — his active ventures include building a school in Limpopo Province and running a taxi business on the side. He’s tall and slender, and donned a tight white polo and jeans when he picked me up in a cavernous passenger van (despite me being the only person on the 4-hour bike tour that day).

Papi, my tour guide, hastily captured this unwanted situation
Papi, my tour guide, hastily captured this awkward situation

Townships — essentially densely concentrated neighborhoods on the edge of cities — were historically used by apartheid administrations as vehicles of segregation. Throughout the 20th century, blatantly racist legislation consigned blacks and colored (mixed-race) residents to the margins of urban centers. The 1913 Land Act set aside less than 8% of South African land as reserves for the ‘native population,’ while whites could freely live on and own the remaining land. The Act profoundly disrupted the livelihoods of many blacks who were leasing land from white farmers in now ‘white’ areas, forcing them to move. The 1950 Group Areas Act allowed the government to designate townships where nonwhites could live, displacing thousands from inside urban centers to their periphery. The Population Registration Act, passed the same year, required each citizen to be classified by race and carry an identity document. As a result of these and many, many more discriminatory policies, tightly packed groups of blacks, colored and Indian residents settled into different townships around Joburg, allowing them to seek employment in cities but not reside there. In the 1970s, Soweto, perhaps the most famous South African township, was a flashpoint in the anti-apartheid struggle, as students rebelled against Afrikaans replacing English as the formal medium of instruction.

Police killed 12-year-old Hector Pieterson during the 1976 Soweto protests. A memorial and museum in Soweto commemorate his life and the lives of other students who were killed during the anti-apartheid struggle.
Police killed 12-year-old Hector Pieterson during the 1976 Soweto protests. A memorial and museum commemorate his life, and the lives of other students who lost their lives during the anti-apartheid struggle

Alex itself was established in 1912 by a wealthy landowner who began selling plots to black residents, eventually naming the growing township after his wife, Alexandra. Since Alex was established before the Land Act, at least some nonwhite residents were able to acquire and retain their land titles.

Its reputation today —at least among some people– is one of crime. It abuts Sandton, one of the wealthiest suburbs in the country, and the disparity is striking. Glimmering malls and high-rises quickly give way to a valley lined with shanty-style homes and imposing single-sex hostels, built in the 70s to separate men and women.

Jeff knows Alex is misunderstood.

“There’s this perception that Alexandra is an unsafe place to go to. So what we do is then bring people into Alex as much as possible, try to show them the side of Alexandra that people cannot see, which is the safeness of it, the friendliness of it. There’s no place in the world where you can guarantee safety, but in a way it’s safe here.”  

The township does defy an easy characterization, and before I arrived in South Africa, I equated a township with a slum. It’s not. Townships are home to malls and fancy restaurants, and some estimates say nearly 50% of adult South Africans live in townships. No longer informal settlements, townships receive municipal services, though part of the infrastructure and upkeep is lacking. Alex itself is densely occupied and its population, already skewed young, is swelling.

Jeff grew up in Alex and excelled as a hockey player, which allowed him to attend an excellent high school on a scholarship. During the 2010 World Cup, Jeff felt that Alex was not being represented as a part of the city, so he took his hockey coach for an impromptu tour of his neighborhood. His coach promptly invited additional friends for another tour, and a business was born.  

We started our tour with at a shisa nyama, which is a BBQ joint popular in townships, where patrons pick and season their meat before the chef grills it. Casting off all semblance of being a vegetarian, I gorged myself on meat we had freshly seasoned and tenderized. Afterwards, my tour guide Papi and I grabbed beat-up mountain bikes and began cycling — single-file for busy streets and side-by-side through more residential areas. We parked frequently to meet with students, restaurant owners,  shop-owners, gas station attendants, young professionals, etc. (this was not a strenuous four hours). Papi ferried me through neighborhoods and narrow alleyways between houses, illustrating the income range of different residents. Our stops were dictated by the people we saw and Jeff’s existing relationships with entrepreneurs along the way. At Walk Clean, a small shoe-cleaning business which is countering the notion that Alex is mostly dirty, two workers, Sandele and Revelation, explained their creative methods for scrubbing expensive kicks clean (it involved some combination of water and maize). We stopped by the modest house Mandela briefly lived in when he stayed in Alex, which is now occupied by another tenant. We sped down streets, my knees nearly at my chest because my bike was too small. We saw the single-sex hostels which are still occupied today, imposing brick buildings against an overcast sky. One of the our last stops was the gym, which doubled as a tattoo parlor because the owner was also an excellent artist.

Papi and I enjoying a ginger beer during our bike tour. I want to stress this was approximately 30 minutes into our extremely-relaxed- paced tour
Papi and I cooling off with a ginger beer during our bike tour. I want to stress this was approximately 40 minutes into our ride, 25 minutes of which were spent at Walk Clean.

The tour wasn’t really planned, which was the point. Jeff spoke a lot about making sure visitors get a sense of the lifestyle of the township, which is certainly not best represented by a fully organized tour with pre-arranged stops. Instead, the tour imbued a sense of the hustle of residents trying to better their lives and the diversity of people in the township. There is no one Alex — it’s at times quiet, boisterous, crowded, chaotic, calm. No single adjective, like dangerous, can sum up what it means to be from there or to live there.     

Jeff’s optimistic about his efforts. “ [I hope to] change visitors’ perception and their mindset about the townships,” he says. “To make them learn that even though Alex residents might not have everything, guests can still appreciate what their life, views and values are.”