It's hard to tour a South African township without getting angry. I'd seen similar conditions in Namibia and elsewhere in South Africa, but they continue to be shocking, enraging, and dispiriting. We teach children to share, to care for others, and to shun greed, yet we end up with a world in which unimaginable disparities prevail not only between countries, but within them.
The obvious question is, what are conditions like in the townships? I think it's safe to say that, for Americans, they're about the worst thing imaginable. There's a certain rustic beauty to the way shacks are wrought from a pastiche of mismatched corrugated steel, scraps turned almost artfully, quilt-like, so that the corrugations run perpendicular, or spiraling. When paint is available, color choices tend to be vibrant--pink, seafoam, mustard, cerulean. And wooden fences--built from pallets and other discards--often seem as much sculptural as functional. None of this diminishes the harsh realities of communal water spigots, dirt alleys, trash everywhere, bucket toilets changed once a week, dogs that look like strays because their owners run out of money to feed them. It's very hard to convey the acute sense of squalor; the only question is whether it's more intense up close, where the crowdedness becomes overwhelming, or from afar, where the vast sprawl becomes obvious.
We're so good at inventing excuses, or averting our eyes. There's no denying that specific solutions are difficult, and complicated--the devil's in the details. But if we're honest, there's also no denying the general truth that if "we" had a little less, "they" would have a little more. My weekly recycling in cardboard, tin foil, and plastic could quite literally constitute a wall of someone's house. A family could bathe in the water I expend on the garden. The electricity my computer consumes while "asleep" could reclaim them from darkness. How have we become so adept at ignoring these connections?
Many white South Africans were opposed to apartheid, and in their own way, they suffered too--like Spaniards under Franco, or Chileans under Pinochet: totalitarianism is a blunt instrument, and unnatural disparities demand supernatural enforcement. And it's been nearly twenty years since Mandela was elected, and the world, supposedly, stood on its head. There are no longer any laws preventing black people from advancing, or propping up whites--indeed, many government programs have been launched to do expressly the opposite. No doubt a lot has changed since the dark days, but things remain disturbingly close to what I imagine life to have been like in the Jim Crow days in the American South. And let us Americans not kid ourselves: you don't have to go to South Africa to witness segregation. 8 Mile Road in my own Detroit draws as stark a color line as any street in South Africa. Whether it's a color line, a money line, or a historical relic is beside the point: gross inequality persists.
These days a political meltdown ensues over renewing funding for food stamps, and you're branded a "socialist" for advocating universal health care. South Africa has it, by the way--I visited a township clinic where the lines were long, but the medicine free. The AIDS crisis, among other things, has been significantly reined in through such systems. Yet in the US the debate rages on as if hunger were a choice, dying a philosophical question.
I came here to work with underprivileged children, yet I'm baffled as to how to explain such things as townships to them. Of course South African children are inured to inequality, but what would we say to other kids? You have to share, little Jimmy, but Mommy and Daddy don't. A house made of gingerbread is evil, but a McMansion is good. Robin Hood cut a fine figure, but you shouldn't take his aims too seriously. It was fine for Jesus to share loaves and fishes with everyone, but that's not realistic for the rest of us.