Haves and Have Nots

October 21, 2008

This has all been said before, but not yet by me. The extremes in this country are overwhelming. On the way to the hotel, one passes a Lamborghini dealership with a dozen exotic cars in the front window including a Lamborghini police car. At R2.5million (remember divide by 10 or more now), that would be the equivalent of the median income of 21 families compared to 5.5 families in Harrisonburg. However, that statistic is misleading, because the $12,000 / year family income is greatly skewed due to the income disparity. There is a small middle and upper class (huge majority white), and there is a staggering underclass that lives on just ten dollars a day (actually one dollar…see comment), thus the Lambo is more like the equivalent of 720 or more families living in a shanty less than five miles down the road.

The population of Khayelitsha township is unknown, but has a lower estimate of 1,000,000 and an upper estimate of 2,000,000 residents. A huge number of which live in “informal settlements” or make-shift shanties. Khayelitsha is only one of dozens of townships around the city. So, as I stay in a lovely three star hotel in Cape Town with views of Signal Hill, Table Mountain and the Atlantic Ocean from my room, less than seven miles from here, literally millions of people are living in abject poverty.

The country has provided electricity and running water to about 70% of the population since the end of apartheid, but the infrastructure is broken and the economy hangs by a thread. Unemployment is estimated at as much as 40%. Of those who work, the majority do not have money for transportation, and thus walk to and from work or wherever they are going. Yesterday while returning from the iThemba LABS national accelerator facility, I saw literally hundreds (thousands?) of men and women shuffling back to the townships from their work. Seeing these nameless and drawn faces with hunched shoulders slowly trudging back home in repetitive puffs of dust was stunning.

Back in Cape Town, an elegant dinner at an Italian restaraunt overlooking the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean complete with a fine South African Cabernet, fresh fish and curried shrimp/mussels sauce, a large fresh salad and chocolate mousse dinner awaited me. This an expensive meal costing R200. I return to a marble lined hotel and jump on the internet to read about the news that I have missed from the US and check to see that the dollar is up to R10.6 = $1. I just got 5% more bang for my buck. It is difficult to process.

The problems in South Africa are hidden to those who do not really want to know. But to those who think and feel, the problems are deep, persistent and ever present with no easy fix. I have now talked to over a dozen business, science and government leaders about the future of SA. They remain hopeful, but with understandable worry. They talk about being at a “tipping point”, on a “cusp” or in a “transition time”. Which direction things will tip remains unclear.


3 Responses to “Haves and Have Nots”

  1. Ginny Says:

    Hullo Brian

    I think the average person on the street will tell you we’ve long since tipped! My friend – one of those “trudgers” you mentioned in Khayelitsha (please make an effort to spell our names correctly) told me the other day she’s sick and tired of black politicians who screw things up – she now wants a white guy back! We, the Zebra team – laughed together and I told her pigs would first have to fly.
    Most township people would love to live on $10 a day – you’ll find many live on less than R10.00 -that’s one ~$1 day. How do they manage? People buy from Spaza’s – little shanty shops in the townships that buy stuff from regular places and then divide it up into smaller portions. I worked at iThemba LABS for more than 15 years and recently moved to Gauteng. Here they do things differently – because there is more space, most shacks have a garden attached, or a communal garden and people grow their own food. There are more foreigners than South Africans and they are more innovative – why – because it was worse where they came from.
    By the way – those faces might have been nameless to you – but they all have wonderful meaningful names that they are proud of – and mostly they don’t shuffle – they walk purposfully because they need to get home before dark.
    Sorry – apologies for any rudeness – I just think you paint a bleak, not overly-accurate picture.Did you actually go into the township? Or did you just ride along the N2?

  2. Love you Daddy!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


  3. Brian Augustine Says:


    Thank you for your comment. I saw that the spelling was wrong in the newspaper at the airport, but have not had internet access since then to correct. I conservatively estimated the wage per day at $10 per day but was guessing that it was probably considerably less. Again, thank you for correcting me and thank you for filling in how folks make life work on $1 per day.

    I will post soon on my visit to Pretoria/CSIR and about iThemba in specific. Both were VERY encouraging.

    I did go into a township (see earlier post), but this observation was in driving by the N2 and the roads getting to there.

    Finally, I am sure that everyone has a beautiful name. If only I had the opportunity to learn some of them.

    Your comment is encouraging. Thank you again.

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