The Other South Africa

January 23, 2009

There are (at least) two South Africa’s.

There is the, “this doesn’t look any different from Virgnia” South Africa that our children have thus far been exposed to. Paved roads, SkypeOut calls to the States, well stocked grocery stores, Intel Core2Duo computers, and a Mercedes station wagon to cart the family around in while being smartly guided by a GPS to our exact destination. We can even guide ourselves in miles or kilometers depending on whether we want to calibrate to the road signs, or to our internal unit intuition.

This is the South Africa that we have largely inhabited since arriving a week and a half ago. There are of course differences, but the differences are largely cosmetic. The similarities greatly outweigh the differences.

I was reintroduced to the other South Africa on Tuesday. We have two domestic workers, Zanele and Thandi.

Lunch Time

Lunch Time

Zanele does housework and Thandi works in the garden. Both are Zulu and our children have been excited about trying out their Zulu on Zanele and Thandi. Thandi does not speak any English, so Zanele is our interpreter. She even interprets English.

We were having lunch on Tuesday and I asked Zanele how to say “chicken”, to which she replied, “chicken”. I told her with a wink that I was hoping for the Zulu word. Our joke is now that Zanele can teach us some English.

We asked Zanele about her transportation to and from our house and she said that it was a series of taxis. The taxis take a little more than 10% of their daily earnings and take over an hour to go about 6 miles. On Tuesday I offered to given each of them a ride home to save them on the taxi fares and to see where they live.

This is the Other South Africa.

Zanele is from Imbali, a township southwest of Pietermartizburg. It is actually the township just before Edendale where the Bonginkosi School is located, so I had driven past Imbali in my visit in October. Thandi is from a township east of PMB outside of Eastwood called Thembalihle (which ironically means “hope” in Zulu as Zanele explained). As part of my chauffering deal, I asked that I drop of Thandi first as Zanele could interpret and give directions.

Thembalihle is stunningly poor with informal settlements, mud and stick dwellings, chickens and children in the roads. Thembalihle clings to the side of a hill with a dizzying network of semipaved and dirt roads. We drive further up and further into the township to reach Thandi’s home. While I did not get out and walk around, the scene was shocking to behold. Shack upon shack, tenaciously holding onto the side of this muddy hill and many young adult males hanging around at 3 pm, when they might have been at work…if there was work to be had. We were now well off the GPS turn by turn navigation grid. The GPS name for the streets were all now “Road”.

As I carefully inched back out toward Eastwood trying to avoid hitting a stray chicken or child, I talked with Zanele about the poverty in South Africa and compared it to the poverty in America. She was surprised that there was poverty in America at all, but I told her that the poverty in SA was much more intense that in the US. Zanele told me that Thandi lives in a much more desparate housing situation than she does, which soon turned out to be true.

Zanele lives in a small yellow cinder block home. Complete with razor wire fence around the house as with all of the houses. She lives on “Road” according to the GPS, although that would be a generous description of the mud and concrete in her front yard. There is less refuse, stray animals and mud homes in Imbali, but there were still plenty of unemployed young men and children who were not in school. Zanele told me that the crime in Imbali had “settled down” compared to some prior time.

I reprogrammed the GPS for home, and again carefully made my way out of Imbali to Pietermartizburg.

Thoughts of the two South Africa’s swirled. How many middle class folks have ever been through Imbali, Thembalihle, Edendale or the thousands of other townships around South Africa?

America has a persistent urban underclass that is easy to overlook if one wants to. I know that I am dating myself with lyrics from the 1980’s, but Living Colour’s Which Way to America comes to mind.

I look at the T.V., your America’s doing well,
I look out the window, my America’s catching hell.

I change channels, your America’s doing fine,
I read the headlines, my America’s doing time.

I want to know, how to get to your America.

I can’t help but believe that the millions of people living in townships around South Africa want to get to the Other South Africa…the quaint cottages and carefully manicured lawns behind iron gates that they meticulously keep for $13 a day. They are the lucky ones with a job.

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2 Responses to “The Other South Africa”


  1. […] a variety of reasons, we can’t change their pay rates.  However, we can feed them and drive them home!  So, Tuesday we invited both Zanele and Thandi to have lunch with us at our table.  I would […]


  2. […] poor facilities, high absentee rate of teachers, lack of adequate textbooks and the list goes on. As in daily life, there are two South African education systems: high quality private schools, and vastly […]


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