Some rise but most sink in Soweto's sea of slums

First of two parts

SOWETO, South Africa - It's morning in Soweto. Minibus taxis rattle along the streets, jarring residents awake with their blaring horns. Smoke rises from the coal fires burning in the overcrowded shacks of squatter camps. Children in matching uniforms plod to school across the dusty township under the first rays of a brilliant sun.

At 3259 Khoali St., Thabo Molefe wakes up in the chilly hallway of his family's home.

Nine people live in the brick two-bedroom house. Molefe's 88-year-old grandmother, a frail woman who spends most of the day in bed, has one of the bedrooms. Two aunts share the other. Scattered on the living room and bedroom floors are Molefe's four cousins and his younger sister. His older brother sleeps in a shack in the back yard. The hallway - no larger than a desktop - is where Molefe sleeps curled up like a dog.

Waking, Molefe, a gangly 20-year-old, can make a quick accounting of his household's hardships. His parents are dead. He has been looking for work for two years but can't find a job. The two aunts who raised him lost their jobs as maids. The only source of income for the family of 10 is his grandmother's pension of $62 a month. It is never enough to pay the bills.

For the whole family, poverty is like a steady, annoying tap on the shoulder, constantly reminding them of what they lack. On a recent morning, the refrigerator was bare except for a bag of olives, mayonnaise and a tub of chicken fat. The sugar ran out, so there was nothing to sweeten their breakfast - a cup of hot tea. In the middle of winter, when temperatures dropped to near freezing, Thabo wore sandals because he could not afford shoes.

Each day brings new worries.

"It is stressing me," says Molefe, his soft voice hardening with frustration. "I'm not working, I'm sleeping on the floor, I'm depending on my grandmother for money. It is not right."

Life in Soweto was not supposed to turn out like this. It is 2002, 12 years after Nelson Mandela walked to freedom after 27 years in prison, eight years after the first democratic election replaced the white minority government with black majority rule; yet by any easy measure, life for his family has not improved. In fact, he complains, it has gotten worse.

It's a complaint being heard across this sprawling black township of 1.5 million people, the community known worldwide as a symbol of the horrors of South Africa's five decades of apartheid rule and the heroism of the people who struggled against it.

So much has changed here, residents say. Gone are the days of carrying passbooks, of living under the thumb of security forces, of all the terrors and humiliations of the state-run system of racial discrimination and segregation. The government has paved roads and brought electricity and water to township squatter camps.

Ambitious black professionals, members of the country's emerging black middle class, now have lifestyles and careers that rival the success of the country's white minority. They have fled townships like Soweto for new lives of privilege and power in the formerly all-white suburbs, with spacious homes, groomed lawns and swimming pools.

But so much has not changed, too, especially for the poor blacks who make up the majority of South Africa's population. Soweto remains as poor as it was under apartheid. Some say it is even poorer.

In the darkest days of apartheid, the Molefes were poor, but at least, they say, they woke up with jobs to go to, food in the fridge, and dreams of better lives when South Africa would be free.

Now, in the middle of the week, idle young men and women like Molefe roam the streets because they can't find work in an economy that has shed a half-million jobs since 1993.

Nationwide, about a third of the population is unemployed; in Soweto, the unemployment rate runs about 50 percent. Those lucky enough to find work have watched their wages shrink and the prices for food and fuel rise. If Soweto's economic woes were not enough, the wrath of the AIDS epidemic is felt on every street in the township, in a country where HIV infects one in nine people.

Their complaints reflect an underlying frustration: Sowetans may be politically free, but economically they are still trapped.

"South Africa somewhere, sometime is doing fine. But not the township people. I don't think the government is doing anything for us. The government is working for people in the suburbs," Molefe says.

Not surprisingly, the widening gap between the rich and poor is fueling bitter class tensions. Just as the walls of racial discrimination are falling, a new apartheid is under construction, residents here say, separating the rich from the poor.

And once again, Soweto is at the forefront of the struggle. During the fight against the apartheid government, residents marched in defiance, organized rent boycotts, strikes and huge funeral demonstrations, and lost their lives to security forces.

Every month, there are new protests, rallies and marches here demanding that the government combat poverty, increase pensions for the elderly, provide affordable electricity and water and stop plans to sell off state-run industries that people fear would lead to more job losses. Last week, black protesters accusing the government of forgetting the needs of the poor took to the streets nationwide in one of the largest anti-government demonstrations since the end of apartheid.

"We are trying to come together to say enough is enough," says Florence Mankwashu, a fiery 74-year-old former anti-apartheid activist who leads new anti-government protests. "We started to cool off in 1994. Everybody was happy. But now nobody is happy. We are fighting the government. We are fighting for our rights."

Each Wednesday afternoon, Mankwashu organizes a meeting of as many as 100 local residents who gather under a camel thorn tree at the dusty corner of Budeli and Tshove streets. The people are all ages. They are all poor. Mothers dressed in house slippers arrive with babies strapped on their backs. Old men balancing themselves with canes shuffle out of their homes. Teen-agers, loafing along the streets, pause, listen and join in. Molefe attends the meetings regularly - venting his frustrations with a government he says has ignored the needs of the poor.

They all come to sing the old struggle songs that helped inspire a generation of Sowetans to topple apartheid. This time the lyrics are directed at the black-ruled government that they fought so hard to bring to power.

Their voices rise up over the rooftops of Soweto's tiny brick homes. The melodies sound as festive as Christmas carols. But the Zulu lyrics convey anger: "We've got guts. We don't care if we die. We are soldiers," the protesters boast in one old anti-apartheid song. "We don't care about the police. We are in the struggle," they chant in another.

Then they start dancing, stomping their feet to the beat of the music, kicking up a billow of dust under the camel thorn tree. "If we see our mayor," they threaten, "we'll trample him with our feet."

Always poor

Soweto has always been poor, a dumping ground for unwanted black settlements.

The name Soweto is an abbreviation of South Western Townships, a community spread across 31 square miles of former farmland - roughly half the size of Washington - 10 miles southwest of Johannesburg. Although collectively referred to as Soweto, it is 33 separate townships, a mix of African cultures where all 11 of South Africa's languages are spoken.

Soweto's beginnings are closely linked to the history of Johannesburg, which sprang up as a booming mining town with the discovery of gold in 1886. The rich seams of gold were plentiful, but they were deep and impure, requiring huge amounts of cheap labor to extract the metal.

From its founding, Johannesburg was a racially divided city. White mine workers were encouraged to live in new neighborhoods with their families. Black workers, lured from the rural areas in hopes of a paycheck, were allowed to live in the city only on a temporary basis in squalid slums. An 1897 map of the city shows a "Kafir Location" and a "Coolie Location" - pejorative terms for Africans and Asians, respectively.

In 1904, an outbreak of bubonic plague in the black slums gave city officials a chance to separate the population further. The government cleared out the slums, removing its black inhabitants to a sewage farm southwest of the city.

The move may have been explained by health reasons, but it accomplished the larger goal of pushing blacks far away from the growing white neighborhoods. And during the next five decades, more blacks were moved there.

By the 1950s, the effort to turn the growing settlements into exclusively black townships began in earnest. The mining industry lent the city money to build single-family homes and hostels, soulless dorms for mining workers from the countryside. By 1960, the population of the new townships numbered nearly half a million people.

Little inspiration went into the architecture and planning of Soweto. Each neighborhood is a monotonous layout of matchbox houses made of red brick with two bedrooms, a kitchen, a living room, and a rudimentary bathroom. The total floor space of the first homes was 715 square feet, about the size of an average living room in a white middle-class home.

The Molefes' house is of the same matchbox design. It has changed little since 1960, when Molefe's grandparents were forcibly removed from Sophiatown, the legendary mixed-raced Johannesburg neighborhood that city planners leveled to make way for a white suburb they renamed Triomf.

The house sits near the end of a block on Khoali Street in a Soweto neighborhood called Diepkloof. There is no lock on the back door. Why bother having one when there's almost nothing to steal? But Molefe's home has known better economic times. There is a color television set in the living room and a phone, unplugged after the family could no longer afford to pay the bill.

Standing in the front yard, the Molefes point to a dozen other homes where families live under similar hardships.

"If you want to tell if a family is doing well in Soweto, you can look at the fence," says Elizabeth Molefe, Thabo's aunt. A cinderblock wall with a shiny metal gate borders the best homes, she says.

The Molefes' fence is a sagging, twisted wire affair, mended again and again like a pair of old trousers. Beyond it is a wide grassy area beneath power lines, where cattle graze among the garbage heaps and children kick a deflated soccer ball across a dirt playing field.

Not all homes in Soweto are as poor as the Molefes'. In some of the richest corners of the township, successful business owners have built mansions that could sit beside some of the nicest homes in Johannesburg's northern suburbs. BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes ply the streets alongside battered minibus taxis, the cheap form of transport used by township dwellers.

The community is at the heart of the black urban experience, fertile ground for new music and dances; yet it also preserves many of the practices of rural South African life. Residents consult traditional healers as readily as they see doctors practicing Western medicine. Families that eat at fast-food restaurants are equally comfortable slaughtering cows, goats and sheep in the back yards for weekend feasts.

Soweto is also one of the country's most popular tourist attractions. Each month thousands of visitors pass through the township on tour buses. They take snapshots of the homes of Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. They eat in dimly lit taverns where old men still pass the day sharing mugs of sorghum beer.

Informed by images of violence during the anti-apartheid struggle, most visitors are struck by the appearance of order in the township. Compared with the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, where people eke by on less than $1 a day, Soweto is prosperous. For migrant workers from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi or Zambia, Soweto is a fabled township bustling with excitement, where the roads are paved, water flows from taps and most homes have electricity.

But in the eyes of South Africans, Soweto remains a vast pool of cheap black labor. Here are the homes of the maids who mop the floors and watch the children of the wealthy residents of Johannesburg's northern suburbs, the store clerks who stock shelves with items they cannot afford, and the part-time laborers who build the mansions to which they will never own a key.

More and more, however, Soweto is home to the vast ranks of the unemployed who spend aimless days wondering what to do with their lives.

For Molefe, apartheid is a hazy memory at best. He never had to carry a passbook that determined where blacks could live and work, sit on separate park benches, or suffer many of the other humiliations of the apartheid system. His recollections of Mandela are as president, not as a political prisoner.

Yet Molefe continues to live with the legacy of South Africa's past. He was forced to settle for township schools, where teachers would abandon the class after lunch and there were never enough desks or materials. When Molefe's high school class read William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, 40 worn copies were shared among 90 students. Molefe considers himself fortunate that he graduated from high school. Less than one-quarter of his class passed graduation exams.

Molefe is too poor to attend college and stands little chance of finding permanent work. His situation is so common that the government has developed a special category for the millions of young workers like him. They are called "discouraged" workers, job seekers who are so frustrated that they have given up looking.

Molefe's anger with the South African government has upset his family. During the bleakest days of the anti-apartheid struggle, Molefe's father was a party chairman in the African National Congress, a banned organization at the time, and he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for his involvement.

If his father were alive, he would be upset to see his son participating in anti-government rallies, Molefe says. But if he had a chance to see how hard life is today, says the son, the father would surely understand.

The African National Congress-led government insists that the plight of the poor is at the top of its agenda. In full-page advertisements running in South African newspapers this month, the government defends its policies, highlighting its achievements since 1994 in bringing electricity, water and housing to millions of poor households.

"For eight years we have sought to confront the challenges of poverty and underdevelopment that constitute the legacy we inherited from our long history of colonialism and apartheid," South African President Thabo Mbeki said during a recent ANC policy conference in preparation for the 2004 national election.

During his speech Mbeki acknowledged that there were still millions of people without jobs, proper housing, adequate nutrition and health care. But, he said, "our country has moved away from the absolute disaster and hopeless misery we inherited in 1994. South Africa 2002 is a much better place than South Africa 1994."

Many of the poor are growing impatient because they have not seen their lives change enough.

"We are free now," Molefe says. "We are not back to the days of carrying an ID book. The doors have opened for black people but only those who are rich can do these things. But what about those who are poor?"

Fighting back

Frustrated and lost, Molefe decided last year that he could either surrender to the despair that had trapped many of his friends or do something about his plight. He decided he would fight for change in the township.

He started attending local meetings of a group called the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee. The SECC plays the role of Robin Hood in the township, illegally reconnecting power to families who have lost electricity because they are too poor to pay the bills.

Nearly 90 percent of Soweto residents are behind on electricity payments, according to the SECC. Eskom, the state-controlled electricity supplier, struck back last year by cutting off power to those in debt - up to 20,000 homes a month lost power in early 2001.

In response, the SECC launched Operation Khanyisa - "to light" in Zulu. Members of the operation patrol the township in pairs, offering to reconnect the power for free.

On a recent morning, Molefe received a call for help from Mavis Mabotja, an unemployed mother of three.

Nine months ago, authorities cut off power to Mabjota's house in Diepkloof because she could not pay the bill. In the months since, her family has had no hot water for bathing, no lights and then no heat to take the chill off the long winter nights. All she could do was sit in the darkness and pray that somehow her fortunes would change.

Molefe knocked on her door and promised they would. Molefe and a partner arrived with a toolbox and told her not to worry. The pair unscrewed her meter box, spliced two red wires together, wrapped them in electrical tape, and flipped the switch on the neighborhood control box. The electricity at the Mabotjas' clicked on, bringing the living room radio, the kitchen light, and the small space heater back to life.

"We know it's illegal," says Mabotja, a sturdy 40-year-old woman with a hint of anger in her voice. But she does not apologize. "We can't manage to pay the electric bill because my mother is a pensioner and I'm out of work."

She has been without work since the mid-1980s, when she quit her job to take care of her ailing mother. Like Molefe, she lives off her mother's $62-a-month pension. At times, she utters the unthinkable: That for all the injustices of apartheid, life may have been better for her back then.

"Yes, there were tough laws for us. But in other ways it was much easier," Mabotja says. "You could find work then. It is too expensive now for food, fuel and clothes. In 1994, we thought that things would be much better than the old government."

Mabotja's 19-year-old son, Vusi, adds, "Our leaders come from Soweto, but they run away from Soweto. If they came here, they would see how we are suffering."

The leader of the SECC is Trevor Ngwane, a former ANC local councilman who lost his seat after speaking out against the government's economic policies, which he claims have made the country poorer and more unequal.

"It is our hardship, our blood that opened the doors of Robben Island," says Ngwane, referring to the high-security prison where Nelson Mandela and thousands of other political prisoners were held during apartheid. "Look at what they are doing with us now."

By all accounts, there is a growing frustration with the ANC among the poor, but it is unclear how much of a political threat they pose to the ruling party. It is still easy to find loyal government supporters even in the poorest corners of the township, like the Motsoaledi squatter camp, a jumble of corrugated metal shacks and crooked dirt paths that sprang up in 1993 on grazing land at the southern tip of the township.

About 1,300 families live here on lots measuring 50 feet by 50 feet. Unemployment is about 60 percent. They have no running water, only communal water taps. No electricity. No sewage system. The community shares 200 chemical toilets that often overflow into the streets. On winter evenings, families warm their huts with coal fires that shroud the settlement behind thick clouds of eye-stinging smoke.

To the untrained eye, the camp may appear to be a community of chaos and a hotbed of dissatisfaction. But Sipho Stefans, an ANC council member who lives in a shack with his wife and four children, says there is a sense of progress here. Part of the reason for his optimism is that the residents of Motsoaledi, unlike many squatter camps, have been promised title to the land and someday homes to build on it.

"People here have nowhere to go, but still they have faith in their leadership," says Stefans, who has lived in shacks his entire adult life. "One might say, 'Look, 20 years ago there were a lot of jobs.' But they did not have an opportunity for advancement. Now they can do whatever they want. People can cross barriers. They have a sense of ownership."

1 holiday, 2 celebrations

One of the most important days in Soweto is the celebration of Youth Day on June 16.

The holiday commemorates the thousands of students who on June 16, 1976, walked out of their classrooms and flooded the streets of Soweto to protest the apartheid government's plans to educate them in Afrikaans, the Dutch-based language of the white Nationalist Party leadership. The students clashed with police. The photograph of Hector Petersen, a 12-year-old schoolboy shot to death by police, awakened the world to the apartheid government's cruelty. The day was considered a turning point for the struggle, touching off a new era of resistance that ultimately led to the collapse of the apartheid system.

This year the government marked the day with the grand opening of the Hector Petersen Memorial Museum, an impressive brick building with exhibits, and photographs documenting the history of the uprising. It sits on the site where Petersen was killed.

Government ministers made speeches celebrating the victory of the struggle, asking young and old to never forget what happened on June 16. In the afternoon, a government-sponsored concert was held in a local soccer stadium.

On the other end of the township more than 100 people from SECC, anti-privatization groups and unions instead gathered at Pimville Community Hall to celebrate Youth Day.

An old woman wrapped in a blanket stood up from her plastic chair, scanned the audience, and proclaimed that the government was brainwashing the country's youth with a free holiday concert, making them believe the struggle was over.

"The ANC keeps saying that we have achieved what we fought for. It's a lie. Because we are still struggling like we used to struggle before," she said.

Her speech was met with applause and stomping feet by everyone in the auditorium, including Molefe.

"Today the biggest criminals are the ANC government because the ANC government betrayed the people who struggled in 1976," said another speaker. "We have a new form of apartheid in South Africa, where we have a division between rich and poor."

A new divide

For the middle class and wealthy, those on the other side of this new divide, it is easy to forget about Soweto and the families like the Molefes. The architects of apartheid did their jobs too well, hiding the township behind mine dumps and highways.

Steve Lebelo, a development officer at University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, never thought he would leave Soweto. He was born and raised there, attending township schools, marching during the 1976 uprising, losing a brother to a police bullet during a riot. He later moved into his mother's house in Diepkloof with his wife and daughter.

Then he watched the township decline. He was carjacked three times while driving through the township. Three times was enough, and, like many of his colleagues, he decided to flee.

"If anyone was given the chance to leave this place, they would. But there isn't any way out for them," Lebelo says.

Lebelo moved into a three-bedroom brick home in the formerly all-white suburb of Naturena, built up on hills overlooking the outskirts of Johannesburg. Each house is different. Satellite dishes dot the rooftops. New cars are parked in the driveways. His neighbors include several teachers, a lawyer, a police officer, business owners, and a professional soccer player.

"No, you can't see Soweto from here," says Lebelo, standing out on his front lawn on a recent afternoon. The township is just five minutes away, but about the only evidence of the township is the coal smoke rising in clouds from Motsoaledi.

The obstructed view is precisely the attraction of suburbs like Naturena. Most residents - many of them former township dwellers - don't want to think about the past. During block parties, his neighbors drink and boast of their newfound success, talking about their new cars, televisions, stereos and promotions at the office.

Here, the black children often grow up speaking English as their first language - not the township Zulu.

All of these changes are evidence of the true transformation under way in South Africa. Soweto is an apartheid creation, and blacks are no longer required to live there. They can live where they want and every day those who can are making that choice.

But Lebelo says he is uncomfortable with his neighborhood. At times, he can't help feeling depressed and alienated, wondering what will happen to the township he left behind.

"Sometimes I think I must be lucky to have a job," he says. "There are times when I think I don't deserve it. What happens to the millions?"

He still returns to the township almost every afternoon. He goes to soccer practice at the nearby dirt playing fields, where he sponsors a team of unemployed young men. Some of the players are so poor they cannot afford equipment, so they practice in their dress shoes.

But he is just a visitor now. At dusk, he says goodbye to his team and drives home, up the winding roads leading to his house in Naturena.

The next morning, he drives to the university and works at his office on the sixth floor of the administration building. His window faces south across the bustling city streets choked with honking minibus taxis, the glittering bank buildings of the city's central business district, and in the distance the mine dumps rising like mountains. Even from this height, Soweto remains just out of view.