We pulled up at the side of a road on a busy flyover, the driver seemingly oblivious to the speed of the other traffic – just another example of the reckless South African driving that we had become accustomed to and fearing of in equal proportions. None of us wanted to be the first out of the minibus; even with the doors closed, the extent of the poverty could be seen. For miles ahead, row upon row of tumbledown shacks stood precariously, as if the lightest wind would bring the whole settlement down, and with it, the lives of the thousands of residents.
However,step outside the minibus we did – with our expensive cameras, nice clothes and full stomachs, we owed it to these people to, at the very least, bear witness to the trials and tribulations of their everyday lives. Looking at the traffic going past on the flyover, thousands upon thousands of people must drive past the shanty town every day, rushing between the centre of Johannesburg and the wealthier parts of Soweto, or beyond, too busy to care about what is going on around them.
Whilst the extent of the shanty town was shocking – not only did it reach far into the distance, but it continued the other side of the bridge, close to railway lines, and up into the hills, all the while watched over by the iconic Soweto towers – the most shocking part was looking directly below us. This allowed us to look into the lives of real people, individuals, rather than a vast number of people. We saw children playing, women hanging out washing on a makeshift line, people putting their lives at risk crossing the lethal railway tracks. If anyone had ever doubted the reality of the scenes shown to us on Oxfam appeal adverts, had thought they were staged, or exaggerated, this alone was proof that they were not.
As we spent a few minutes taking in the scene, an elderly woman and her granddaughter approached us and engaged us in conversation, asking our names and where we were from, before telling us they lived in one of the homes below. The genuine interest they showed in our lives was humbling. We bid them farewell as they continued their journey, and as we turned around, we were faced with a wall of children, around 15 of them, all keen to talk to us. Shouting below alerted us to the arrival of more children – word was being spread around the settlement about the visitors up at the road, and groups of children were scrambling up the grass bank and climbing over the railings to see us. Sadly, their interest stemmed from their need to beg – we were later told that their families send them up to the road to get food or money from tourists.
Within seconds we were surrounded entirely by the children, some as young as 3 or 4 years old, and our guide decided it was best for us to get back on the minibus. Even as we climbed back in, the children were still following us, until the minibus driver- who had grown up in Soweto himself- intercepted, and spoke to the children in a language we didn’t understand. We later asked what he had said, and he had explained to them that those who had not been lucky enough to receive food or money from visitors today would have to hope that tomorrow was a better day for them.
The children latched onto us, one on one, in a well rehearsed routine, asking our names, where we were from, if we had any siblings, before asking “do you have anything for me?” We had been told to leave our belongings in the minibus and not to give them anything. As harsh as this sounds, giving them money teaches them that begging is a sustainable way of life and offers them no motivation to search for employment when they are older. They walked with us for a while, until we headed back to the minibus, and even as we got on and closed the door behind us, they could still be heard asking “Do you have anything for me?”
An overwhelming sense of guilt hit us knowing that these children would have to go back to their parents, some with 10 or 12 mouths to feed, and tell them that they had not managed to get any money today. Yet the thing that stuck with me most about the experience was the attitude of the people we met. They all had next to nothing, lived in conditions that most people are lucky enough never to encounter, and have to fight just to survive every day, yet they were some of the most joyful and welcoming people I have ever met. Always laughing, smiling, greeting strangers and inviting them in to their homes. There’s a lesson to be learned from these people!