Sunday, June 16, 2013

Old memories revived

An article in the Telegraph discusses the ongoing grinding poverty in Alexandra township, part of the Johannesburg metropolitan area in Gauteng province, South Africa.  Here's an excerpt.

Electricity has arrived in the corner of Alexandra township where Nelson Mandela came to live in 1941 - but that is the one and only physical improvement of the last 72 years.

The tiny redbrick house, which served as Mr Mandela's first home in Johannesburg, stands locked and empty, but otherwise unchanged since he rented its single room as a penniless 23-year-old.

All around the former president's old front door live ordinary South Africans who would have been his neighbours in that era. "Alexandra occupies a treasured place in my heart," he wrote in his memoirs. "Its atmosphere was alive, its spirit adventurous, its people resourceful."

Mr Mandela now lies in intensive care in a hospital 30 miles away. He rose from Alexandra to the presidency of South Africa, but the resourceful people he left behind still endure much the same privation and squalor.

They cheered Mr Mandela's release from prison in 1990, voted for him in the first free election four years later and celebrated his accession to power. Today, they will pray for his recovery as he endures his eighth day in hospital as a stricken 94-year-old.

Yet as Mr Mandela's life reaches the final pages of its last chapter, they also point out that Alexandra is just as troubled and as poverty-stricken as when he lived here.

At that time, Alexandra had no electricity and its squalid streets were popularly known as "Dark City". Today, the lights are on – but that change began under the apartheid regime in the 1980s.

Since Mr Mandela led the African National Congress (ANC) to power in 1994, there has, quite simply, been no improvement whatever in physical living conditions in the area near his old home.

There's more at the link.  You can read an extensive and very interesting article about Alexandra's history here.  I recommend it.

I entered Alexandra more than once during the 1980's, when ethnic, tribal and interracial violence was endemic in South Africa (enduring from the 1976 Soweto riots until the end of apartheid with advent of democratic rule in 1994).  It was the scene of some appallingly violent encounters between Government forces and resistance groups, and between different Black organizations competing for power and influence.  Add to that one of the most flourishing criminal environments in the whole country, and you had a recipe for urban disaster.  That's precisely what it produced during those evil years.

I recall one incident in particular.  A particularly nasty and vicious criminal had been shot and wounded by police, and was taken to the Alexandra Clinic for treatment.  (It's a well-known private charity institution that continues its work to this day.)  This man was notorious for having very seldom been convicted of his crimes, because witnesses mysteriously vanished or 'lost their memory' when the time came to testify in court.  Those (few) who gave evidence often ended up dead, or 'disappeared', which 'reminded others to forget' when necessary.

A policeman of my acquaintance knew that this criminal would probably get off scot-free, yet again, on the charges facing him.  He was determined not to let that happen;  so he went to see one of the senior nurses at the clinic, a Black lady from a tribe that was notoriously prone to violence.  He informed her simply, "Nurse, the man who raped your daughter three years ago is in bed number so-and-so.  We'll be along to arrest him in the morning."

When the police arrived the following morning, what they arrested might, charitably, have been described as human . . . but it was no longer capable of rape, or any other crime, or even of a pain-free thought.  It was an object lesson in the simple, brutal tribal justice of Africa.  Evil, you say?  Uncivilized?  Illegal?  Yes to all . . . but the same 'remedy' to extreme crime continues to this day in many parts of Africa.  That's just the way it is.  Life is cheap there, and 'civilized' standards are somewhat less than skin-deep.  (I'm not all that sure about those standards in the First World, come to think of it!)



Toejam said...


An elderly Irish missionary priest & friend of mine served in the area for years.

His views coincide exactly with your's.

"Life is cheap there, and 'civilized' standards are somewhat less than skin-deep."

trailbee said...

My ignorance is going to show, but who cares: What I never could understand was once apartheid became the law of the land, why did we not see the huge changes for which the new laws were enacted. Is this like parts of Ireland? I understand about Detroit, and politics. Is this a political football where nothing will ever change? Or is the answer so long, this is not the time and place?

Anonymous said...

I wonder about 'civilized standards'. I think that may well be a very dated and quaint term that possibly shouldn't be applied whole heartedly to how we live in the West. Affluence seems to paper over and distract from many of our own uncivilized standards.