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Pole to Pole

Day 125: Johannesburg

Michael Palin - Pole to PoleAs we leave Jimmy's house, Roy is scooping dog-shit off the lawns.

In Jimmy's neighbourhood - the Diep Kloof extension, or Prestige Park as it is known - there are streets full of architect-designed, venetian-blinded villas with double garages, clipped lawns and herbaceous borders. Mercedes back lazily out of radio-controlled garages and one mansion boasts the ultimate in Soweto chic: a white security guard. These houses went up in the last five years and were bought by businessmen, doctors and lawyers. One was for a man who makes 150,000 rand a year profit from the butchery business; another cost the Reverend Chikane 800,000 rand (£150,000).

'Moneymakers in the name of the Lord,' muses Jimmy as we drive by.

At our insistence and with, I detect, a slight weariness, he shows us another side of Soweto, a shantytown known as Mandela Village. Looming in the distance, beyond the tin roofs and the undrained streets, are the long straight lines of the gold mine dumps.

A baby is born in Soweto every five minutes, says Jimmy. Fifty per cent of the population are under sixteen. Many thousands of them live in conditions like these, makeshift cabins which can be put up overnight, made of anything their occupants can lay their hands on. There are frequent fires and no sanitation other than a few plastic lavatories provided by the council. The shacks consist usually of one room, with maybe the added luxury of a scavenged gas-ring or an old car-seat. Very often the inside walls are papered with pages from sales catalogues or fashion magazines. Three-piece suites, televisions, showers, refrigerators and all the other things the occupants can't afford form a constant backdrop to their lives.

The 'Blue Monday' effect can be seen in a number of sad characters who lurch along the dirt track between the huts, but the children are wide-eyed and curious, quick to smile, easy to make laugh. It is fairly unbearable to dwell on their prospects in life - taken away from the simple, hard but traditional way of life in a mud hut in the bush to a life equally hard, but suddenly not as simple.
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  • Series: Pole to Pole
  • Day: 125
  • Country/sea: South Africa
  • Place: Soweto
  • Book page no: 280

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