Township e-tolls a symptom of greater ills

2013-06-19 10:00

I see her every Saturday or any other day I visit home in the township.

I know more than just her name, as she and her family have been our neighbours for more than 40 years.

Honey, as she is popular known, has told me countless times I am not like her and the others who have remained in the townships.

Although I like to believe I have not changed, she likes to remind me I am different. I know what she means.

She is like many other fast-ageing men and women I grew up with in my community.

They are poor, unemployed, troubled and hopeless.

Perhaps this is what makes her think I am different, and draws her to me whenever I park my posh car on our street.

On every occasion, this petite ­little figure will come darting ­towards me, her battered face and disfigured soul beaming with joy at the sight of me.

Her eyes are imposing and her hand is stretched out like a gun, demanding and ­expecting some money from me to buy something or the other.

Since the dawning of democracy in 1994, the townships seem to have groomed men, women and children with an uncanny ability to make perceived outsiders pay some form of tax for being ­privileged and advantaged.

It is called the township e-toll. If it were not for the focus, self- discipline, hard work and, above all, the grace of God, I could easily have turned out to be exactly like Honey in the new South Africa.

I can see and recognise the traces of my own growth and development in how she has turned out.

Perhaps this is what makes me have this intuitive connection with her condition.

It is always difficult and painful to witness and experience the ­brutality of economic inequality on men and women who are ­permanently trapped in township poverty and unemployment.

On every occasion, I try to give not just a R20 note, but smiles, hugs and love too.

A casual drive through township streets reveals masses of people loitering in the streets, groups huddled on street corners waiting for nothing, teenage couples holding hands or kissing and those seated on stoeps drinking beer.

For most people who grew up in the townships, this abnormality is normal.

This legacy of apartheid and the failure of freedom and ­democracy to transform the lives of the underclass is just what ­happens.

Far too many people in the ­townships neither see nor recognise the devastating impact of economic inequality that shatters ­millions of lives across the country.

Instead, they are blinded by love for what they consider symbols of home and community that give them identity, history, purpose and meaning.

My visits to my home in the township are always deliberate and purposeful, I like to think.

I come to my parents’ house to capture and inhale the spirit that gave me my resilience, if anything.

But this place has changed for the worse in the 15 years I have left to relocate to the suburbs.

It is not the same place I walked as a young ambitious student. ­Perhaps it is in my mind, but ­poverty, unemployment and crime are strangling my people to death, ­reducing them to beggars.

The township folks, those who are simple and carefree like Honey, reveal the deep seriousness of the evil in our failure to grow the economy or to find ways to redistribute the wealth of this country to benefit the poor and marginalised.

I am a product of township life and experience and that alone makes it easy for people like Honey to focus on me to pay what I consider to be reparations.

I suspect that the fact that I live in the suburbs with and like white folks is their way of underscoring the irony of being a privileged black.

Almost like living zombies, ­Honey and others will always move quickly to approach those who have made it, whatever that means, to collect their little share of the wealth in wallets and purses.

I do not believe you need a third eye in your forehead to see the increasing levels of poverty, ­unemployment, hopelessness and crime in what Alan Paton called “the beautiful country that no man can enjoy”.

The people I grew up with in the townships think I am part of the problem and not the solution.

They probably see me – a privileged black – as a buffer zone between economic inequality and black oppression and exploitation.

The fact that they see me this way sends shudders down my spine.

Only a few blacks in the last 18 years have been able to fight and win against the odds.

But I am one of those privileged few who live relatively well, while my contemporaries are forced to beg for a R20 note to buy bread or a bottle of beer.

What is to be done with this economic inequality that is a threat to social cohesion and everything we have fought for?

»?Memela is chief director for social cohesion in the department of arts and culture

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