Wealth gap: Home away from home

2015-03-08 15:00

With stop-start traffic jams, jaywalkers, jumbled up shops and homeless people huddled in cardboard boxes, Sao Paulo feels a lot like Joburg’s CBD.

Without the humidity and language barrier, Brazil’s most populous city could have been home, and driving through the city’s infamous “favelas” – urban ghettos – was not unlike being in Alexandra.

Tin shacks are piled on top of each other and there is nothing resembling a main road. Unlike in Jozi, the favelas are distinctly part of the city, rather than apart in what would once have been “designated areas” under old-fashioned apartheid zoning.

The similarities between Sao Paulo and Johannesburg resume as you move uptown among high-rise buildings, cosmopolitan cafes and hotels. The modest houses in the centre bristle with familiar high walls and gates – built to deter intruders in this mashed-up, crime-ridden capital.

Our tour guide explained that most homes had high security, or at least as high as they could afford, to keep the “baddies out”. He added that one of the signs of a city on its knees was when graffiti took over walls, bridges and buildings.

Sao Paulo had plenty of that, but the bright, bold graffiti gave way to tagging – people simply writing their names on walls – closer to the centre. This, said our guide, was what happened when people felt they had no way out of poverty.

The guide continued to sermonise as we drove along the mighty Tietê River, which divided the highway in and out of Sao Paulo. He preached that, like parts of the megacity, the river was filthy and unkempt. Rubbish floated on the surface, making the once great waterway an eyesore all the way into the city.

Worse things lay beneath. A local diver interviewed by The New York Times reported finding handguns, knives, stoves and fridges, a suitcase with $2?000 inside and another with the decomposing remains of a dismembered woman.

In the downtown markets, I felt that I could have been on Noord Street: rules of the road didn’t apply, the buildings were grimy and shops were filled with counterfeit goods.

Brazil and South Africa – same difference.

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