In search of a better life

27 January 2014 - 02:16 By GRAEME HOSKEN
Alexandra township in Johannesburg. The city has been told to withdraw adverts that boast of its world-class status
Alexandra township in Johannesburg. The city has been told to withdraw adverts that boast of its world-class status

"For now I am well off. I have a place to sleep and I am making money to send home. This place is better than back home."

Standing among filth and rubbish in Alexandra township, northern Johannesburg, 15-year-old Philip Mhlanga tells his story.

He escaped the poverty and squalor of Maputo's slums for a better life in South Africa.

He lives now in the poorest section of Alexandra with his brother.

A portion of the pittance he makes from selling combs, cigarettes, lighters, matches and superglue - about R150 a week - is sent back home.

The rest he uses to survive, hoping to move out of Alexandra's slums and into a "nice" house on the township's West Bank.

Like Mhlanga, matriculant Emma Mokoena, who lives on the West Bank, believes life in the township is relatively good.

"I want to go to Wits University but I do not have the money, so I am doing a computer course to get more skills to earn some money.

"I have a chance where I live, unlike the others, who live in the squatter camp ... I have electricity, a proper house, but things elsewhere here are difficult ... really, really difficult.

"I do face some battles ... the R11 taxi fare to Johannesburg is expensive and I walk around Alex instead of paying R9 for a taxi," she said.

Mokoena's life is easy compared to that of her neighbours.

She can walk to her friends' home at night, often sees police patrolling her neighbourhood, can get treatment at clinics and her family can afford electricity in their home.

For her neighbours in S'tjwetla Section - which Mhlanga calls home - less than a kilometre from where she lives, life is different.

"We have nothing ... we are dying here ... our children are dying and nobody cares," says community leader Joseph Baloyi.

"There is nothing here. No jobs, no life and no hope.

"There on the West Bank they have electricity, brick houses. Here there is none of that. We can't buy proper food because we can't keep it cold.

"Our homes burn down in winter and flood in summer.

"If you don't have a job, living here is a death sentence - sometimes quick but most times slow."

Professor Paul Harrison, of the National Planning Commission, said a feature of South Africa was extreme inequality, with large numbers of people living in conditions more usually found in low-income countries.

"Can you resolve poverty? One has to differentiate between absolute and relative poverty. We can eliminate absolute poverty depending on how we define it ... you can envisage a situation in which no one goes to bed hungry.

"But aspirations come into play. If you have high levels of inequality people see themselves in relation to others and regard themselves as poor.

"The issue of inequality has to be looked at with the issue of poverty. You could have reasonably high incomes, but if your cost of living is high you could still end up poor."


How we stand

Multidimensional poverty index rankings of South Africa:

  • Ranked 47th of 104 countries;
  • Least poor among countries in sub-Saharan Africa;
  • As an upper-middle-income country, South Africa is third worst among upper-middle-income countries. The worst upper-middle income country is Namibia;
  • Poorest provinces are KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape and Limpopo; and
  • The Western Cape and Gauteng are the richest provinces, and are eight times wealthier than the poorest provinces.

Poverty of ideas perpetuates inequality

"Understanding that job creation, housing and access to services will help alleviate poverty is vital."

For Professor Philip Harrison, national planning commissioner and holder of the chair in development planning and modelling research at Wits University, the failure to act effectively on these factors explains why South Africa is struggling to overcome poverty.

"There is an understanding that there is a national crisis around poverty.

"But we have a poverty of imagination ... a poverty in finding solutions when we face a crisis in mass youth unemployment and struggle to build a consensus on what to do about it."

He said that though inroads had been made into dealing with poverty, with grants making a big impact at the bottom end of society, they had failed in some circumstances.

"We've failed to lift the masses to what we regard as a reasonable quality of life. There is extreme inequality, with large numbers of people living in conditions usually found in low-income countries."

Corruption greatly retards the government's efficiency.

"Anything that makes it difficult to produce jobs and deliver services diminishes our capability to address poverty."

The Carnegie3 conference report - a document that posits ways of overcoming poverty and inequality, released last week by the University of Cape Town - points to huge societal inequalities.

It shows that this country has one of the most "unequal societies in the world", with inequality, especially among the poor, having become worse over the past 15 years.

"South Africa compares unfavourably with virtually all other countries.

"Inequality has got worse ... because of widening inequality within previously disadvantaged groups, not between black and white."