Soweto in transition as middle-class blacks head out of S. African enclave

August 01, 1993|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau

SOWETO, South Africa -- Diepkloof is a neighborhood that looks like many in the suburbs of Johannesburg -- new, stylish houses surrounded by security walls, with snappy BMW and Mercedes automobiles in the driveways.

But Diepkloof is different. All the houses are occupied by blacks. And the community is in Soweto, belying the image of this black township, a sprawling suburb that is home to perhaps 3 million people, as a place of little more than poverty, despair and disruption.

In fact, although most houses in Soweto are basic four-room buildings, surrounded by barren dirt and scattered trash, many have been expanded and improved by their owners. Here and there throughout the township are impressive structures, some with an added second story rising above their more modest neighbors and with well-tended gardens fighting the dust that covers everything in Soweto.

When these houses were built or improved, blacks in South Africa had no choice other than buying in the townships.

Now, as the apartheid laws disappear, the growing black middle class doesn't want as neighbors squatter camps of shacks built by the homeless and dormitory-like hostels full of migrant laborers.

They are beginning to leave behind the ever-present violence and political turmoil of the townships, moving to the formerly all-white neighborhoods or to townships once designated for the Indian or mixed-race communities.

But that means that more and more people occupying the nice houses of Soweto find themselves trapped in the township, unable to find buyers for their homes.

"To get a buyer is very difficult, especially using the banks," said Kenneth Dlamini, 52, sitting in his Soweto house, to which he has added many rooms over the 40 years he has lived here.

"I think this house is worth about 80,000 rand [$26,000]. But the banks will tell you it is not worth that much. So you have to find someone who has the money. It is very difficult."

Rebecca Marou, 66, also thinks her much-improved house is worth about 80,000 rand.

"But perhaps it might go down to 60,000," she said. "The banks don't want to lend money here, because if violence breaks out and this house gets burned, you get nothing for it."

The long-standing recession in South Africa has hit hard in the black community, with the rate of unemployment in Soweto estimated at 40 percent. The uncertainty of a steady paycheck adds to the banks' reluctance to lend money.

Elizabeth Masekela, 43, lives in an attractive house on a quiet cul-de-sac with a half-dozen similar homes built about 10 years ,, ago for Soweto's middle class.

She teaches in a Soweto school and enjoys the convenience of her location but would like to move, in part to find a better school for her 14-year-old daughter, a school not affected by strikes and other disruptions that plague those in the township.

"I would like a peaceful place where people are not afraid, where they are not always wondering what is going to happen," Ms. Masekela said.

"But it is just a dream. Nobody wants to buy a house like this. They all want to go into town because they think they will be safe there."

The desire to leave the township is in some cases generational -- the young people looking for a life in town in the new South Africa, the older ones happy with their life in Soweto.

"We love this place," Mrs. Marou said. "I have spent most of my time here. I have friends here, neighbors, my church. If I moved, I would have to find new friends, a new church."

She also expressed the fear of many that if those who can afford to move out leave Soweto, only the poor will be left behind, and a vibrant, if troubled, community will be caught in the cycle of despair that traps so many U.S. inner cities.

"Here, now we are all mixed up," she said. "We have doctors, lawyers and teachers. It's poor and rich together, an integration of all different types.

"You can't leave the poor people alone. If someone has got nothing to eat, what is she going to do? If the rich live next door to the poor, at least the rich can give her a plate of food one day.

"If I have something to eat and my neighbor has nothing, then, really, how can I swallow it? It is going to get stuck in my throat if there are children crying at the gate."

"If you look at Soweto as it stands now, everybody knows everybody in an area," said Sipho Nkosi, who runs a business out of his duplex flat.

"If you need something, you can always go to your neighbor. But if you move into an upper-class neighborhood, there is no such thing. If you have problems, you can't relate them to your neighbor. You stay with your suffering.

"That is why some people move out, they end up coming back. Otherwise. they would die out of boredom. African culture is built on human communication, but those are not the norms of Western culture. You are expected to keep to yourself," he said.

Charles Masenye has one of the nice houses in Diepkloof. But the downside of Soweto is visible out of his front window, which overlooks a huge hostel, often considered the source of township violence, across a littered field.

"The people from the hostel don't ever bother us," he said. "But at night, I don't know if they are cleaning their guns or what, but you hear gunfire all the time."

Despite the view and the nightly noise, Mr. Masenye, who works for an insurance company in Johannesburg, said he would not like to leave, even if he could find a buyer willing to pay the $50,000 or so his house is probably worth.

"All my friends are here, all my neighbors," he said. "If I need something, if I need some help, I just have to walk next door to get it. I don't think that would be true if I moved into town."

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