Some rise but most sink in Soweto's sea of slums

Years after sweeping political change, South Africa's largest township still struggles


SOWETO, South Africa - It's morning in Soweto. Minibus taxis rattle along the streets, jarring residents awake with their blaring horns. Smoke rises from the coal fires burning in the overcrowded shacks of squatter camps. Children in matching uniforms plod to school across the dusty township under the first rays of a brilliant sun.

At 3259 Khoali St., Thabo Molefe wakes up in the chilly hallway of his family's home.

Nine people live in the brick two-bedroom house. Molefe's 88-year-old grandmother, a frail woman who spends most of the day in bed, has one of the bedrooms. Two aunts share the other. Scattered on the living room and bedroom floors are Molefe's four cousins and his younger sister. His older brother sleeps in a shack in the back yard. The hallway - no larger than a desktop - is where Molefe sleeps curled up like a dog.

Waking, Molefe, a gangly 20-year-old, can make a quick accounting of his household's hardships. His parents are dead. He has been looking for work for two years but can't find a job. The two aunts who raised him lost their jobs as maids. The only source of income for the family of 10 is his grandmother's pension of $62 a month. It is never enough to pay the bills.

For the whole family, poverty is like a steady, annoying tap on the shoulder, constantly reminding them of what they lack. On a recent morning, the refrigerator was bare except for a bag of olives, mayonnaise and a tub of chicken fat. The sugar ran out, so there was nothing to sweeten their breakfast - a cup of hot tea. In the middle of winter, when temperatures dropped to near freezing, Thabo wore sandals because he could not afford shoes.

Each day brings new worries.

"It is stressing me," says Molefe, his soft voice hardening with frustration. "I'm not working, I'm sleeping on the floor, I'm depending on my grandmother for money. It is not right."

Life in Soweto was not supposed to turn out like this. It is 2002, 12 years after Nelson Mandela walked to freedom after 27 years in prison, eight years after the first democratic election replaced the white minority government with black majority rule; yet by any easy measure, life for his family has not improved. In fact, he complains, it has gotten worse.

It's a complaint being heard across this sprawling black township of 1.5 million people, the community known worldwide as a symbol of the horrors of South Africa's five decades of apartheid rule and the heroism of the people who struggled against it.

So much has changed here, residents say. Gone are the days of carrying passbooks, of living under the thumb of security forces, of all the terrors and humiliations of the state-run system of racial discrimination and segregation. The government has paved roads and brought electricity and water to township squatter camps.

Ambitious black professionals, members of the country's emerging black middle class, now have lifestyles and careers that rival the success of the country's white minority. They have fled townships like Soweto for new lives of privilege and power in the formerly all-white suburbs, with spacious homes, groomed lawns and swimming pools.

But so much has not changed, too, especially for the poor blacks who make up the majority of South Africa's population. Soweto remains as poor as it was under apartheid. Some say it is even poorer.

In the darkest days of apartheid, the Molefes were poor, but at least, they say, they woke up with jobs to go to, food in the fridge, and dreams of better lives when South Africa would be free.

Now, in the middle of the week, idle young men and women like Molefe roam the streets because they can't find work in an economy that has shed a half-million jobs since 1993.

Nationwide, about a third of the population is unemployed; in Soweto, the unemployment rate runs about 50 percent. Those lucky enough to find work have watched their wages shrink and the prices for food and fuel rise. If Soweto's economic woes were not enough, the wrath of the AIDS epidemic is felt on every street in the township, in a country where HIV infects one in nine people.

Their complaints reflect an underlying frustration: Sowetans may be politically free, but economically they are still trapped.

"South Africa somewhere, sometime is doing fine. But not the township people. I don't think the government is doing anything for us. The government is working for people in the suburbs," Molefe says.

Not surprisingly, the widening gap between the rich and poor is fueling bitter class tensions. Just as the walls of racial discrimination are falling, a new apartheid is under construction, residents here say, separating the rich from the poor.

And once again, Soweto is at the forefront of the struggle. During the fight against the apartheid government, residents marched in defiance, organized rent boycotts, strikes and huge funeral demonstrations, and lost their lives to security forces.

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