S. African project shows difficulty of poverty fight

July 07, 2005|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ALEXANDRA, South Africa - Young boys are gliding down a dirt hill on toboggans made from car fenders. Goats graze on trash in the street. Rickety shacks stand in schoolyards, old factory compounds and almost every other patch of ground.

Two miles from this township of 500,000 people stand the gleaming office towers of Sandton, the wealthiest suburb of Johannesburg, where many Alexandrans work as maids, laborers or retail clerks, if they are fortunate enough to have jobs.

President Bush and other leaders of the Group of Eight industrial nations began meeting last night in Scotland to debate British Prime Minister Tony Blair's proposal to double aid to Africa, to $50 billion a year. But a visit to this township on the edge of Africa's wealthiest city shows that even a river of cash might erode only the sharpest edges of poverty.

Halfway through South Africa's seven-year, $375 million effort to improve conditions in this single square mile, unemployment exceeds 60 percent and as many as a third of residents are believed to be infected with HIV.

Yet the project's directors can claim progress. Hundreds of free or low-rent housing units are rising. Shacks have been cleared from the banks of the polluted Jukskei River, where people used to drown during heavy rains. There are new schools, clinics and playgrounds. Violent crime is down 40 percent since a police station opened in the township.

"It's a misnomer to say there is no success in Africa," said Julian Baskin, director of the Alexandra Renewal Project. "At least here in Alex, the government is investing its own money, producing results. No one can say Alex is not improving."

Political leaders and the musicians performing at the recent Live 8 concerts sounded paternalistic to many Africans. In Baskin's view, the celebrities were saying that Africans cannot help themselves and that the West knows best.

Entertainers and other celebrities have played a prominent role in the push for doubling aid to the continent.

Blair, the British prime minister, appeared yesterday with Bob Geldof, organizer of last weekend's Live 8 concerts that were held to pressure G-8 leaders to do more to fight poverty and disease.

"You've got to be prepared to hold out for what is right," Blair said when questioned about reports that Britain was preparing to scale back its demands on support for Africa in the face of U.S. opposition.

"Three billion people are urging you to take it all the way," Geldof told Blair, referring to the number of people organizers have estimated either attended or watched the weekend concerts on television.

In Alexandra, the changes block by block have come largely due to changes in South African society.

Until the 1990s, thanks to policies of the apartheid regime, Alexandra lacked electricity, paved roads, streetlights and flush toilets. Some of the needs have now been met but many others have not.

"The problem is unemployment and housing," said Hilda Mohnomi, a 63-year-old community organizer. "The third thing we need is schools for our children."

Alexandra came into existence as a black township in 1912 when a white farmer sold plots to black families, a year before a new law made that illegal. The farmer named the community 10 miles northeast of downtown after his wife.

After the government formalized its apartheid policy in the late 1940s, some residents were forced to move to Soweto and other areas farther from central Johannesburg. But Alexandra was left in place because of its value as a labor pool.

In the 1960s, the government planned to remake the township into a cluster of worker hostels with no accommodations for families, an unsought transformation that the residents managed to block. In the 1980s, another plan to forcibly remove many of the residents was shelved after anti-apartheid violence left 40 people dead.

Blacks could finally move freely after the repeal in 1986 of laws governing where people could live, and thousands of newcomers arrived in search of jobs in Johannesburg.

Suddenly, the back yard of a house would become a neighborhood of several shacks and home to dozens of people. That pattern was repeated, straining the weak infrastructure. Today the city of Johannesburg calls Alexandra its "most famous ghetto" with 4,060 houses and 34,000 shacks.

"Where do you relocate them to? That's our problem," said Darlene Louw, the renewal project's coordinator.

Residents were promised they would not be moved more than five miles, but keeping that promise while creating 25,000 new housing units is not easy.

Many of the jobs are at informal streetside convenience stores called tuck shops. Andrew Molepo, 20, was running his parents' shop yesterday on 6th Avenue, a stretch of shacks lined three deep between the road and the back of a women's hostel.

Molepo is home on break from the University of Limpopo, north of Johannesburg. He is in his second year of business management study, a pursuit he said was made possible by a full scholarship.

What would he ask of the G-8?

"I don't want them to throw money," he said. "My main aim is to have everyone in South Africa educated - they should build schools with laboratories, computer equipment, books, and not just outdated books."

With education, he said, "everything is possible."

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