Archives For Sandton

The Wall Street Journal recently posted a video feature on the Johannesburg suburb of Sandton, calling it Africa’s Manhattan. This is where Mtuseni went to school for the past three years, at Boston Media House.

WSJ Sandton video grab

Click to access the video report.

 

When I went to visit Mtuseni last year, I stayed in Sandton, partly because his school was there. I wanted to see where he spent his days. Also, I had been warned about high crime in downtown Johannesburg and was told that Sandton is clean and safe. And, finally, there were no hotels, restaurants, stores, or much of anything near Mtuseni’s settlement — aside from a regional airport. After paying to fly halfway around the world, with my primary goal getting to spend time with and bond with my newfound long-distance son, I wanted some measure of comfort and safety — as well as fun diversions for the two of us. So Sandton seemed a logical choice.

I hated Sandton. Living in Boston, the ultimate college town, I had pictured the home of Mtuseni’s college to be similar, with lively street life and art galleries and sidewalk cafes and coffeehouses. Instead, it felt like San Jose or any other office park-city in Silicon Valley: shiny and antiseptic. And it was far from Mtuseni’s settlement. With a private driver it took us a good half hour to get there; Mtuseni’s school commute often took about 90 minutes on the minibus taxis, with a changeover in Randburg.

But the difference in miles paled in comparison to the difference in experience and lifestyle. The streets of Sandton were lined with dealerships for ultra-premium car brands, some I never even heard of. The Sandton City Centre-Mandela Square-Galleria mega-mall was an enormous, dizzying labyrinth crammed with high-end designer stores. The wealth was eye-popping. Boston is a wealthy city, but Sandton felt like Beverly Hills wealth.

Annex roomBy comparison, Mtuseni’s settlement of Drummond is a collection of about 50 cinderblock and tin-roof shacks along a dirt road in the middle of a sweeping field near the highway and Lanseria airport. No electricity, no plumbing. No opportunities. Although it was wonderful to meet Mtuseni’s family and finally see where he was during our lengthy text chats and phone calls — inside it made me very sad. It’s one thing to see poverty like that on TV, it’s another to experience it firsthand — and then to know it’s the daily life of somebody you love and care for.

Mtuseni had been staying with me during my visit, but I returned to the hotel alone after visiting his family because he had a major church function the next day. Back in Sandton, my heart and mind couldn’t process the contrast of wealth and poverty I had experienced. It was jarring and I felt a hollow mixture of guilt and despair and grief. I always wondered how Mtuseni handled that dual life the past few years. It was like going from Dorothy’s black-and-white Kansas world to the Yellow Brick Road and Technicolor Oz — and back again. Day after day. I can see why Mtuseni always got grouchy and depressed on school breaks — and with classes over for good, I’m worried about his mood, which can go very dark very quickly. It’s completely understandable.

And yet, this contrast of rich and poor is not necessarily separated by great distances. Sandton’s luxe malls are only a couple miles away from Alexandra — a dense township of nearly 200,000 people in tightly packed shacks on narrow alleys. It’s been there a long time; I was surprised to read about it in Cry, the Beloved Country, which was published in 1948. My driver took me past Alex on the way to my hotel from the airport when I first arrived. It felt like it went on forever. Some of Mtuseni’s friends from school lived there — and they had electricity and even Internet access. I used to tell him to “borrow” some electricity and Internet from them for school work, but Mtuseni said his mother didn’t like him going there because of the crime. On times he did go there, he was made to feel like an intruder; being from a rural settlement, Mtuseni is viewed as lower class by some township folks. And from the streets of Alex you can see the gleaming towers of Africa’s Manhattan. They are not far-off … yet they are worlds away.

Being the Wall Street Journal, the report gushes about Sandton’s wealth and growth. Only toward the end is the topic of poverty in such close proximity raised, in an indirect reference to Alexandra. The white South African woman in the video matter-of-factly says “Oh, we’ve grown used to living amongst such conditions of poverty.” It didn’t seem to faze her. She doesn’t talk about fixing it. Maybe you have to turn your mind off to it, living there every day. I can’t seem to do that back here.


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One Chapter Closes

November 14, 2013 — Leave a comment

magnoliasEvery few years, in late spring when I’m marveling at the pink magnolia trees in Boston’s Back Bay, a vivid memory surfaces… It was my very last day at Emerson College, on the old Beacon Street campus in the stately brownstones. I had a meeting with my senior seminar professor, turned in some graduation paperwork, and was finished. My college days were done, and I enjoyed the sense of relief and accomplishment.

It was a sunny, warm afternoon. Spying an empty classroom, I sat in a big open window and looked down at the lively street scene that had been my life for three years. I loved Emerson and living in the city. At my father’s insistence, I’d started college at UMass Amherst, in the rural western part of the state. Aside from one semester in a high-rise dorm with a bunch of smart, funny, crazy friends, I hated my time there. I’m a city person; a college town in the woods felt like prison.

Transferring to Emerson — on my own dime — was the best decision I’d ever made. I learned a lot, felt validated for my creative talents, met some great people, and came into myself. So my feelings sitting in that window were bittersweet. A wonderful chapter in my life was coming to an end. Yes, I was young and had a whole future of possibilities ahead. But something in me wanted to sit in that spot and hold onto that moment forever, unwilling to close the book and walk away.

But I still lived in the city. And by the fall I would start my first job as a copywriter for a small agency. Emerson had been a big, bright spot in my life — but it wasn’t my everything.

____________________

This week Mtuseni’s on-campus chapter comes to an end. It’s amazing how fast the time went. It seems like just yesterday he visited the school for the first time and — against my instructions — took the entrance exam on the spot. I remember my complete joy when the administrator emailed to say he had done well and was accepted, and his excitement when I told him the news. For me, that moment began a three-year stretch of tuition bills, arguments with school staff, searching for extra resources, and intensive coaching with Mtuseni on many levels, including some I never anticipated.

Boston+Media+House+class+laptopFor Mtuseni, these three years have been nothing short of transformational. Although his first-term transition from a poor farm school to a college in South Africa’s wealthiest neighborhood was rough, we got him through those “darkest days” and he flourished. He has many friends on campus and loves being among a crowd of young, dynamic, ambitious peers.

I’ve always dreaded Mtuseni’s extended breaks from school, because within a day or two he becomes a bear. He’s bored out of his mind. Grouchy. Snappish. Miserable. Because unlike my college experience — where I went home to a vibrant life in Harvard Square, Mtuseni goes home to the settlement — where he is the first person to attend college. Where nobody understands him or feeds his mind or inspires him. Where, as he says, “people sit outside every day and just watch the sun cross the sky.” And where their main concern is not creating a professional radio demo tape, but putting food on the table and keeping their kids alive.

Boston Media House 2013 Open Day Campus Team

Boston Media House 2013 Open Day Campus Team

The closure of my Emerson chapter was sad for me, but the closing of Mtuseni’s Boston Media House chapter will be much harder on him. He’ll lose touch with many of his friends; daily face-to-face interaction supplanted by the emptiness of Facebook wall comments. The mutual peer support and friendly competition to succeed will vanish, with my custom blend of loving support and parental whip-cracking left to fill the gap. The busy street life of campus and Sandton’s corporate HQs and luxe malls will be replaced by the sullen atmosphere of poverty and dashed hope in Mtuseni’s settlement.

I’m a little worried. Going to college has been a rejuvenating elixir for Mtuseni. Without it, his community environment of despair can be a strong brew that pulls him backwards. Our work is not done; he still needs to find an internship — and I feel in some ways perhaps my toughest challenges lie ahead. Still, I will celebrate his — our — accomplishment this week. And try to keep his head and heart filled with a future of rich possibilities.


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Shock and Awe

August 16, 2013 — Leave a comment

Times+Square+New York

Mtuseni’s been home from his US trip for over a month now, and I’m still trying to put the pieces together. It’s a little bit like the aftermath of a tornado — not only from the nonstop energy of activities during his visit, but also the mental chaos it caused. The kid I saw here was in some ways the inquisitive, funny, sweet young man I know from years of long-form texting. Yet I was also surprised and a bit dismayed to see a moody, sour, sullen, insolent teenager — an alien being I’ve never experienced in four years of digital and phone communication. To say it caught me off guard is an understatement.

Part of Mtuseni’s darker persona is a product of an emotional immaturity: developmentally on many levels he is more like a 15-year-old than someone turning 21 next month. I was not prepared to handle the psychological roulette wheel of an adolescent boy. Props (and sympathy) to any parents who deal with that stuff on a daily basis.

But I discovered in a long talk with Mtuseni towards the mid-point of the visit — after things had come to a head and my capacity for patience was exhausted — that part of his mood and ‘tude were the by-product of profound culture shock.

Before Mtuseni arrived, friends noted that visiting the US from a poor South African settlement would be a culture shock to him. And I completely agreed. Yet what does that mean? What is culture? How do people living in a particular culture understand it — or do they even recognize it? For residents of a culture, it’s just life; you’re not aware of it as being a distinct through-line of daily experience. When I think of “American culture” today, it’s a mix of consumerism and marketing and obesity and violent movies and mindless reality TV. The higher values and principles of previous generations have been drowned out by crassness and banality — the Kardashian circus being the tipping point.

I don’t think that description fits all of America, but if someone asked me today to describe our culture in a nutshell that’s what I’d say, because the momentum seems to be heading in that direction. And given that Mtuseni experiences the eye-popping wealth and consumerism of Sandton at school every day (which shocked me on my trip to SA), and because he’s a student and consumer of mass media and marketing, I thought that any culture shock from visiting America would be limited.

Boy was I wrong.

When I finally sat Mtuseni down and asked him why he was being such a dick, his response was a profound eye opener for me. He said that, from the moment he stepped off the plane, everything seemed like a dream. Like he was here, but not here. Like he was watching himself in a movie, and thinking “This is my life? Am I really here in this place?” Everyone has had a similar out-of-body experience at some time. I remember feeling that in Venice — but having traveled before, it was wondrous and pleasant. For Mtuseni, that surreal feeling overwhelmed him — and he threw up defensive walls that at times made him miserable to be around.

But it wasn’t so much the cacophony of Times Square or the Boston subways or having electricity and a fully stocked kitchen that overwhelmed him. It was our American culture — experiences of life here that are so ingrained that I don’t even notice them. And having finally broken through his walls, they all came tumbling out of him in a list that stunned me. For example…

  • It felt “scary” to be hanging out with “older white people” here who treated him like a regular person and wanted to hear what he had to say. In South Africa, he says that whites look down on and talk down to blacks. There is mutual distrust, and he said that “apartheid will never be over in South Africa.” (My heart broke when he said that.)
  • People here are “very color blind,” with all types of diverse people all hanging out and comfortable together. (By contrast, seeing an episode of Family Feud at the gym — which happened to have a black family and a white family as contestants — Mtuseni said to me “Oh, so this show is black versus white?” That’s not the perception of a color-blind filter at work.)
  • Black teenagers here seem much more “confident” and comfortable and better dressed than his black peers in SA. (The realities of his deep poverty and limited farm-school education must have become more apparent to him here.)
  • It was “shocking” that Americans are so “open” and “talk about anything” and express opinions on everything. South Africans are much more cautious and oblique in their conversations. (I’d always heard that Americans are more forthright and direct than most cultures, but didn’t fully grasp it until hearing the perspective of an outsider like Mtuseni.)

Newbury+Street+cafe+Boston+TapeoBecause I live inside the American culture, these perceptions that Mtuseni shared were completely under my radar. Two “older” white folks and a college kid discussing a variety of topics at a Newbury Street cafe just seemed normal for me, but was on some level mind-blowing for him.

I now have a better understanding of “culture” and how it can affect someone who lives in a distinctly different one. I only wish I had somehow been more attuned to it with Mtuseni, and had checked in earlier with him. For after we spent over two hours talking about this stuff, he lost that sense of “being in a dream” and was more present here, more comfortable, more integrated into the experience. Don’t get me wrong, he still had his moments of sour faces and stony silence. But that wasn’t culture shock; it was merely a kid who has one foot in adulthood and one foot in ninth grade. And that’s going to take longer to resolve.

 


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Long-Distance Advocacy

September 10, 2012 — Leave a comment

Sandton-Library-in-Nelson-Mandela-Square-JohannesburgI’ve griped in the past about the state of the library in Sandton, the wealthy Johannesburg suburb where Mtuseni goes to college. Across a small plaza from a towering bronze statue of Nelson Mandela and steps away from a luxury mega-mall, the library cuts an impressive figure — from the outside. When I went inside with Mtuseni to see where he’s been hitting the books, I was surprised to see torn carpet, dying plants, and a woeful collection of dated books.

The biggest surprise was the lack of public access computers — only two! I finally understood why my badgering Mtuseni to “use the library computers” to do schoolwork during his first year got no traction. I’m accustomed to the main library in Boston having dozens of computers for public use; my suburban town library has about twenty. I find this lack of library computers shocking in what’s called “Africa’s Richest Square Mile” — and in the shadow of gleaming corporate headquarters. A library should be the pride of a city and a center of free learning for everyone.

Recently I did a Google search for the Sandton library website to see if the building has free WiFi for Mtuseni’s new laptop. (It doesn’t… and I can’t even find a website for the library.) But my search did turn up local newspaper articles about the poor state of the Sandton library. One article had a contact name and e-mail, so I sent a letter expressing my surprise at the library’s poor facilities, and asking why the corporate community doesn’t step up with monetary and in-kind donations.

Click to read article

I got a response from Keith Elliot, a member of the Friends of Sandton Library. He agreed with my assessment and sent a copy of a Sandton Chronicle newspaper article on the library conditions. He also acknowledged the irony of a subpar library surrounded by business wealth.

Why indeed do the inhabitants of the Ivory Towers in Sandton not help out with our Library! I wish I knew the answer!

Keith explained that the Friends recently met with the local business community to discuss the problems facing the library. One bookseller donated 1,000 books, which is certainly commendable. Keith also said another company is paying the library a stipend of R1500 a month… which sounds great until you realize that translates into about US $180 — not even enough to fill the water coolers!

Because I’m a firm believer in the broad social value of libraries, I sent Keith some links to US library web sites, listing the various levels of corporate and other donor support they receive as well as the fundraising activities of the libraries and their Friends organizations. I also suggested approaching Mtuseni’s school to ask students to create fundraising marketing campaigns — a great way for the library to get some free creative labor and for students to build their portfolios. Keith shared my ideas at a recent meeting and said one member is communicating with US library groups… and the Sandton Friends group has elected to pursue a student marketing project. Yay!

Norma Rae, c. 20th Century Fox

When I get into my Norma Rae mode, my advocacy isn’t limited by miles!

I’ll share progress updates as they come from Keith. And for South African readers, please donate to the Sandton Library — or to your local community library. Because as Benjamin Franklin, founder of America’s first lending library, once said,

“An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.”


 

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