Soweto, and the socioeconomic arms race

3976819575_5884ed3733_o3(From the 4xAfrica show at Rayko SF, which runs through February 27. Click on the image for a larger version.)

Elias Motsoaledi informal settlement, Soweto, South Africa, 2009.

I first visited Johannesburg in 1998 as a backpacker exploring Africa on the cheap. I had been to the developing world before, but nothing had prepared me for the bright, hard line that divided rich from poor here. The rich, mostly white, northern suburbs were hidden behind high walls, the bougainvillea laced with razor wire; some poor areas didn’t have electricity or running water. Sometimes only a highway separated the two.

Soweto, at the time, was closer to the bottom rung, a sprawl of Lilliputian brick houses and tin-roofed shacks, soot-filled skies and menacing guys manning the corners. I kept returning, and in the ensuing years Soweto has boomed. There’s a large and growing middle class (the media has dubbed them “black diamonds”), and the township positively bursts with new condos and malls and parks. The growth isn’t very surprising. After all, under apartheid, blacks weren’t even allowed to own homes. As Brian Mahlangu, an irrepressibly optimistic former banker who founded the township’s first home-lifestyle magazine, put it to me: “Soweto was never allowed the chance to grow; now it is being given a breathing chance.”

But it is an unfinished revolution. For most people, political freedom hasn’t yet translated into economic freedom. South Africa has the second greatest income inequality in the world, and many are tired of waiting for their share of the pie. Strikes have rocked the country in recent years, as miners, taxi drivers, and even the army protested low pay and unfair treatment. Land invasions by the homeless (which carry the whiff of neighboring Zimbabwe’s chaos) have spiked, and an ever-growing ring of squatter camps now encircles Johannesburg. “We are working toward an explosion,” Andile Mngxitama, a radical land-rights activist told me over drinks one night. “As I always tell the squatter-camp people: ‘Do you realize that you actually surround these wealthy people? You’ve got them surrounded.’”

It’s a socioeconomic arms race between the squatters and the middle-class, and it’s hard to say who’s winning.