In Joburg, I’m surrounded by statistics. Crime statistics (only 642 ‘aggravated robberies’, a paltry 12 murders, and just 150 instances of carjacking in my area in 2004 – hurrah!), HIV statistics, house price inflation (which is a tedious gluttony here too)… numbers, numbers, numbers. But for me it is the tiny details that I come across that turn these numbers into full-colour pictures. Tiny tiny details – just a couple of words thrown at me here, a snap-shot as I glance up a side-street there; the surprise of exchanging pleasantries with a stranger whilst waiting at a pedestrian crossing.
So here are just two of the tiny moments that have left me winded during my three weeks in Joburg. The instances when I’ve felt sick to my core at the burdens of the people who live with me and around me.
1. Mary does the cleaning in the offices where I work. She is, I guess, about 60. She’s a big lady – she puffs and creaks as she washes the two flights of stairs from the ground floor up to our offices. On the first day I met her, I walked into the kitchen where she was sitting with a cup of tea, tired and sweating. She said, “Aggy, where you live, have you already got a maid?” And I was flummoxed. A maid? A what? “No mamma. I live in a house with a family. We don’t have a maid.” She said, “I need more work, I need some money.” And I’m looking at her and I’m thinking that she probably travels here for an hour each day from one of the townships, and she didn’t even ask me where I live. Wherever I live she will travel there every week for the few Rands that she would make cleaning my tiny flat for a morning. It’s surely time for her to relax and work less and just have enough. I said, “When I move to my own place I’ll tell you mamma”. She said, “Thank you, sissy.”
2. In the first few days that I lived in Joburg, my boss (another Blighter) used to pick me up and take me to work. At the end of my street, there would always be men gathered, obviously waiting for something – I assumed to be picked up to go and work somewhere. On the third day, I said to my boss, “These men, who are they waiting for?” She said, “They are waiting for you or I to ask them to do some work on our houses, like plumbing or fixing something.” They are waiting for me? Is that why they look up at us as we pass every day? I don’t have anything for them. It’s late in the morning, so surely there won’t be any offers today? So they probably won’t make any money today. So what will they live on? These are such naive questions, but I ask them, hoping that there are some reassuring answers to them, which of course there aren’t.
You can read about a project to help these thousands of unemployed men.