Dateline: March 23, 2011
Location: Johannesburg, Republic of South Africa
An MIT student team shares some thoughts on inequality in living standards in South Africa.
BY Tye Duncan, Rebbie Hughes, Todd Waldron, and Nicole Zenel
One of the things we have found most striking in our travels in South Africa is the wide range in standards of living. While we were expecting to see poverty, we were not expecting to see such a high level of development in Johannesburg and Cape Town. The Living Standards Measure (LSM) is the most widely used segmentation tool in South Africa (South African Advertising Research Foundation). It breaks the population up into 10 distinct categories based on defined factors (10 is the highest income, 1 is the lowest.) All LSM bands exist in South Africa.
During our first week in Johannesburg, we were driven out to an area about an hour away, called Orange Farm, to see a youth center, a medical clinic, and a secondary school. We drove out of the city and through rolling hills of empty land. We then passed through townships with kilometers of shacks and street vendors. This is where the youth live. Many of the homes are not solid, and are often in disrepair.
The youth center we visited seemed like a good place for youth to spend time. It was brightly painted and had a computer-training room for learning about word processing, spreadsheets, and email (although there was no internet connectivity so the students learn about email theoretically.) We were greeted with an a cappella performance, dancing, a mock radio show production, and a tour. We asked the youth why they came to the youth center and were given various answers – some came to play sports, some came to get a computer skills certificate to improve their chances of finding a job, and some came for debate or other activities. Across the board we heard that once school was finished, the youth had few job prospects, so coming to the youth center was better than staying home and doing nothing. This was a sobering story to hear first-hand.
Next we visited the medical clinic in Orange Farm. They have a dedicated HIV ward, and the lines of sick patients in all wards were very long. We met with loveLife’s groundBreakers and mpintshis (paid and volunteer youth peer-to-peer educators, respectively.) We again heard the theme that these youth gave their time in order to gain training and skills, and to avoid boredom at home since job prospects are very low. One mpintshi told us, “the hardest part about volunteering here at the clinic is that I have to walk here. I wake up with no food, but still I walk here.” It is a far walk for most of these youth, but we were impressed with their positive attitudes, and willingness to help others. There is a strong community feel to this group of youth.
Our final visit was to a secondary school. While the students do live in shacks around the town, the school itself has running water, electricity, a kitchen for home-ec classes, a library, a staff room, and many classrooms. The school does have its issues, however, such as overcrowded classrooms and a lack of space for teachers. The facilities are run-down, and our very caring tour guide asked us to find a way to send money to the school. The students all wear uniforms (mandated in most schools in South Africa) and were very excited to meet “the Americans.” We watched a touching debate on whether a person’s rights should be restricted due to being different. These young people are going to be the next leaders of South Africa, and they seem to feel strongly that everyone deserves equal rights. It is very encouraging to hear this.
Having said this, there is a huge discrepancy between the urban areas, especially where we are living, and the rural areas. Stationed in Sandton, the richest suburb around Johannesburg, we drive by an Aston Martin dealership every day. The streets are filled with BMWs and women in fashionable clothing. The large mall nearby, Sandton City, is filled with every luxury shop imaginable. If you have money, you can get essentially anything here. In many ways, it is reminiscent of the US or Europe. However, the area still has beggars, and there are many indications of systemic problems such as an overloaded infrastructure which gives out frequently. We are lucky to be able to live well but we should not forget those who are right next door who cannot.