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Inner City Life

Nanma Keita/ Twenty Ten

Location: Johannesburg, South Africa

The truth about life in Johannesburg.

The 2010 FIFA World Cup football extravaganza appears to be progressing smoothly with the slogan ‘Celebrate Africa’s Humanity’ echoing all over host country South Africa.

However, all is not rosy in the Rainbow Nation. Thousands of destitute and forgotten immigrants, and even ordinary South Africans, find little humanity in a nation whose fearful reputation continues to precede itself.

For these jobless youths, the US$80-and-up tickets for the games are an impossible dream, and life in the slums of South Africa’s biggest city, Johannesburg, is a daily nightmare.

The inner city buildings have been let out to people who are either unemployed, earn a pittance or are living illegally in the country. As a result, abandoned buildings and crime have become a feature of inner city life.

The fear of crime has made the old city centre no longer desirable, and the real financial and business heart of Johannesburg is now 20km to the north, in the gleaming new towers of Sandton.

Black Africans from as far afield as Nigeria, Congo, Ghana, Burundi and neighbouring Zimbabwe have moved in where the whites left after the end of the apartheid in 1994.

The offices downtown are now being colonized by upcoming small businesses, the streets are bustling with petty traders, selling fruit and cheap clothes and the abandoned tall buildings harbour jobless youths, most of whom are involved in crime.

A 24-year-old illegal immigrant from Zimbabwe, who only identifies himself as Mouga, sits in a dilapidated room he shares with several others in an abandoned building.

“I left my country to come here in search of greener pastures. But I haven't got money and I have no place to go so I decided to occupy this abandoned building,” he said.

“Sometime we get kicked out by the police, but we always find our way back at night when they are already gone. It is a cruel place, but we have no other choice,” added the desperate young man. He pays R150 (US$20) to his slum landlord who extorts money for the shelter that lacks running water, electricity and other basic services.

Venawsa Matheba, a 22-year-old South Africa girl, has her own pathetic story to tell.

Matheba left her township two years ago to settle in Johannesburg. Today she occupies a corner in one of the derelict buildings, where the law of the jungle – survival of the fittest – is the order of the day.

“I left my township two years ago in search of a better life in the city,” she said. “But here is where I find myself, sleeping on a bare floor amidst my opposite sex. I know I should not be here, but what can I do? This is the only place I can sleep without getting raped or even killed,’ said the shy-looking young lady who shares a room with ten other people.

“You can see the environment for yourself. There is no bed, no blanket and no toilet. The quantity of rubbish is growing every day and you can see and hear rats running everywhere. It’s a dangerous place that is not fit for human habitant, but what do I do if I have no other place to hide my head at night?” she asked in bewilderment.

South Africa, which is currently in a deep recession with dramatic divisions between rich and poor, faces the single biggest challenge in cracking down on unemployment and crime in the cities. This year alone, about R31.8 billion (US$3.5 billion) was budgeted to pay for the fight against crime, 11 per cent of total government spending. But it appears this huge expenditure has done little to upturn the ugly trend in the hardest-hit areas like Hillbrow, where the average person remains utterly unprotected.

According to a 45-year-old woman who preferred not to be named for the fear that she might be attacked by thugs, until the government provides them with enough security, the Hillbrow area will remain a centre for organized crime and other illegal activities.

“Hillbrow is a place for the poor and criminals. The area is steeped in violence, it has become a way of life, a culture that holds a dangerous allure for the many jobless youths taking refugee in the abandoned buildings,” she said.

Admitting that the crime rate in one of Johannesburg most dangerous neighbourhoods might have declined recently, the mother-of-three, who sells fruits in the street to support her family, insists that drug and theft related-crime still poses a great threat to the thousands of ordinary people living in the black-dominated area.

“The crime rate in today’s Hillbrow might have gone down, but there are still a lot of theft and drug related crimes that threatening our lives on daily basis. Here in Hillbrow, one is even scared to receive a phone call in the street because you can easily lose your phone to the thugs.”

“If you are walking the street with a bag, you have to hold it tight in order not to lose it. We need enough police to conduct a thorough search on these burnt out abandoned buildings, which are the havens for crime, drugs and other illicit activities,” she said.

For any first visitor, Johannesburg is like every other world class city around the globe with malls full of people, up and coming businesses and people driving around in fancy cars. However, meeting some of these destitute and desperate people living in the city’s slum only goes to show the hard reality in this self-proclaimed world-class city.

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