Go Thabela

This week I wrote a piece as a guest author for Andy Gmitter, a friend working as an AmeriCorps Vista coordinator in Spartanburg, South Carolina, my former home.
__________

For the past twenty minutes I have been waiting for the taxi. As I wait, I watch barefoot children roll drums of water from one of a handful of wells scattered around the village. Plastic bags drift like tumbleweed along the edge of the village and scatter into the surrounding bushveld. My village has no landfill, only a shallow hole on the edge of town. Meanwhile: 100 kilometers south, in the city of Pretoria, fashionably-dressed professionals sip lattes on their way to work and across an ocean, the Occupy Wall Street protestors are yelling at police officers and stock brokers.

An old, faded Toyota sedan screeches to a halt in front of me. “Thabo! O ya ko toropong?” he asks “You going to town?” It’s Thabelo, a neighbor and casual friend. Our names share the same root: go thaba, a verb describing the state of being joyful. For the first time in weeks his car sits on four wheels rather than four stacks of bricks in the front yard. The front door is jammed, so I get in the rear seat and clamber in shotgun. We take off down the down the road, passing the informal settlement on the periphery of the village, a cluster of crudely-constructed tin shanties.

“Look at these people,” Thabelo says, “No water, no electricity, no nothing. How do they live?”

I am not sure how he wants me to respond, an uncomfortable position I find myself in more or less constantly throughout the day. I respond in the nonverbal, noncommittal way the Batswana do: “Hmm.” (I repeat this several dozens of times daily when my understanding of the language or social conventions fails me.)

Thabelo seems satisfied by my response and continues. “Our ancestors, they had no money. But they were not poor. They had cattle and maize, no one went hungry. They had their own chiefs. Today, we are poor.” Outside of its cosmopolitan urban centers, South Africa is a developing country. The collision of the First and Third Worlds is maddening: on clear days from my village I can see the same mountains that have produced half the gold in human history.

In some ways poverty in South Africa mirrors that in the United States. Legalized segregation existed in both countries for centuries, an ugly legacy that continues to haunt the economic and education systems of both. Both have large populations of people living below the poverty line, in spite of their robust, diversified economies that rely heavily on their natural abundance of resources. With this poverty comes embarrassingly inadequate education and healthcare. In each country the matter of poverty is largely a matter of race: in the U.S., a disproportionate number of African-Americans live in poverty; in South Africa, a disproportionate number of black South Africans live in poverty.

South Africa’s strong economy, built around mining, agriculture, and tourism, has replaced the subsistence farming and herding that sustained the peoples of South Africa for centuries. Though this system holds great promise, much of the population remains unintegrated. A quarter of the population survives on $1.25 per day. Furthermore, South Africa’s abundance of mineral wealth—gold, diamonds, and platinum—can actually drive up the cost of basic commodities. This so-called Dutch disease can make affording the necessities a hardship for many.

There is also the issue of the Gini coefficient. South Africa Peace Corps Volunteer Mardy Shualy explains in concise and accessible terms the problem of the Gini coefficient. I will paraphrase here. If you imagine a state’s economy as a pie, the Gini coefficient measures how equally the pie is divided amongst its citizens. If the Gini Coefficient is zero, everyone gets equal slices of pie; if the Gini coefficient is one hundred, one person gets the whole pie. The United States has one of the world’s highest Gini coefficients, at 45. South Africa ups the ante with Gini coefficient at 65. Picture a brand-new BMW passing a donkey cart on a potholed road for an idea of what this looks like. Again, paraphrasing Mardy, a certain level of income inequality can motivate people to finish school, go to university, start businesses, etc. Above a certain level, however, income inequality reaches a threshold that stifles rather than motivates opportunity.

My occasional trips to Pretoria make South Africa’s Gini coefficient tangible: behind the brick walls of the English and Afrikaans schools, students wearing brand-new uniforms gossip with each other in the well-manicured gardens, bustling in and out of the two-story school buildings. The secondary schools look like miniature universities, a similarity that points to the trajectory most of their students will follow. In my village, the school buildings have not been renovated in decades, missing ceilings, window panes, water, and in many cases, teachers. Students sweep and polish the floors themselves before and after school. Some wear the same trousers they have worn for several years, reaching just below their knees. Students share textbooks, pens, notebooks, and even chairs.

Against the odds, every grade 12 student at my secondary school passed their matriculation exam last year; two-thirds attained the qualifying marks for university entrance. To my knowledge, however, not a single student from the class of 2010 has enrolled in university, sidelined by any number of obstacles. Students are left in charge of their younger siblings when their parents succumb to HIV/AIDs or tuberculosis. With no one else to provide for their family, schoolgirls sometimes sell their bodies for a loaf of bread. With nothing better to do, some have sex and “fall pregnant.” The families of many can scarcely buy cornmeal for the evening meal, much less the tuition for university. The burden of student loans can overwhelm those that do decide to enroll in university.

Others succumb to simple despair. Students leaving secondary school face a dismal economy. One in four South Africans is unemployed, and three fourths of those who are unemployed are under the age of 35. A fellow PCV recently asked her students to write about their hopes and dreams. One student wrote, “I never any plans or hopes for the future because I never believed that I was going to be anything in life.” If success breeds success, then defeat breeds defeat. In South Africa, even success seems to breed defeat.

The following week I am waiting for the taxi again; the barefoot children are at it again, rolling the water drum from the community well. They don’t know a thing about the Gini coefficient or Dutch disease or the cost of university tuition. Making good time with the drum, they laugh the whole way. “Thabo!” they holler. “Help us with the drum.” I shake my head and join them. Soon I am living up to my own name, running down the dirt road and laughing along with them.
__________

Keep up with Andy’s work with AmeriCorps Vista in Spartanburg at http://vistasinthepiedmont.wordpress.com/.

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