Featured Prose: Soweto Motorway Walking

by Megan Sexton  ·  December 14, 2011

Andy White

Soweto Motorway Walking

I grew up in the black and white bluesy world of Belfast. In a place where people talk politics when they could be having fun. Because a lot of the time they have to talk politics—it comes with the landscape; it comes free with every birth certificate. The news is not something that happens somewhere else. I thought I was prepared for South Africa.

But South Africa is huge. South Africa is hot. In South Africa nearly everyone has either no money or next to none. In South Africa no money means what it says: no money at all. In South Africa change has arrived, and the divisions there make those in the British Isles seem like watching people in a posh restaurant choosing sparkling or still mineral water when you’re in the middle of the Kalahari.

There’s an outreach programme attached to the WOMAD festival in which artists are encouraged to go and meet community groups. Along with a Scottish traditional group and Annie from WOMAD,

I’m taking a minibus to Soweto in the blistering April heat. We drive out through a rich area of white houses, where barbed wire sits on the walls like vicious tinsel on an iced cake. There are armed-response

warning signs where the letterboxes should be, and the only sound is that of sprinkler systems and gardeners whistling behind the high white walls. It’s a weird mix of threat and Beverly Hills opulence. All the while, uniformed guards circle slowly and silently in expensive looking cars.

We drive through an area of ramshackle shops selling mobile phones, water, second-hand clothes and groceries. People are out on the pavement selling stuff. Making a living or not. This could be some crazy part of London or Los Angeles, but it isn’t. It’s wilder, and in five minutes’ driving we have left behind the world we’re used to, where comfort is at least a possibility.

The motorway to Soweto is a six-lane concrete expanse lined with advertising hoardings and their multinational messages, blandly commercial. The place names on the motorway signs are colonial and

familiar from places far away—Scotland, England, Holland. Beyond the hoarding, things are different. A vast plain, dotted with scrub and trees, stretches unending into the distance.

Suddenly, on the motorway hard shoulder, I see a line of men walking. They look like they’ve been walking for ever.Tall men taking huge strides, looking straight ahead, walking into the burning sun. For them, it looks like this motorway doesn’t even exist; the red earth of the motorway verge could be the desert itself.

After about twenty minutes, shacks appear. As far as the eye can see, little one-window houses are jammed into dirt roads, most of them narrower than a car. I’ve spent time in a bare apartment in a Soviet block of flats on the outskirts of Moscow; I’ve stayed in a room in a housing estate in Slovakia. Forget it. Now I know what poverty looks like. I know I’m looking at the absolute minimum.

Soweto is enormous. Mile upon mile of shacks and dirt roads. We’re off the motorway, and the bus skids up a main drag towards the community centre. There’s a supermarket selling a few groceries, and a caravan with a line of four or five public phones attached to one side. The queues to use them stretch far into the distance. A dance-group leader meets our bus, along with a group of about twenty kids,

all around seven or eight years old. They grab my arms and swing me round, asking for sweets and water. I’ve got some gum and we have fizzy drinks, but we immediately know we should have brought more.

The dancers are inside the building, loosening up with a ghetto blaster pumping out beats. The guys dance like Nureyevs, hanging in the air for longer than you’d think possible. The girls look and sing sweet, like Lauryn Hill. Everyone is fluid and supple, bending and expressive.

The Scottish traditional musicians in our party start playing in one corner of the hall. The fiddle player asks the kids if any of them know where Scotland is. “America?” comes the answer. Fair enough, I’m thinking. From here, it might as well be. The community leader asks the musicians to play some tunes from where they’re from. He choreographs dance movements to the jigs and reels. They learn a complicated traditional Scottish dance after they’ve been shown it once, and the second time turn it into an original piece of modern dance. All the time people are clapping and laughing while kids hang in through the open windows to watch us, and press their faces against the glass doors.

As the session ends, the dancers grab the traditional instruments from the Scottish guys and pose for pictures. A little boy gets hold of my guitar and immediately throws an Elvis shape. He’s curling his lip and doing the Ed Sullivan Show hip moves. Everyone’s rocking around him, clapping as he limbos down, playing the guitar behind his head. We’re all looking at each other, awestruck. This kid’s like Jimi and Elvis rolled into one.

It’s rush hour by the time we leave. Our minibus is one of a thousand white minibuses. A million billion white minibuses. Soweto’s transport system seems to be entirely made up of white minibuses. I get a flash of something from Belfast as we leave the dancers and kids and the community leader and the queues of people waiting to use the caravan pay phones.

In Belfast there is an officially approved system of unofficial buses that are, in fact, very old London black cabs. They have definite routes and stop to pick people up, so they’re more like buses than taxis. There aren’t marked stops, but everyone seems to know where to catch them. They’re cheap, always crammed full of people, and surprisingly non-sectarian.

The Johannesburg white minibuses are also unofficial, and operate under a version of these rules. Everyone uses them, and the stops are the only places I can’t see queues. Maybe these unofficial transport systems are a sign that communities just need some space to work things out for themselves. Sometimes a blind eye goes a long way towards sorting things out. Just ask the white folks in the black taxis and the black people in the white minibuses.

We drive out of Soweto, and turn back onto the motorway. I am thinking about what the community leader told us: there is no use people sending them free computers until they have electricity to power them. And even then they’d rather have some electric light bulbs.

Next afternoon I decide to go walking. I put on my shoes and head out. Past the rich white houses and the guys selling stuff, past the armed-response patrols and the market stalls, heading for the motorway.

I get close, but not that close. I need to be headed somewhere. I need a destination. The motorway walkers are headed somewhere— they’re not just walking. It’s hot, and I’m learning.

I realize I want to see my mother. I’m walking towards her, but I have a whole continent to get through. It’s not going to work. Not today, anyway. I’ve got a lot more walking to do.

From Five Points Volume 13.2