I Will Not Grow Old Here: A Girl from Alex

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This story starts with a number: 70%. That's how many young people in South Africa are unemployed. Youth hustle and hope to find success, but how do you make it in a place like Alexandra township in Johannesburg? And how do you get out? In this three-part series, 23-year-old Mary-Ann Nobele brings listeners into her life in Alex and shows us why she's made this promise to herself: I will not grow old here.

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Disclaimer: Radio Workshop is produced for the ear and designed to be heard. If you are able, we strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that’s not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print. The official record for Radio Workshop’s podcast stories is the audio.

 

Mary-Ann (scene): OK, so today is the 5th of May 2022. It’s actually my little sister’s birthday. And I want you to come with me. So there’s this little gem I want to show you. It literally has one of the best views. It’s a bit of a walk but it’s totally worth it.

I’m fine thanks!

Jeez, I’m just very warm for the outside weather. I didn’t realise how cold our house is until now that I’m outside and I’m kind of burning in this hoodie that I’m wearing.

Hi… Hello!

This is it, my friend. This evergreen cricket oval.

Hi. Can I sit there?

Man: Yeah you can.

Mary-Ann (scene): Thank you.

So you see the in the background, those big skyscrapers, that’s Sandton. A suburb of Johannesburg. It’s also a financial centre for the whole of South Africa. It’s the kind of place where you see people driving with the top down on the way to like a pool party on a Wednesday afternoon. Exactly. You’re going to work, they’re going to pool parties, because it’s different. So Sandton is actually the richest square mile in the whole of Africa, not just South Africa, but this whole big continent. I know, right? Such a flex. Of course. It’s mostly white. Don’t know if it’s ever going to change.

But I want you to look at this. Right in front of us. You see those shacks built from scrap metal and piled on top of each other? Well, that’s Alexandra, one of the oldest and first black townships in South Africa.  Many people in Alex work in Sandton. The cleaners, the nurses, the gardeners. You know, they kind of keep Sandton running. That’s just part of the legacy of Apartheid, really. Our struggles are endless here. Sometimes I have to sit in my bedroom and just pray not to hear gunshots. And if I do hear gunshots, I have to pray harder that it’s not someone I know.

When I look around at Alex, it reminds me of a line from a poem by Wally Serote, “Alexandra, I would have long gone from you.”

Mary-Ann (narration): I’m Mary-Ann Nobele. I’m 23 years old. I was born in Alex. I grew up here too. And, it’s true. I want out.

I think it’s cool Nelson Mandela lived in Alex when he was my age. And, you know, there’s also the art and poetry and politics Alex is known for. And, the music – like this amapiano music. It was born here. You hear it everywhere.

I love all of these things. But please. There’s a reason why Alex is called Gomorrah. From Sodom and Gomorrah. You know, the place from the Bible?

So, yes. I will not grow old here. No ways. But, right now I’m stuck. In limbo. Uncertain. Uncertain about how or even when I’ll be able to leave.

Mary-Ann (scene): I’m chilling outside, it’s actually pretty loud today, but I guess it’s because it’s the weekend. You can probably hear all those drums and like people screaming. Our neighbour – jeez. Our neighbour is running an initiation school for traditional healers. So this is actually what it’s like to live at my house every day.

Mary-Ann (narration): These days, I live at my grandma’s house. She’s lived in Alex most of her life. In fact, three generations of my family have lived in this township since the 1980’s. They moved a few times from one end of Alex to the other. Today we live in West Bank. It’s way less crowded than other parts of the township. We have a garden. Lots of aloes and flowers. It’s my grandpa’s work. He loves it.

Mary-Ann (scene): Hi!

Baby cousin: Hi.

Mary-Ann (scene): How are you?

Mary-Ann (narration): That’s my baby cousin. He likes to follow me around.

Mary-Ann (scene): You wanna touch the rose. Here… Say, “Hi, rose.”

Baby cousin: [mumbles]

Mary-Ann (scene): Hi, rose. How are you?

Baby cousin: Hi, rose.

Mary-Ann (narration): Growing up here, my mom watched us like a hawk. She knew it was dangerous.
So, I spent a lot of my time with my friends in this yard and on the street right outside the house. And look, my sister and I, we knew we weren’t supposed to be in the streets. I knew the type of community we lived in. But that didn’t stop me from sneaking out.

Mary-Ann (scene): After the garden we enter the house.

Uh huh. Don’t play with the water, eish! Ne, guys. Have kids and leave us out of it, hey. ‘Cause what the hell…

Come inside. It’s the kitchen on entry. Then it’s the lounge. Grey walls. The whole house actually has grey walls. Dark grey. And a giant ass freezer because a regular freezer just isn’t enough for the amount of meat we keep here.

Mary-Ann (narration): Seven of us live here in a four bedroom house. My grandparents. My uncle and aunt. My little sister, my baby cousin and me. As you can hear, it gets a little crowded. But we’re still the lucky ones. There are many families in Alex who pile together in a one room house. No bedroom. Just a single room. For everyone.

Mary-Ann (scene): Once I realised that i was like, “Eh! Clearly, I’m upper class Alexandrian.” I felt very good about myself, not gonna lie.

Then further down in the passage. On the right. First bedroom. My aunt’s. Then we come into the master bedroom, which belongs to my gran. Very big, gets the best lighting. So warm, so cosy. I think it’s perfect considering the type of person she is.

Then our bedroom. My little sister and I share a room here. It’s not as small as we thought it was because we took out one of the closets.

This is the bathroom. Huge washing machine, bathtub and toilet. Yes, it flushes. So yeah.

Mary-Ann (narration): A flushing toilet. That sounds like a weird flex. But many in Alex don’t have running water inside the house.

Mary-Ann (scene): Guys, I think they’re doing us dirty again. The electricity is not back.

Mary-Ann (narration): On most days, the power goes out once or twice for a few hours at a time. But that’s not an Alex thing. It happens across the country. Even in Sandton. The city blames part of our power problems on the residents. People who can’t afford to pay for electricity hack the system and connect wires illegally. And since they don’t know what they’re doing, they overload the circuits and we all lose power.

Sometimes I get frustrated living with so many people. I have no space to be alone with my thoughts. Like, I can be in my room and hear everything. My baby cousin singing. My gran watching TV. My uncle using the microwave. There’s never any silence. But it is what it is…

Mary-Ann (scene): MTV. This is my crib.

Mary-Ann (scene): Hello, my mom.

Penny: Hello, baby.

Mary-Ann (scene): How are you, Mommy?

Penny: I’m good. Thanks. How are you?

Mary-Ann (narration): My mom and I are close. Really close. We share it all. OK, maybe not everything. But a lot. Her name is Penny. My grandmother raised her in the poorer part of Alex.

Penny: It was, I dunno. It felt like normal to us, because that’s what we were exposed to.

Mary-Ann (narration): Homes are built right to the edge of the street. Meaning there’s no pavement. You literally have to walk in the middle of the road and look out for cars and piles of trash. Not to mention the stray dogs and goats.

Penny: Everything looked normal. The only time that it didn’t feel normal to me was when we were coming back from – walking back from school, and these boys kind of attacked us. They stopped us. Like, I remember this one boy was saying, “You you, you! Stop.” Like, “Wait for me, all of you.” It was just girls, us walking home. And then I just carried on walking. The next thing I know, Ii was tripped – puuh – on the floor. Eh! I – I – I didn’t know what was happening. I was so confused. And then I stood up and then I stood there because I was watching what’s happening. And all I was watching – I saw was these guys mishandling the girls, basically. And since then I was afraid to walk.

Mary-Ann (scene): That’s hectic. I’ve never gone through anything like that. But  I’ve always had that fear. Like, “Eish, what if boys just attacked me?”

Penny: That’s why I worry when you guys are out there and I don’t know where. I just worry about that. That’s the one thing I worry about.

Mary-Ann (scene): Bathong, is this trauma talking, hey?

Penny: Eish, wena!

Mary-Ann (narration): My mom, she worked really hard to support us. So did my gran.

Mary-Ann (scene): Hello Mama.

Grandmother: Hello.

Mary-Ann (scene): How are you?

Grandmother: I’m good and how are you?

Mary-Ann (scene): Your voice is so nice. You know that?

Grandmother: Is it?

Mary-Ann (scene): I’m listening with these earphones, and I’m just like, “Why didn’t my granny do radio, hey?”

Mary-Ann (narration): People ask me, “How did you get that name?” They’d say, “Mary-Ann, that’s a white girl’s name”. Uhh, no it’s not. I’m named after my grandmother, Mary-Rose, and her twin sister, Ann.

Mary-Ann (scene): So once you got here, like you looked around and what? What came to mind? Like, what did you think?

Grandmother: Oh, this was a funny environment with the bucket system…

Mary-Ann (narration): Oh, the bucket system. Wow. When Alex was built, it had no flushing toilets. People used a bucket as a toilet. It’s weird the government called that a system. Some of those buckets were only replaced, wait for it, in 2021! That’s almost 3-decades after the end of Apartheid.

Grandmother: It looked dirtier than any other place that I’ve ever been to…. It was a funny place.

Mary-Ann (scene): You weren’t impressed, ne?

Grandmother: mm-mm. I was not impressed.

Mary-Ann (narration): I’m in awe of what my grandma and my mom have accomplished. They’re tough cookies. This one time, my mom told me she doesn’t have any feelings. She just won’t let the stress of living in Alex get to her.

Penny: So what I do, I’m just like “Ah, there’s no bread. There’s no money for bread.” If I stress about it, am I going to get the bread? I’m not going to get the bread.

Mary-Ann (narration): Is that what it takes to make it in Alex? No feelings and hard work? Those women have worked so hard their entire lives. I’ve watched them. And learned. Because I work too. Non-stop. You know, sometimes I wonder, “What for?”

Mary-Ann (scene): OK, so today is Thursday, the 17th of March. I’m leaving the house to go to work. So let’s go.

Hello! Ninjani? Niyaphila.

Oh, lucky me. A taxi right by the gate.

Hello… Ninjani?

Taxi driver: [mumbles]

Mary-Ann (scene): Niyaphila.

Mary-Ann (narration): I’m on my way to work, at Gun Free South Africa. We try to make places like Alex safer. I talk to people about gun violence. I know what it’s like to want to feel safe. In your home. On the street. And even on public transport. Being alone can feel so dangerous. But right now, my biggest worry is: Will I be on time? ‘Cause, oh my gosh, there are so many goats on the road today! Can you hear the taxi driver hooting at them?

The driver drops me off at the edge of Alex. He takes me as far as he can go.

Mary-Ann (scene): [mumbles words of parting] OK, so I’m officially off the taxi and…

Mary-Ann (narration): And I walk the rest of the way.

Mary-Ann (scene): Umm, and this is what it sounds like!

Mary-Ann (narration): Just so you know, I’m recording this in secret. My recorder is hidden and I’m using a small clip on mic that’s hard to see. If someone knew I had expensive recording equipment, I might get mugged. It’s the same with my cell phone. I rarely take it out in public. That’s what it’s like to be a woman in this city. I keep looking over my shoulder.

Mary-Ann (scene): Men in South Africa are scary in general, because you don’t know if they’re going to try and mug you, or steal you, or rape you or whatever. I kind of try to come to work dressed like a hobo because I don’t get mugged on the way. Not that I have much for them to take, but…

Mrs. Nomsa: Hello!

Mary-Ann (scene): Sawubona Mrs. Nomsa.

Mrs. Nomsa: Ninjani?

Mary-Ann (scene): Niyaphila, ninjani?

So I’ve arrived at the office. I’m listerally walking upstairs to my office. Um, so I can sit down and have a glass of water and prepare to, like, start my day.

Mary-Ann (narration): Some people would say I’m part of the missing middle: a young South African who is too poor to afford university. Bu at the same time, I’m too rich to get the government to pay for it.

So, instead of getting a degree, I’ve gotta work. A lot. I work five jobs. Some days I don’t know if I’m coming or going. There’s my job at Gun Free. I’ve also got this podcast. I record voice-overs for the radio. I speak at conferences. Don’t I have a nice voice? And my hairdresser styles my hair for free, and I post pics to my thousands of Instagram followers. I’ve got my brand, know what I mean?

I’m doing everything I can to follow in the footsteps of the women in my family. But it’s never enough! With my five part-time jobs I still earn far less than the average white guy my age, who probably takes home about 15-hundred-US-dollars a month. Meanwhile, most black women like me are at the very bottom of the ladder. That my friend is what we call inequality.

I know I’ll get ahead in life, but when? Like when is my turn? When will I make enough to get out of Alex? And did I mention, all of my jobs are temporary? I’m on short-term contracts with every single one of them. Any and all of them can end at any time. So I could become part of the 70%. The 70% of youth who are unemployed in Alex and in every township across the country. That’s over 7 million young people without work. And they’re easy to find.

Zanele: 70%, are you sure? Hectic. I did not know it was that bad. I knew that as a country were going through something, but I didn’t know we were like sitting at 70 per cent. That’s a lot.

Thulani: It’s the highest I’ve ever seen, if you ask me. Look, the challenges that I face often is that you would I would apply for jobs and find out that they are not actually legit. You know, so a lot of scammers promising employment is one of the challenges that I face.

Mathapelo: Yoh, I’ve been unemployed for, I think, five years now. We we can’t find employment. That is the biggest – like we literally can’t find employment. You never know what is needed and whenever you try, it’s like they’ll tell you it’s not enough or no, we don’t do that anymore…

Mary-Ann (narration): That’s Zanele Mthombeni, Thulani Mofokeng and Mathapelo Mahape. They’ve all seen years without work. And if you listen to the experts, they’ll tell you things are only going to get worse in the coming years.

Mathapelo: And so now, I think we’re going to have a lot of young people who are not going to make it to university and then, like, what to get a job, and then those who are employed, it’s going to be hard for them…

Looking at my family, this is true. You know, one minute everyone’s working, then out of nowhere, we’re all unemployed … and it’s hard to live in alex, without a job.

Mary-Ann (scene): Umm OK, so can you, like, introduce yourself? Who you are, what you do, what you’re about.

Sthe: So my name is Sithembile’. It’s pronounced as see-tem-bi-le. Sithembile Hope Charlotte Daza. Born and bred in Alex, I’m 22 years of age. What is the other question?

Mary-Ann (narration): Before we get to my other questions, you should know, Sthe — we call her Sthe for short – she’s my best friend. My chommie. We met a few years ago and we’re tight. She’s the most authentic person I know.

Sthe: Oh, thank you chommie! (laughs)

Mary-Ann (scene): What were your first memories of Alex like when you think back to when you were young? And like the first thing that I remember about this place? What is that?

Sthe: You see those small houses? So I just remember how small that house was and my aunt used to have such big couches. (laughs)  It was weird. It was really weird staying there, because you see, those couches were huge and those houses are very small. Like, I remember being happy, being a happy child. Yeah, I didn’t even, I don’t think I knew I was staying in Alex.

Mary-Ann (scene): No, I understand that because me too, like when I think of my first memories of Alex, I just think of home.

Mary-Ann (narration): Home is tough for Sthe these days. I worry about her. She lives in a one room house with her mom, her little sister and her sister’s baby. They all share one bed and a pullout couch, and at one point, her aunt and uncle lived there too. She’s the only one of them with a job. Right now she’s working at a call centre. But she hates it. Those jobs barely pay minimum wage in South Africa, which can you believe, is only about 2-hundred-US-dollars. A month. Like how?

Mary-Ann (scene): Is it difficult being the only one working at home, because you’re basically carrying everyone on your shoulders?

Sthe: Bathong, is that even a question, because it’s supposed to be a statement that it’s difficult to look after your family. It is, to be the only one working. It is difficult, because, you know, being at the age that i am my age, I’m supposed to be behaving my age, but instead I’m a breadwinner.

Mary-Ann (scene): And so what’s what’s getting in your way of kind of finding the next job or getting something more stable?

Sthe: Because I’m a youth and, you know, even retail stores are not looking for new people, because they have to train the first and they need to pay the people who are going to train those people and then pay me for being employed, you know? Yeah.

Mary-Ann (scene): Do you think you’ll be able to make it out of Alex one day?

Sthe: I don’t think so. I know so. [Big laugh] I don’t see myself growing old here. Like truly speaking, I don’t see myself being old here. I love Alex, because, you know, I grew up here. It has made me who I am. But growing old here, seeing my kids growing here. No, never, never, ever.

I think instead of Alex getting better, it’s getting worse and worse and worse every day when it comes to, you know, the violence and the crimes that have been committed. It’s coming worse. Today, this morning, a car was almost hijacked there. Yes, people are busy pointing out their guns, saying, “Get out of the car. Get out of the car.” It’s getting worse. Each and every day, each and every second, every breath you take, it’s getting worse.

Mary-Ann (narration): When Sthe says she’s going to leave Alex, that’s conviction. Like so many of us, she dreams. Many young people in Alex dream. I dream, too. But sometimes I wonder, is there something we’re doing wrong? My grandma says finding a job was way easier back in the day.

Grandmother: Job hunting was very easy because you would go door to door asking for a job. And they’ll come out and just pointing at each and every person that they wanted to hire.

Mary-Ann (scene): Really?

Grandmother:  Yes.

Mary-Ann (narration): Eventually my grandma got a job as a dog groomer out in the suburbs. This was decades ago. She hasn’t stopped.

My mom’s first job was at a bank. But when I was born, she took time off to raise me. Then, when it was time to go back to work, she saw a job posted in the classifieds section of the newspaper and she applied.

Penny: I went there for an interview, and the next week the or was it the next day or what they call me to come start.

Mary-Ann (scene): That’s crazy. I have never heard a young person like even my friends who have jobs now, I’ve never heard any of them find a job that easy. Like where it’s just like I open the paper or I went on the internet. I applied and I got the job. Like it’s usually after 700 applications, many rejections and then like, maybe after a year, they get a job.

Mary-Ann (scene): And that I wanna be rich one day but not just rich. Dollars rich. I definitely look up to Trever Noah, because he’s a South African someone doing his thing…

Mary-Ann (narration): Some days, I feel like I’m walking along the edge of a cliff. I do everything I can to avoid falling. But even with five jobs, I don’t know.

Mary-Ann (scene):
Definitely a big car ’cause… I like Audi. I like Mercedes.

Mary-Ann (narration): Yes, I’m able to go out with my boyfriend from time to time. Yes, I can afford to pay for a taxi to and from work to stay safe. And, yes, I pitch in at home cover bills. But, one wrong step, and I fall into the 70%.

Mary-Ann (scene): VW is more of a start-up car in my eyes.

Mary-Ann (narration): This is not the life I want. I want more. I even put together a vision board. I got the idea from a close friend. I cut out pictures from magazines and stuck them into a notebook. These are my goals for the future. I want lots of money. And many children. Like six. That I’ll raise far from Alex.

Mary-Ann (scene): I’m big on the entertainment side of things…

Mary-Ann (narration): I’d like to be a presenter. I’d love to host a talk show or act in commercials. It sounds like a job that never gets boring. I’d get to be a different person every time. But first I need to get my teeth fixed – I’ve always had problems with my teeth.

Mary-Ann (scene): It’s not a top priority because when I smile, my smile is still cute…

Mary-Ann (narration): I want to be in better shape. I want my own fashion line. I want to travel to the U.S.

Mary-Ann (scene): Travel travel travel. I do kinda have, like, the American Dream, but this is actually on the rocks, though, because they kill black people there, and I mean…

Mary-Ann (narration): So look, I’ll admit, those are ambitious dreams. But, it’s half reasonable right? People tell me all I have to do is study and work hard and I’ll reach my dreams. They’ll tell me about the people who came before me: the politicians and sports stars. And don’t forget, amapiano stars like Kabza and Richi Rich. All of them made it big despite living in Alex. But they’re the exception. I might also be an exception. But what about Sthe? And what about all my friends? What about the 70%?

Wally Serote: It’s a place where people live. And like any other place in the world where people live, people look around themselves and look into the distance and ask themselves, “From here, how do I get there?” What we have to examine is why should they be dreaming in shacks?

Mary-Ann (narration): That’s next time on I Will Not Grow Old Here — a podcast by the Radio Workshop. I’m  Mary-Ann Nobele.

Lesedi Mogoatlhe: I Will Not Grow Old Here is produced by Radio Workshop and the Children’s Radio Foundation. Dhashen Moodley is our Senior Producer. Jo Jackson is our Managing Producer and created our episode artwork. Rob Rosenthal and I edited this podcast. Additional production assistance by Abigail Maedza, Martha O’Donovan and Ashley Ellis. Original music by Luyanda Mafiana, Selective Hearing, and Zack Mallobo. Additional music by Blue Dot Sessions. Sound engineering by Mike Rahfaldt. Our studio technician is Danny Booysen. A special thanks to community radio station Alex FM station manager Takalane Nemangowe, and Sammy Ramodike. This episode of I Will Not Grow Old Here and the work of the Children’s Radio Foundation would not be possible without support from the Open Society Foundation. Visit our website for more information and to support our work at childrensradiofoundation.org. I’m Lesedi Mogoatlhe. ‘Til next time.