I Will Not Grow Old Here: The Lights of Sandton

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In the third and final episode, Mary-Ann goes in search of “new songs” about her home. A chorus of young voices helps her to explore the contradictions of life in Alexandra. There are no easy answers, and not everyone will make it out of Alex, but there is something infectious about the energy and persistence of young Alexandrians - a spirit Mary-Ann embodies and hopes will take her out of Alex. Some day.

Transcript

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.

 

[CHOIR SINGING IN HARMONY]

Wally Serote: Alexandra… Were it possible to say,

Mother, I have seen more beautiful mothers,

A most loving mother,

And tell her there I will go,

Alexandra, I would have long gone from you.

But we have only one mother, none can replace…

Mary-Ann (narration): Yes, I would have long gone from you. That’s Wally Serote, reciting one of his famous poems, “Alexandra.” Named after the township where we both grew up.

Wally Serote: Do you love me Alexandra or what are you doing to me?

Mary-Ann (narration): Wally and his family moved to Alex in 1956, when Wally was around 12 years old. He’s 78 now. Even though this poem was written decades ago, it still speaks to me. His words are so true today.

Wally Serote: …something tells me you are bloody cruel, you frighten me Mama.

Mary-Ann (narration): Alex hasn’t changed that much. She’s beautiful and deeply frustrating. She’s nurturing but, as Wally says, Alex is frightening.

Wally Serote: …and amid the rubble. I lay simple and black.

Mary-Ann (narration): Welcome to the third and final episode of ‘I Will Not Grow Old Here.’ I’m Mary-Ann Nobele.

[CHOIR SINGING FADES]

Mary-Ann (narration): There’s this thing I like to say: “I’m a girl from Alex. I’m not an Alex Girl.”

I like to make this clear to people who aren’t from here. An Alex girl? She jumps at any guy who has money. She falls pregnant at a young age. She doesn’t finish school or set goals for herself. She ends up living on social grants, and, well, she’s stuck in Alex for the rest of her life.

My friend Sthe, she once told me that an Alex girl even looks like Alex. She’s full of potholes and burnt shacks! Imagine that.

So, yeah. I’m not an Alex girl. But, a girl from Alex? Most def.

There was a time that wasn’t the case. I remember keeping it from my friends at school. I didn’t dare tell all those rich kids that I was from a township. I didn’t want them to judge me or pity me. In fact, only one of my high school friends knew I lived in Alex.

[CHOIR SINGING SWELLS]

Mary-Ann (narration): Yo. But, I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you the other side of the story. That, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve also figured out that Alex is the reason I am who I am and there’s a lot to like about Alex.

We have a rich culture here. Like the food – have you ever eaten a sly? It’s a sandwich filled with chips and cheese and egg, and sausages! Like c’mon. It’s the best.

Alex always has my back – we’re a strong-knit community. And the vibe? There’s always so much art and music happening in Alex. Like that chorus of young people we’re listening to?  They’re rehearsing at San Kopano. A hidden gem in Alex.

Kopano means “togetherness” in Sotho, which is very fitting. Our community literally comes together there to attend meetings and concerts and adult education classes.

One of the singers you’re hearing is Kedibone Sekgobela. She’s 22. A poet. And a performer at the Alex Arts Academy.

Kedibone Sekgobela: We need to create something bigger, something that will leave the next generation seeing ok, our forefathers or our sisters or the last generation did this for us, like when our forefathers fought for freedom. Here we are. We say we free and we are free. So what’s next? You can’t be always singing the same songs. We need new songs. We need new melodies to believe.

​​Mary-Ann: So I want to put you on the spot, right?

Richie Rich: Uh-huh…

​​Mary-Ann: And ask you to just bust a few rhymes about Alex. So it can be from one of your songs, it can be from the heart.

Richie Rich: Woa! [Laughs]

​​Mary-Ann: But just spit a few bars for us.

Richie Rich: Oh, which song can I put on?

[MUSIC]

Richie Rich: Okay… Yeah, let’s go. Yeah. That was a freestyle by the way.

[MUSIC]

Mary-Ann (narration): This is Richard Khalathu Shikati. But no one calls him that. He’s Richie Rich. A rapper from Alex, which he calls the coolest place in the world. And, because Alex is north of Johannesburg, he also calls it the “Dirty North”.

[MUSIC]

Mary-Ann (narration): In his music video for “Dirty North”, Richie appears in camo pants and what looks like a bulletproof vest. He drives around in a red sports car, busting cyphers about making it in Alex, while the camera cuts between Sandton and the township.

Richie Rich: So, yeah, that’s like the chorus means a lot. And where the… Yeah, “Oh the mummies wanna know where the cash at, gotta get that. Take it back to the real raps. I’m gifted I know that you miss it. I’m talking about the line before, nigga hardcore. Straight from the hood and I know ya’ll good.”

You what I mean, type of some of the stuff like that, you know what I mean? So straight from the air, you know what I mean? That line, also “straight from the hood and I know we all good” like it’s just – represents that yes we’re from Alex, but you can do better brah, like you can actually do best for yourself, you know. I mean we all good, like, we cool. Trust me, you can actually do this.

Mary-Ann (narration): So “Dirty North” has nearly 3-thousand views on Youtube. A few hip-hop magazines have covered it and run profiles on Richie. That’s probably not enough to call him an influencer, but he is a successful hustler. Richie performs at night and weekends. Then during the week, he’s a fashion stylist for Woolworth’s – they’re a major clothing retailer in South Africa.

Yet, despite all the talk about Alex being the coolest place to live, Richie left. The Alex star boy is now a Cape Town star boy.

Mary-Ann: I have to say I was happy for you when I found out that, you know, you moved to Cape Town, but also a bit disappointed because it’s just like so many people were believing in you, you know, and also the idea of staying in Alex to make it. And it’s like now you look like you’ve moved on to bigger and better things outside of Alex.

Richie Rich: You know, when opportunity arises, I mean, you should just grab it, with like, both hands and not, like, let it go. For me, it’s just like that, you know what I mean? You have to grow as a person.

Mary-Ann: So do you ever want to live in Alex again?

Richie Rich: Eehhhh… I still want to, like, have, like something in Alex, you know what I mean? I’m not just gonna – yeah. So I wouldn’t want to go back and live there, but I want to have something there.

Mary-Ann (narration): That’s the dream right? To have one foot in Alex and the other in Sandton or Cape Town. I mean, Richie wants to build a recording studio for kids to grow and develop their talent. I also want to give back to Alex someday. I have this dream of starting a community project for kids. We’d help them with homework and give them a safe space to hang out after school.

Richie Rich: I know that like a lot of bad stuff is going on there, but like I feel like there’s a lot of more positive stuff going on right now. And I don’t like focussing on the bad side of, like, Alex mostly, like I’ll focus on the good side of it. You know, cause we I hate how the news and the media have shown Alex. Because they don’t show you the nice parts of Alex or the nice things that happen in Alex. All the time they kind of like put all the bad stuff, like the shacks, the pollution, like, when you grow up there, you actually grow up with this mentality and this mindset, this creative mindset, and this drive that you have like that you have and that I have and that other people have because you come from there, you know what I mean?

Because there’s no other place like Alex, right? There’s no place like Alex, trust me.

[MUSIC]

Mary-Ann (narration): Richie Rich is not wrong. There is no place like Alex.

But we get to say that because Richie and I got lucky. We both went to model-C schools. We were both raised by strong, single mothers. At the end of the month, our families took us out to places like Sandton where we got a taste of the good life outside the township.

[MUSIC]

Compared to many Alexandrians – we’re privileged. And as a result, our lives are progressing faster than many other people our age in Alex. We aren’t part of the 70% of unemployed young people. But that could change at any time.

And if we’re anxious, what about people our age who are already unemployed?

Sharon Madisayitsele: Hi, my name is Sharon Madisayitsele.

Mary-Ann: Hi, my name is Mary-Ann. I heard that you guys help people with employment. So I want a job.

Sharon Madisayitsele: You want a job?

Mary-Ann: Uh-huh…

Sharon Madisayitsele: How old are you?

Mary-Ann: I’m twenty three years old.

Sharon Madisayitsele: Nice to meet you. Oh, Ok…

Mary-Ann (narration): I’m not actually applying for a job. But, I’ve come to a place in Alex that’s trying to help the 70%. I’m going through the process step-by-step so I can actually understand how they do that.

Sharon Madisayitsele: Here is our reception area. You have to come and register with – within our portal. It’s where our potential clients…

Mary-Ann (narration): This is YES Hub in Alexandra. YES stands for Youth Employment Service. It’s a private agency that connects unemployed young people from townships and rural areas to paid job opportunities. They also train them in the skills companies are looking for. Sharon Madiyitsele has a disability and was unemployed until she came to YES Hub. Now she’s their receptionist.

Sharon Madisayitsele: I’m a bit of a motivation to everyone that comes in here to register that there is hope. Even if you are on a wheelchair, whatever the circumstances or whatever the condition may be.

Mary-Ann (narration): Youth are also trained here on everything – from putting together a resume to managing their time and what to wear to an interview. It’s basically a one-stop shop for upskilling local youth.

Mbali: Hi, my name is Mbali Ketla. I am the CLO of the YES Hub in Alex.

Mary-Ann (narration): A CLO is a community liaison officer. Mbali is showing us the area where youth get hands-on training.

Mbali: Let’s go to our culinary school…

Mary-Ann: The kitchen!

Mbali: The kitchen!

Mary-Ann (narration): The cooking school was stunning. Very professional. And huge! Bigger than my grandma’s house. I swear!

I also saw their latest project – where youth will learn to fly drones.

And they had a very cool 3D printing workshop where they print so many things: jewelry, parts for cars and bikes. Even a chess set.

But, I was eager to talk to the students at YES Hub who were struggling to find work. Like Wendy Bapela. 

Mary-Ann: Hey.

Wendy: Hello.

Mary-Ann: How are you?

Wendy: I’m fine thanks, and you?

Mary-Ann (narration): Wendy Bapela is 27 years old and a student at YES Hub. She already holds two degrees – two! A bachelors in geography and an honours in geology. And despite all that, she’s never had a full time job. Wendy says she’s only had part time work since graduating in 2018. None of those jobs were in her field. So, here she is… at YES Hub taking even more classes. This time, she’s learning how to fly a drone.

Mary-Ann: What other challenges have you faced while looking for employment?

Wendy: I would just say having money to scan, because everything is online now and scanning papers it’s expensive. So you would have to always have money for printing, for photocopies and scanning as well. Yeah…

Mary-Ann (narration): So a recent study found that youth spend an average of 900 rand a month to look for a job. That’s about 50 dollars which covers things like cell phone data and transport costs. This means that some young people have to choose between skipping lunch or finding work.

Some youth will even volunteer to get their foot in the door. But not everyone can afford to work for free. Young people also get told to become job creators and not job seekers. “Become an entrepreneur!” they say.

Aaliyah: I really believe that creating your own business and like, going down an entrepreneurship route, it’s definitely it’s not the solution, but it is part of the solutions that we that we need to like, you know, empower young people .

Mary-Ann (narration): That’s Aaliyah Kathrada. She’s one of the managers at YES Hub.

Aaliyah: If you can create a business and that is your sole income, not a side hustle like that would be amazing, you’re your own boss. That’s cool. You can then also create more jobs.

Maryann (narration): Frankly, I’m not sure it’s that simple. A few years ago, my aunt started a beauty salon. She’s still trying to get it off the ground. My gran? She once cooked food as a side-hustle but it could never be a full time job for her.

[MUSIC]

On Instagram, I promote businesses that support me. For example, a friend of mine does my hair, I take pictures, post them, and tag her beauty salon. I have around 9000 followers. That’s a lot. But I just have no idea how to make money from it.

And where are you supposed to get money to start a business anyway? If you’re unemployed and no money is coming in, no bank is going to finance you. My friend Sthe says you just can’t win.

Sthe: I don’t have money to start a business. I have a whole lot of ideas. I just don’t have money to do it.

Mary-Ann: You need money to make money, ne.

Sthe: Yeah. 

So if maybe if I don’t go to school, then I need to start my business. But with my business, I need to get capital. And with capital, I need to get employed somewhere and I can’t get employed somewhere if I don’t have education, so I need to get education. [Laughs]

[MUSIC]

Mary-Ann (narration): And so with this giant hill to climb out of unemployment, people give up. It’s not laziness. It’s just tiring. It’s a lot.

Nhlanhla Mlangeni: You can only push so far. I mean, when you enter year two, year three of unemployment, and no prospects and all the emails, you getting is regrets, regrets, regrets, when you actually going out there, knocking on doors, leaving CVs and you’re not getting a response, no one is addressing the depression that comes with that.

Mary-Ann (narration): That’s Nhlanhla Mlangeni. He’s tried it all. He’s taken every job he could get, but has still gone through several periods of unemployment. The last time was for two and a half years. That’s when he started his own beverage delivery company. He’s also a podcaster. Nhlanhla just happened to be visiting YES Hub when my colleague Dhashen and I stopped to talk to him.

Nhlanhla Mlangeni: And the states of depression need alleviation, and that’s where they turn to narcotics, alcohol and all these – all this self-destructive behaviours and entertainment just to ease the pain of dealing with this hopelessness. It’s not just you who’s unemployed, but it’s a whole family and struggling, you now switch into survival mode. You no longer thinking about finding a job, now it’s thinking about where your next meal is coming from.

Dhashen: Have you had to deal with this in your own life?

Nhlanhla Mlangeni: Yes I’ve had, I’ve had spells where I’ve been unemployed and I’ve had to find ways to survive.

And no one tells you about family turning their backs on you. No one tells you about friends leaving you in those dire circumstances. No one tells you how to deal with being a burden.

Aaliyah: My belief is that we fix South Africa by providing jobs…

Mary-Ann (narration): That’s Aaliyah Kathrada, again. She comes from a very political family. Her grandfather Ahmed Kathrada spent 26 years in prison for opposing Apartheid. He spent much of that time alongside his friend, Nelson Mandela.

Aaliyah: During Apartheid, there was one clear enemy and that enemy was the Apartheid government. The system. Here, there isn’t a tangible enemy and here’s a government who’s saying that they’re trying to help you, but are you being helped?

Mary-Ann (narration): Aaliyah says there are over 20-thousand youth enrolled across YES Hub’s programmes. But with millions unemployed, staff at YES Hub must feel like they’re trying to put out a forest fire with a bucket. Unemployment is completely out of control

Mary-Ann: Why do you think this is the case?

Aaliyah: I think there are several reasons starting off with, you know systemic issues that have…

Mary-Ann (narration): As much as I appreciated Aaliyah’s answer, I’d heard it before. Again and again. The legacy of Apartheid. The crazy cycle Sthe talked about. The poverty.

Aaliyah: We are free, but are people economically free?

Mary-Ann (narration): I sat and listened to Aaliyah and I could literally feel the frustration building up inside me.

Mary-Ann: I always knew struggling. But I feel like now that I’m older, I realise that a lot of the people around me aren’t just struggling. It’s not like just a tough month or, “Oh guys, you’re not going to have snacks for lunch. It’s just going to be a sandwich.” That’s that was struggling for me. But realising that for a lot of people living in Alex, it is poverty. Like, it’s fair to say that they’re living in poverty, but now that I’m older and I’m actually understanding the homes of the people around me, it’s like, this is what poverty looks like.

Crime happens here like I said, you know you’re gonna get mugged. It’s like, yes, there’s guns, but we’re not working. We’re hungry. And even if we get jobs our, you know, managers are trying to sleep with us.

It’s it’s like a full circle of issues…

Mary-Ann (narration): Believe it or not, I literally talked for 10 minutes. Straight. I told Aaliyah about my friends who are struggling with babies. And how living at my gran’s is so crowded. About seeing how lavishly people live outside of Alex with cars and houses and businesses that they are literally waiting to inherit. About the fear I’ve heard in the voices of young people who are unemployed. I told her about how I have five jobs and I still can’t leave Alex. And how I feel guilty for not recognizing my privilege when I have so much – even here in Alex – and when so many people have so little.

Eventually [takes a breath] I had to take a breath and Aaliyah got to say something.

Aaliyah: You said so much! [laughs] Your story is heartbreaking. It really is… Like, you’re so young. You have such a clear understanding on what what you want your life to look like. Your emotions are complicated and your problems, yes they may be ‘privileged’, but that doesn’t like reduce them I don’t think that you should deny it or underplay that that these are real issues in your life…

You are a hustler. Continue hustling.

[MUSIC]

Mary-Ann: Hi, fine, how are you?

[CAR DOOR SLAMS]

Mary-Ann: Um, we’re going to Lombardi East, ne?

Taxi driver: Lombardi East?

Mary-Ann: Yeah.

Mary-Ann (narration): The power is out in Alex. Again. I’m so over it. So I’m taking an uber to my mom’s new place in the ‘burbs to charge my phone and get ready for lunch with my friend. My mom’s been living there for a while, but this is actually my first time going there. Don’t worry, it’s not that deep. My year’s just been really busy and my mom, she visits us all the time at my gran’s house.

Mary-Ann: I have… I have been feeling really frustrated with staying here. I think mostly with this whole power cut thing, because who the hell doesn’t have electricity for three days? Like what is that? And my mom has electricity. So I think that’s what’s worrying me. The fact that if I was staying with my mom, I wouldn’t be having this problem. I wouldn’t have to travel to her now to just to take a shower. I’m not going to bath with cold water, I did that for the past two days and I was miserable. I don’t know how people do that whole ice bath thing…

Mary-Ann (narration): So on top of the ongoing power outages, I’m miserable about work too. I’ve been realizing lately that my jobs will likely disappear in the next few months.

My radio voice-over work? Gun Free South Africa? Even reporting this podcast! Guys! This is episode three. OF THREE! I’m about to lose all of it.

It’s ridiculously hot out. So yeah. Hai! I need a shower. And some me time.

[SOFT GIGGLING]

My mom has this way of calming me down. Always. We get along so well. Sometimes we just sit around thinking about what the future holds.

Mary-Ann: Let’s say you were to paint a picture on this white wall of the three of us, 10 years from now. What do you think that picture would look like?

Mom: It would be a picture with your baby pictures. Me as a mummy, obviously. And you guys with a nice garden at the back and you know, me holding on…

Mary-Ann: On each of us.

Mom: Yeah, on my side. And in this beautiful, you know, we’re dressed like those old old old… You know, when they used to dress in dresses and gloves…

Mary-Ann: Like on Bridgerton?

Mom: Yeah, yeah like that. We’re dress like that and we’re just posing and beautiful pictures like that.

Mary-Ann: And life’s great.

Mom: Something like that, yeah.

Mary-Ann: So you basically sound very hopeful for like Hloni and I’s future, ne?

Mom: Of course. Of course I am. And I I believe you guys will make it. You know, I believe Hloni will be that teacher that she wants to be. And with you, ai bona, we’re gonna to see you on TV and stuff. Aunty Neo always says, “That one! Who will boom out so, so nicely in this industry.” And I can see that. It may be going slow now, but I can see it coming.

Mary-Ann: I get so stressed thinking that next year I really might not have anything for me.

I think right now, the only thing that has me staying positive is your guys’s faith in me, if I’m being all the way honest. Like if I didn’t have the support structure from you guys, I’d probably be crying myself to sleep every night because I’m so stressed about being unemployed.

Mom: Think positively. I promise you, once you put your mind to it and be positive, you will achieve all you want.

Mary-Ann: You know what Marlene, don’t stress me. Let’s go.

Mary-Ann (narration): I’m locking up the office after a long day at Gun Free South Africa. My colleague Marlene and I just can’t wait to leave. It’s late. It’s getting dark outside. And we’re both wondering whether there’ll be electricity at home.

Mary-Ann: Bye bye. Nna sa re bye ko rona.

Mary-Ann (narration): Since it’s getting late I decided to splurge on an Uber. If I take a shared taxi, it won’t drop me off at my doorstep. And, I want to avoid walking home alone in the dark. It’s just not safe.

So I know I’ve already mentioned hearing gunshots at night, and how I pray each time that it’s not someone I know. But a few days ago, it was.

Joshua Mbatha was my former colleague from Alex FM. Joshua was shot dead on his way home from work. Robbers shot him in the chest. And all they took were his shoes and his phone. It was his daughter’s birthday!

That same night in Alex, seven more people were shot.

[SOUND OF CAR]

I’m so glad I took an Uber.

So, my driver heads east, taking us across the main road towards Alex. But you know, the best thing about my ride home is the lights. The Sandton lights. The mosque is lit. The skyscrapers – all just twinkling in the distance.

Sandton is like our little New York. It all looks so amazing. I can’t help but stare from the back seat of this car.

Those lights give hope to Alex kids that there’s something bigger and better out there for them. I’ve had a taste of those lights and that’s why I know I want more. But right now, Alex is where I’m headed.

[CAR DOOR SLAMS]

Mary-Ann: Ok… Sanibonani…

Mary-Ann (narration): I’m stopping along the way home to pick up my little cousin from daycare.

Mary-Ann: Playtime is finished ,nana, we have to go home. Say bye! Why are we fighting? Come…

[CAR ENGINE STARTS AND DOOR SLAMS]

Mary-Ann (narration): Here’s what’s true for me. I’ve saved some money to buy a little more freedom. I plan to buy a car. I want something nice. Something that makes me feel like all my years of hard work haven’t been for nothing.

I’ve also traveled this year. I’ve been to Greece and Egypt for work and a little vacation. But, when I return, I land back in Alex. It’s like one foot somehow manages to make it out of Alex, while the other is stuck in some kind of quicksand that I can’t escape from.

[MUSIC]

Mary-Ann: I can’t even open the gate. Come. Open!

[SOUND OF SHOPPING BAGS]

Mary-Ann (narration): I know this to be true as well. Not everyone’s going to make it out of Alex. But I believe – I have what it takes to get out of Alex.

And so I’ve made a promise.  A promise to myself that I will not grow old here.

[MUSIC]

Mary-Ann: Okay open the door. Open the door. You’re not tall enough yet? Ok push. Good boy! Yoh… Ok. And we’re home.

[MUSIC]

Lesedi: This series 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, Martha O’Donovan and Ashley Ellis.

Original music by Luyanda Mafiana, Selective Hearing, and Zack Mallobo. Additional music by Blue Dot Sessions.

This episode features the poetry of Wally Serote, together with music from the Alex Arts Academy and Richie Rich.

Sound engineering by Mike Rahfaldt.

And our studio technician is Simz Kulla.

A big thanks to Catherine Grenfell at Audio Militia studios.

And 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.