This is the first of three articles I wrote for a British newspaper about my experience of working in South Africa for ten months in 2004-5.

I have now been working in South Africa for two weeks and have found them the most exhilarating two weeks of my life. Johannesburg has been described as being the “city of contradictions” and now after experiencing both the best and worst aspects of the city I can understand why.

I am working for Children of Fire which aims to help young victims of burn injuries in South Africa and to help and educate the communities in which they live, in both prevention and cure. This organisation has also recently founded the Johannesburg School for Blind, Low Vision & Multiple Disability Children which is the only school in Johannesburg to cater for the needs of blind children.

After touching down in Johannesburg I was whisked off to a South African jazz festival on the fake beach of a fake lake in the middle of South Africa’s largest township, Soweto. It was an incredible experience as South Africa pulsates with rhythm even without music. But I don’t think I’ve ever been made to feel so conscious of my colour before… not only because of the stares and comments we received as the only mixed race group there but when I went to dance, and was the only white person among hundreds, I was turned into an exhibition!

Children of Joe Slovo squatter camp

Some of the troublesome kids of Joe Slovo helped by Children of Fire

In the city of Johannesburg the inequality between the ultra rich, mainly white community in the suburbs and the impoverished black communities in the townships is far worse than I had imagined. I spent my first day of work in Joe Slovo squatter camp (shanty town) starting up a work placement scheme. Despite being on my own for a large part of the day I found that the residents were very welcoming…. one woman even cooked me a traditional squatter camp lunch of scrambled egg and vetkoek (deep fried bread dough balls).

The next day I visited Alexandra Township, parts of which have immeasurably worse conditions than Joe Slovo. I was taken aback by the environment in which people here were living as entire families with eight or more children manage to live in tiny makeshift shacks, the size of garden sheds. I met with our UMashesha (quick mover) volunteers who live in the squatter camps, working to educate the communities in fire safety and preventative measures.

Shortly after seeing the worst side to life in South Africa in the squatter camps, I experienced the best of what the country has to offer. On an outreach trip to the KwaZulu Natal province I quickly began to see the beauty of South Africa. The road started to wind upwards into the mountains right through the heart of rural South African life. The villages here were set in the most breath-taking scenery I have ever seen – mountains and valleys in every direction and the area as a whole is known, with good reason, as the Valley of a Thousand Hills.

Full of energy: the children of Lily of the Valley AIDS orphanage

On arriving at the Lily of the Valley AIDS orphanage at which I was staying, I realised this was a place that could truly bring happiness to children who have experienced so much suffering. The orphanage seemed quite out of place with the poor communities nearby as it was surprisingly modern. Positioned on top of a large hill overlooking not only the distant mountains and valleys I had driven through, it also faced the rolling plains of a game park. What an inspiring sight for the children to open their curtains to in the morning.

When the children arrived back from school I was immediately swarmed by all 30 or so children that appear from one small minibus. They immediately became fascinated with, apart from me being a white stranger, my hair and Adams apple! I spent the afternoon helping the children at homework class and then afterwards being drenched in water, jumped all over, dragged to the floor, fouled in football and generally being totally worn out… but I had a great time!

I spent the evening with the organisers of the orphanage at their house lower down the valley. As we were eating we watched the animals in the game park come down to the river in the valley to drink. I can’t think of a more idyllic place I have ever been to. However as we talked about the issues facing South Africa, and in particular AIDS, it saddened me to find out that some of the kids I’d been playing with earlier won’t live more than a few years and the shocking reality is that now almost one in three South Africans are infected by HIV.

Amongst other tasks, I started the adoption process of the most adorable three-year old boy who attends our school and has been put through a series of reconstructive operations by Children of Fire. He is believed to have been set alight by his mother at the age of three months so it was very difficult meeting her and acting ‘professional’. I also went out on the local fire chief’s call-outs and it was quite an experience – not just speeding through red lights at over 140kph but seeing how hard their job is first-hand. Often by the time we had located the fire within the squatter camps the house, and sometimes its neighbours, had already burned to the ground. This is the reason Children of Fires look to place voluntary fire fighters within the squatter camps.

The Joe Slovo Sunday Library

The Sunday morning reading scheme in Joe Slovo squatter camps

Back in Johannesburg, I rose at daybreak to climb a mountain near to my home and found it fascinating to see the city from a totally different perspective. Looking down on the city, everything looked so calm and ordered – far from the tension and distrust on the streets. I later helped at the Sunday Library in the Joe Slovo squatter camp – a project organised by Children of Fire not only to educate the children but also monitor their health and identify cases of child abuse. It was great to see how enthusiastic the children are about learning, even in such poor conditions. After the library we took around 20 of the squatter camp kids (along with some of our burns children) to Johannesburg Zoo. I’ve never seen children so excited about anything before… it just made me feel guilty for the ones we had to leave in the camp.

A Panorama of Johannesburg

Johannesburg skyline at sunrise: what does the future hold for the "city of contradictions"

I thought that I had already seen the ugly side of life here after an attempted mugging earlier this week, however a few days later I got called out by my boss at 2am after one of the young men from the Joe Slovo squatter camp had died from a stab wound. He happened to be a prime witness in a case against the local police who illegally demolished several homes in the camp.

South Africa is often described as being “the World in One Country” and I couldn’t agree more. The country has vastly differing landscapes, a multitude of economic conditions and the most diverse culture imaginable. There is immense potential in South Africa and very slowly it is being realised despite the significant problems it faces. You can but dream about what this country may one day become.

All my experiences would not be possible without AIESEC. With the aim to raise cultural awareness, its exchange programme allows graduates to undertake a range of jobs in a choice of more than 80 countries worldwide.

First published 19 November 2004. 

About Jon Maiden

Founder of Goalvanise which enables people to create their Life List online, and inspires and supports them to achieve their life goals. Check out the Goalvanise blog here or my personal blog here.

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