PORTRAIT 1: Sibongile, the spark of Soweto

Trip Start Jan 19, 2009
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of South Africa  , Gauteng,
Saturday, April 25, 2009

 Having read Andre Brink's novels, boycotted South-African products during the dark years of the apartheid era, and attended Nelson Mandela's birthday concert in Hyde Park last year, I was quite excited to visit Soweto, as a symbol of all those events that left a deep impression on me.
I did not want to do a zoo-like tour where you stay in the bus and do not get to meet the locals. Soweto still has a bad reputation for crime and insecurity, wrongly according to me as this is the place where I felt the safest in Johannesburg. So only few tour operators offer a walking meet-the-locals tour. I booked that tour and met the spark of Soweto, Sibongile, 32, my guide for an amazing week-end in the heart of Soweto.

I got to enjoy drinking a few coffees in her 8m2 shack, where she lives with her boyfriend and 12 years old daughter, meet her family and friends, her neighbours, cook for them, discover the music she likes, her area, the history of Soweto, take local taxis, walk in the streets and be greeted by everyone, enjoy (!) cow heart in a local braai (barbecue) restaurant, meet a traditional healer, dance on the new sound of the township (the kwaito, blend of house, RnB and rap), go to her church where the faith is strong and is demonstrated through gospels and loud prayers, cook with her a traditional meal.... What a week-end!

I then went back 4 times to Soweto and became friend with Sibongile. Her energy and communicative positive thinking, despite tough living conditions, are a real life lesson. I spent many hours talking with her and wanted to make her the first portrait of my series.

Sibongile, where do you come from?
My mum is from Zimbabwe and my father comes from Swaziland, he grew up there and came to work in the mines when he was young.
They have been allocated straight away a house in Orlando East [area of Soweto], one of those match box houses built during the apartheid regime to host mine workers.
They first rented if and after 1990 and the release of Nelson Mandela, the house was given to them.

What could you tell me of your childhood?
My mother died when I was 9 and this caused difficulties for me and my brothers and sisters. For example, I did not have a one on one relationship with an adult to whom I could talk about my problems as a girl. It is like an insult here to talk about such subjects, so I could not talk about that with anyone. I ended up experiencing wrong things by myself and that's why I got my daughter when I was 20.

One of your brothers died from AIDS. What do you think about the fact that AIDS still progresses so fast in South Africa?
My brother believed one man was given the right to have many women, as the way to prove you are a man. He passed away in 2006, it took a long time to notice it was AIDS. Since 2000 he was going to private doctors, who said it was colds, made him pay for nothing... Then his wife fell sick, became almost blind; a blood test revealed she was HIV positive and that he was too.

The government gives out more and more anti-retro viral medications, there is a government fund for the people living with AIDS. The doctors determine if you qualify depending on you CD4 count.
But this is still taken care of too late in most cases. You do the blood test only if you want to, and a lot of people are still afraid of it. They are still very ignorant, even regarding the condom. They don't want to use it because they don't care, and they just sign their death sentence.

For me prevention is to be faithful, use condoms, or abstain if you are not in a relationship or if you don't trust your partner.

We had a big debate the other day with your colleague Prophet, regarding polygamy. What is your point of view on this subject?
Personally I don't like it, because as a wife you have no privacy, and usually you don't get along very well with the other part of the family and the other wives. The fist wives expect to be treated like queens, there is no equality.

It is an ancient tradition brought in Soweto by the migrants from the rural areas, but even there I don't think it can work well eventually as women are not allowed to talk.

What do you think of the results of the elections?
The elections went well. I don't favour Zuma but he is a man of his word, better than the previous President who never made an impact in parliament speech - except for his stupid speech about HIV/AIDS.

Zuma will be doing better because he is not afraid of challenges, he knows he needs to tackle the HIV challenge, talk more openly about it and about taking your precautions.

It is not easy in our country, in our South African black culture we do not dare talk about all this.

What do you think of the role of women in politics today?
Some men are scared because more and more women are becoming independent.

There are more women in parliament, but it is more and more recognised as useful by everyone, including men. There is even a certain sense of pride from men to see certain women's achievements.

How do you see the future of your country?
Money becomes more important than traditional values.
There are lots of problems to tackle, corruption being one of the biggest. Investments should go in education and people rather than some people's pockets.
I think there should be more money given by the government to support some local organisations created in the communities, to help them become sustainable.

I am always surrounding myself with positive thinking, hoping the best for my country. There are more people showing interest for their country so things will change bit by bit.

Since 1994, people have changed their mindset, they try to do things for themselves instead of only complaining. But they still expect a lot from the government.
I give Zuma the benefit of the doubt but the support to the ANC has faded away recently, people's expectations have grown and they will check more on what is delivered.

Your daughter's education seems extremely important for you...
My father was not rich, he pushed us to go to school, to make a better life for ourselves. He was very down-to-earth.

Today I am pushing my daughter in any possible way I can think of, she has my 100% support. She is doing well, likes technology and mathematics. I saw her playing with her uncle's computer a lot so as soon as I could I bought her one.

What do you think of the educational system?
I think it works pretty well until 17 years old as it is free. But there are too many pupils per class and not enough teachers. There is no scholarships granted to students to go to university.
Overall there is too much corruption and the money does not go where it should.

How do you spend your days in Soweto?
When I work as a guide, I make sure that the visitors are welcome.
I make them tour around so they can build their own opinion, by experiencing different lifestyles of soweto: the rich mall, the poor areas like Kliptown... I like introducing them to my family, talking with them about my past experiences, going around using local transport and meeting the local community.
When I am not working, I make sure my shack looks at its best, I cook very often, do laundry, play very loud music and dance !

What do you like the most in Soweto?
The people. We all come from different horizons but there is a spirit of togetherness, we get along and look out for each other.

I live in a shack but everyone is welcome.

What do you think should be done to improve the conditions of living in the township?
There are lots of problems to tackle.
Since 1994 the mindset have changed, people are trying to do things by themselves rather than relying on the government, and local associations are trying to help the communities (HIV-Aids prevention and treatments, after school programmes for kids, computer trainings for adults, cultural activities...)

But money is a problem, they are not sustainable.
And corruption prevents government money to reach those helpful associations.

It is important to teach children responsibilities and how to lead their life responsibly. Persuade kids to go to school as without education there is no future. Teach them tolerance...

What is your dearest dream?
I have not travelled in South Africa, it would be nice to discover the country but it is more important for me to stay in Soweto so I can see each and every positive change in my community.
I would like to create my own tour guide company, employ people from my community to look out for them. It would also help me pay for my daughter go to university, and find a job that she likes.

"I hope and pray that every little dream that I have one day can come true"

Dear reader, I can only recommend you to visit Soweto and ask Sibongile to be your guide for the day or the week-end...
Contact: +27 766 292 773
Price: 150 Rands per person per day (12 euros)
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