Cultural extremes in less than 5 hours

There are few cities where extreme affluence and extreme poverty exist in close proximity. Like a number of other developing economy cities, Johannesburg has those examples. In the north-east of the city lies the suburb of Alexandra, which was designated a ‘black township’ in South Africa’s apartheid days. It is now has small, overcrowded and run-down houses combined with shanty-town shacks. Less than 15 minutes drive from ‘Alex’, as it is called, is Sandton, the most affluent area on the African continent.

I was in Alex yesterday afternoon, helping an NGO which is part of my church, Rosebank Union, to host a Christmas party for primary school children in the area. I spend time on Saturday mornings teaching computer studies to kids from Alex, but the teaching college is on the outskirts and so I don’t often need to drive into the suburb. However, driving into the centre of Alex, to the community centre where the party was held, opened my eyes once again to the grinding poverty of many South Africans. Seeing the conditions that they live in made me appreciate all that I have, and less willing to tolerate those South Africans who complain about minor issues. At the end of the party, all the kids got fed, were given a small present, and a basic food parcel.

I then drove north to Fourways, an area which has developed in the last 15 years to the Design Quarter shopping centre, for a 27dinner evening. The experience of walking in to the centre was almost surreal, it felt like I had suddenly jumped to somewhere in Europe or North America. I wondered whether any of the affluent (mainly white) people sitting in the restaurants around the centre knew how life was being lived in a run-down suburb a few kilometres away.

The cultural extremes between Alex and Fourways kept running through my mind during the evening. For foreign visitors, I would now strongly recommend that they include half a day during their trip to go through Alex and then drive to Sandton.


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