A group of men huddle closely around a roaring fire in Alexandra Township. June evenings are punishingly cold here and the fire provides temporary relief. They laugh and tease one another as they wait for the Ghana-Germany match to commence. The smell of ganja wafts heavily from the group and explains at least some of their jovial spirit.
With many in this impoverished township without electricity or access to television, this group rigged a small TV to a power source in a corner store. They cheer boisterously for Ghana, the only African team remaining in the World Cup. They pass around a four-foot “vuvuzela,” a traditional South African noise maker that has defined fan support during this World Cup.
The group invite us to join them but we’re hurriedly collecting nighttime B-roll and need to move on.
I’ve been astounded by the kind and inviting spirit we’ve encountered in Alexandra. From outside, one expects that making it in and out of the townships with all gear in tow would be impossible. While my anecdotal experiences cannot refute South Africa’s staggering crime stats, I do believe that the numbers and their related discussion unfairly color the situation here.
One thing that has occurred to me, is that a large percentage of South Africa’s notorious carjackings, armed robberies and muggings occur in wealthy neighborhoods. According to some Alexandra residents, far fewer incidents of robbery occur there than in wealthier suburbs. “The criminals in Alex have a bit of a code,” says Tabia Bohali, a near lifelong Alex resident. “They steal from the wealthy, not from the impoverished people in their own communities.” The criminal element makes stolen goods available to the Alex population at rates they can afford. This, in turn, generates community support and protection from police.
It’s a leap, but I wonder at times if we’re not safer in Alex than we would be in a wealthy, adjacent suburb like Sandton. With pervasive fear of the townships among many white South Africans and most foreign visitors, I wonder if the criminal elements there give a pass to those willing to enter. Probably rosy-eyed, but I’d like to believe it.