Black life: walking, waiting and mobility

I leave for work at about 6:30am every morning. Everyday, without fail, I will see black people walking somewhere or waiting for a bus or taxi. On my route, I don’t see any white people doing the same. All the white people are in their cars or jogging or walking their dogs (although this has become the work of the gardener as I’m seeing many black men walking dogs at strange hours the same way I see black women pushing prams with white babies). 

This observation isn’t really revolutionary because anyone who lives in the suburbs knows these dynamics (I drive through Emmerentia, Greenside, Parktown, Saxonwold, Houghton, Norwood and sometimes through Melville): in the morning, we see the black people arrive to clean white people’s houses and offices; and in the evening we see the exodus when they return to their homes in townships and far off places where the black majority lives. I’m becoming impatient with this form of mobility because it highlights how very little has changed in terms of how labour is organised as well as the spatial divide in a democratic state that desperately seeks to be post-apartheid.

I drove a friend to Rivonia a while ago and I used Rivonia Road to get home. It was rush hour with the usual slow traffic. The slow pace gave me the opportunity to look around and I was struck by the long lines of black people queuing waiting for taxis and buses. There was something shocking about seeing that many people on the side of the road. Waiting patiently and moving slowly to fill an empty taxi. There was nothing new about it but perhaps for the first time I looked at the image through a lens that is more critical of South Africa and it’s promise of “a better life for all”.

This kind of movement—black people moving in and out or suburban areas— is obvious to everyone and a firm part of what it means to live in an unequal society. I grew up being a part of the same pattern. My sister and I walked to school when we didn’t have money for the bus. This meant we left home at 6am in order to get to school at 7am. We would be part of the morning traffic of black bodies making their way into the affluent suburbs or the jobs in town.
Not just a South African problem.
The image of throngs of black people queuing and waiting also reminds me of my childhood. Home Affairs (which always felt like the one place where I never saw white people), Frere Hospital and the pension office in the part of East London known as esiGinqgini was an everyday occurrence. The identity of the institutions was built around the idea of waiting for service because there’s nowhere else that offers the same service. And perhaps this is the rub: the lack of options one has when they are poor means they have to wait for a service because they don’t have another option. This is why I’m always dumbfounded when I’m at the bank or the shops and people begin huffing and puffing if there are a few people in front and a few tills are operating. The impatience comes as a result of knowing that one can go elsewhere to get a better service. If one has more options they have different expectations for a service.

What kind of psyche does one develop if they spend most of their day in limbo?
Waiting or walking for hours in order to get something done?

 I recently taught the film Yesterday where this very idea is considered. Yesterday lives in Rooihoek; a typical rural village in KwaZulu Natal. She is uneducated, her husband is a miner in Johannesburg and she has contracted HIV from him. She realises she isn’t well and decides to walk to the nearest clinic. The film begins with her walking through a barren landscape with her young daughter. We don’t know where they are walking to but there’s a sense that they’ve been walking for a long time. Yesterday does this trip more than once with her daughter (who is about 6 years old but not in school). The walk to the clinic means that Yesterday gets to the clinic too late and each time she does not see the doctor. There’s no appointment that’s been made; it’s first come, first serve. It’s only after her new friend offers to look after her daughter and pays for a taxi that Yesterday is able to arrive at the clinic early enough to see the doctor and she is finally diagnosed with HIV. The film is about Yesterday’s journey with sickness; the road and walking become a motif for the journey. Even though the film is about Yesterday, it also offers some perspective into the lives of people whose psyche is governed by the idea of waiting. You are constantly at someone else’s mercy when you are in waiting. Waiting means a sense of helplessness.

While driving through the Eastern Cape recently I was struck by home many people were always walking along the highway. Presumably walking from one village to another. There were also people waiting on the side of the road waiting for a benevolent drive to take them to the next town. Watching these people made me realise that most black and poor people spend a lot of time walking or waiting. Walking because they don’t have a car of their own. Walking instead of getting on a taxi because you can save more money. Walking because taxis are not allowed in most affluent areas (I think there are bi-laws restricting this; especially in places like the Southern suburbs in Cape Town). I found myself thinking of a train system and how different the Eastern Cape would be if there was a train system connecting key areas in the province.

Of course the danger of writing about black people is that I'm providing a narrow narrative of group of people with complex experiences: the danger of the single story. This is just an observation. Perhaps someone can offer another perspective about black people's lives, but for now, these are my observations.


aavala anitha said…
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Karen Hurt said…
Thank you so much for this journey, so visual in both photographs and text. I too, having recently moved to a cottage in the 'Parks', have been stunned to see the things you describe in the early part of your photo essay. Surely employers can (en)lighten up and add on a clothes allowance so workers can choose what they want to wear to work (never mind increase wages). There is wealth in these suburbs. It crossed my mind yesterday, seeing childminders gather together with their prams near the park, that this is a perfect environment for a domestic workers' union to organise. Maybe that is what the gathering I saw lately was discussing. I do hope so! And small children socialising too and learning from discussions. May I share your blog to Facebook? Appreciation, Karen Hurt

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