I have been gone from Katlehong, the East Rand township in which I was born, for so long that I have come to look at it with something of a foreigner’s eye. This is unnerving – I have become an outsider in the land of my birth, a place whose sights, sounds, smells, textures and foods constitute a significant part of my being.
Not so long ago, a cousin and I were driving to a funeral in the township when I asked him for directions. I expected him to say: “Drive down one street, make a left at the first traffic lights and go up the street, follow the circular road around Katlehong High School, veer left towards the Shoprite shopping mall in Hlahatsi section and turn right on your second side street and voila!”
Instead, he said: “Drive to Tsolo section.” I knew there was a neighbourhood called Tsolo but I had absolutely no idea where the place was. I had clean lost my bearings.
To my cousin, I was still a kasie boy and should have known where everything was. That is why he gave me directions the way one would to a local. It did not matter to him that I had not lived in Katlehong for any length of time in about 20 years.
But seeing Katlehong with an outsider’s eyes has an advantage: it allows me to follow what has changed in the township.
The first sign of change to hit me when I moved back in December was the proliferation of shopping malls pretty much in every corner of the township. There are at least three massive malls anchored by Shoprite-Checkers and one centred on a Spar supermarket.
My introduction to these malls was during the festive season, when people shop like it is the end of the world, but the shopping traffic at these places has not dropped even after the end of the holiday season. Go to any of these malls and their supermarkets at any time of day and you best be prepared for long queues. It is not bad service. The service is actually quite good. The shops are just busy.
But that is not the most dramatic change I have noticed.
The most eye-popping change for me has been in the way people go about their business and the way the local council, whatever its problems and weaknesses, is trying to make a difference.
More and more sections have tarred roads and those that do not yet have any, are being surveyed so they will soon be tarred.
Our local councillor has deliberately decided to have her block be the last street in our area to have a tarred road. This is both good politics and a result of lessons learnt the hard way. It used to be that councillors would take care of their own streets and families first before worrying about the rest. Not our councillor.
Her selflessness may not please her immediate neighbours, but they can at least see that she is working for the entire community and that a tarred road will eventually their way.
Then there are the mundane things that we hardly ever notice unless we need to use them but that actually make neighbourhoods tick. I was stunned to see a postman on his bike on Christmas Eve delivering mail to houses. I was prepared to think this was a fluke until I saw the same guy again on New Year’s Eve, doing his rounds.
For someone long used to stories about how South Africa shuts down every year from 16 December to the first week of January, it was both a revelation and a pleasure to see the postman and to walk into a post office on 24 December and find it open for service.
It was the same with garbage collection. The collectors came around on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. They work to a calendar and, although they were on a holiday schedule, they came around on days I would have least expected them to show up.
And they did not look like they were half-arseing their way through their shift, only eager to finish quickly and knock off. They took their time, collected everyone’s bins from the central collection point and returned them where they found them. It was a pleasure to watch.
After all, it is of such basic things that livable, working cities the world over are made.
But the best sign for me that things are changing for the better was the phone call my cousin and I placed to 10111, the police emergency number, after coming across a domestic dispute while walking to a mall one evening shortly after New Year.
A man was manhandling a woman and when we asked him to stop, he defiantly told us to walk on as it was none of our business. We told him we would call the cops.
“Go ahead!” he said. We did. Two police vans showed up within 30 minutes and before our domestic abuser knew it, he was surrounded by eight armed policemen. They gave him a tongue-lashing he is unlikely to forget anytime soon. They also thanked us for calling in the incident.
Needless to say, things are far from rosy in Katlehong. Jobs are scarce, HIV/Aids is a serious problem, crime continues to bedevil us and the local council could do better, to put it politely. But things are changing and, what’s more, they seem to be changing for the better. Even a native foreigner like me can see that.
Jacob Dlamini is a PhD student in History at Yale University, a columnist for The Weekender, and former political editor of Business Day.