The other South Africa: small people, big ambition

Justice Malala

It was not what we were looking for.

My friend Joseph and I were looking for a car wash. These businesses have sprung up with a vengeance in South Africa’s villages and townships. Most only operate on weekends and are started by young schoolboys to make some pocket money for themselves.

They are cheap, efficient and, most importantly it seems, communal. While your car is being washed and polished (for a mere R20 plus tip), you sit around on chairs provided by these young entrepreneurs, chat to friends and have a beer.

The car wash establishments in Temba township, just north of Pretoria, were chock-a-block last weekend. So Joseph and I found ourselves driving north out of the township, past several villages and still not finding any joy.

It was late afternoon when we came across the oddly-named village of Dertig (“thirty” in Afrikaans) and finally spotted it. A ramshackle corrugated iron roof held up by four wooden pillars, with a sign scrawled in white paint, this was the car wash establishment we were looking for. It was empty and I drove my car in.

It was when we got out the car that we saw it. It was a football match.

The sun was going down in the west and it cast long shadows of the sweating boys as they ran around the football field. We got our beer out of the car, went to the side of the field and joined the hundreds of spectators hollering and egging their teams on. One of the car wash attendants ran over with two camping chairs.

“We like our customers to relax,” he said with a smile.

And so the sun went down over the small village of Dertig, with a football game in front of me and a beer in my hand, with a horde of people screaming their lungs out for their teams, and there was something there. I was not sure what it was.

Perhaps it was the ambition of the young players, all teenagers, who told me afterwards that they hoped to be spotted by some big-name teams and one day become national stars. Perhaps it was the young car wash boys, all schoolboys making a little pocket money for the week ahead, who seemed obsessed with making me happy by working like demons to bring my car to a high state of shininess (something I am not obsessed with).

But sitting there, surrounded by all these amazing, ambitious people, and feeling totally happy and relaxed, reminded me of how easy it is to forget some of the real joys of this country: the ambitious and incredibly positive people, the beautiful sunsets, the clear night skies and the fat stars of my childhood.

As someone who writes columns that largely concentrate on the politics of the country, and someone who criticises many of our government’s positions, it is sometimes easy to forget the real, “small” people who make this country work.

In essence, I am saying the country of crime and HIV and other challenges we face and criticise our government for is not the only country. There is another South Africa, a questing, ambitious, hungry South Africa. It is a South Africa away from the news headlines, a South Africa hidden from the foreigner. This is a place of dreams and ambitions.

I saw it again this week when I spent some time in Mamelodi township, just 15 minutes north of the Pretoria city centre, where the HM Pitje Stadium is undergoing massive refurbishment.

There, too, I found all these young people who seemed not to be held back by the problems our country faces. They were rushing off to put in tender bids or position themselves for some or other opportunity.

It is not that these young people are not aware of the problems that bedevil the country. These are the same people who have friends who have died of Aids or are living with HIV. These are the same people who see friends with great potential being sucked in by crime.

These disappointments and hardships make them even more determined to build a better future for themselves.

Their determination and optimism is what I saw this past weekend. Theirs is an aspect of life that we all – South Africans and foreigners – sometimes ignore as we agonise over the supposedly “big questions”.

I hope we can confront the real big questions: how the poorest of the poor are toiling daily to lift themselves up and out of poverty, how the government and the rest of civil society can augment their efforts, and how we can all do our bit to make this a better country.

Justice Malala is an award-winning former newspaper editor, and is now general manager of Avusa’s stable of 56 magazines. He writes weekly columns for The Times newspaper and Financial Mail magazine, as well as a monthly media and politics column for Empire magazine. He is the resident political analyst for independent television channel and has consulted extensively for financial institutions on South African political risk. Malala was also an executive producer on Hard Copy I and II, a ground-breaking television series on SABC 3. Hard Copy I won the Golden Horn Award for best television series. Malala’s work has been published internationally in the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Financial Times, The Independent, Forbes, Institutional Investor, The Age and The Observer.