Under the Rainbow

3 minute read

Adam Khuinana doesn’t complain about his neighbors being evicted so their homes could be demolished to make way for a visitor center. He doesn’t even object that he’ll soon be forced to move, too. Khuinana’s family of five lives in the teeming Johannesburg township of Alexandra — in the same small, dark room, to be exact, where Nelson Mandela lived as a young student in the 1940s. Now the South African government is turning Mandela’s former home into a museum. Khuinana will go, but thinks he could have at least been offered the contract to haul away the rubble. “I’m lucky to have this job,” he says, motioning to the big flatbed truck he uses in his waste-removal business. “I’m even able to give work to other people. But they brought a truck and white people in here, while we are starving.” Wreckage is still scattered all over the site because the contractors left their Bobcat bulldozer one weekend and someone stole it.

Few of the people in Khuinana’s neighborhood have jobs. Families crowd into single-room homes around communal courtyards where as many as 20 households share a couple of toilets and showers. Alcoholism and drug use are rife. Drinking starts in the late morning and continues into the night. The grocer across the street from Mandela’s old house makes more than half his profits from unlicensed beer sales. “I voted in 1994, but in the second election I didn’t,” says Thomas Bock, 48, a jobless man in Alexandra. “This time I won’t vote either. There’s no improvement. The politicians are on the gravy train, and we’re getting poorer.”

Residents are caught between street gangs engaged in murder, rape and banditry and the police, who “harass” them for minor infringements, says Florence Matsoso, 49, an unemployed woman. Asked what’s changed since the end of apartheid, she laughs: “Mandela was living in that house like donkey years ago, and it’s still the same.”

Not quite. In his autobiography, Mandela called 1940s Alexandra a “living testimony to the neglect of the authorities.” The postapartheid government doesn’t seem inattentive, but is stymied by the scale of the challenge. Recognizing the growing disaffection, President Thabo Mbeki has made tackling poverty central to his re-election campaign. The Mandela museum is part of a $170 million project to improve living conditions and reduce unemployment in Alexandra by supporting small businesses, relocating families out of crowded and dangerous neighborhoods, and opening new parks and police stations. Most improvements to date have been small but significant. The communal bathrooms are a case in point; residents used to haul their waste outside for weekly pickups, and hope the night garbage man would find it before the vandals did. Crime is still rampant, but the end of apartheid brought an end to the devastating township wars — fierce battles between ethnic gangs in the lead-up to the 1994 elections. It also permitted those with money to flee to more comfortable areas.

But that’s no help to the ones left behind. Even Alexandra’s cemeteries are dilapidated and overcrowded, with no space for new graves — and again, families with the means to do so escape. “There’s a shortage of land,” says William Koapeng, 30, as he attends the funeral of a friend. “But those that have money, they can go to the suburbs to be buried.” And those without money? When someone in the township dies, the mourners dig up a family member and rebury the two together.

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