The South African Tourist Board produces a leaflet describing the contrasts visitors can experience across the country: tropical rain forest, semi-desert, snowy mountains, surfing beaches and game reserves. Tourists may also catch a glimpse of the huge contrast between rich and poor in South Africa. On Johannesburg freeways over-laden old buses jostle for position with shiny new Mercedes and Humvees. In Cape Town extravagantly expensive modern houses cling to the sides of Table Mountain overlooking the vast township shack settlements on the Cape Flats. In Jeffrey's Bay, a top surfing area, we overnighted in a holiday home, one of thousands lying empty for most of the year. Across the street was the "informal settlement", with thousands of people living in leaky shacks without water or electricity. That night we dined on a huge platter of the most amazing seafood. Across the street children were going to bed hungry.
My partner and I visited a new "informal squatted" settlement on the edge of the town of McGregor in the Western Cape. A little patch of scrubby land owned by the town council sits between a swamp and nature reserve, and over the last 4 months a number of shacks have been built. About 200 people live there now. Dawid Esau who grew up in McGregor took us there to meet some of the "squatters". The shacks were built from bits of corrugated iron and wooden board. Some plastic sheeting keeps out the rain. I saw only a couple of shacks with flooring. One shack contained a double bed sitting on the dirt floor, and nothing else. The mattress on the bed sagged so much in the middle that it touched the bare earth. What must it be like to sleep in that bed when there is heavy rain, or bugs or snakes come in? There was no electricity, water or toilets in the area, but at least the council had erected a standpipe and 3 chemical toilets at the entrance – all to be shared by over 200 people.
We stopped to talk with a group helping to build a new shack. They asked us why we were there – they said they'd had enough of people coming to look and discuss problems, but with nothing happening as a result. They were worried that we might take photos that would depict them in a negative way.
Saranna was holding her baby. She asked me to look at the rash on her baby's legs. She wondered if it might be caused by toxic chemicals in their drinking water. I asked her where she had lived before coming to this part of McGregor. Saranna told me that her family was in Cape Town, but something private had happened which meant that she and her boyfriend could not stay there anymore. A friend had let them stay here, and now they were building a shack for themselves. Apart from the water supply she was also worried about snakes coming from the reserve – a potentially deadly Cape Cobra had been seen only a few feet away the day before.
I asked Saranna what she hoped might happen over the next few months. She said she liked McGregor and she hoped to stay. She hoped that the council would do something about water and electricity. And she hoped that she and her boyfriend would find work and be able to have a proper home. She wished that her baby would be healthy.
Dawid told us that since the settlement had been built, crime in that part of McGregor had increased, particularly theft and rape. Many people there were living with HIV, in close proximity with others with TB, and with little money to spend on food. It was not surprising to me that many seemed to have turned to alcohol. As a life-long teetotaller, Dawid was dismissive of this. He grew up working on a wine farm, where as a child he observed the workers being paid with wine too rough to sell. Only rough wine as a salary – no cash. Dawid said the farmers' attitude was: "Well, they were given free housing weren't they?" Payment with alcohol is illegal in South Africa now, but the practice continues. Dawid's opinion was that people are able to give up drink if they try. I'm not so sure – it must be hard to kick alcohol dependence when rough wine is cheaper than water, when you have little else to do, and when your hopes have been dashed by HIV and TB. The prospect for a happier future must seem impossibly distant for so many people.
As I went to bed that night I grumbled about the slightly soft mattress on my bed. Maybe I would wake up with a sore back. I had to get up to take an indigestion tablet as I'd eaten too much cheese after my already too-rich meal.
My partner's brother knows the manager of one of the top restaurants in Cape Town's Waterfront. He talked about how tourists from overseas read the menu, and can't believe how inexpensive everything is compared to back home. They order too much of the most extravagant wines and dishes. One night as the bus-boy cleared away the table, the drunk tourists laughed and roared about how cheap their night out had been. Food and drink had been massively wasted – spilt and thrown everywhere. The bus-boy earning practically nothing and dependent on tips was worrying about his extended family depending on him to buy food.
How much of a tip should you leave in South Africa? "10% should be enough", say South Africans, "otherwise you might upset the economy". What does that mean? If waiting staff expect a larger tip wouldn't that be a good thing? In the UK I tip well – I used to work in restaurants myself and know how hard people have to work. But a larger tip in South Africa might enable someone to buy their child a new pair of shoes. A larger tip might mean that a waiter's sister can get a taxi to the HIV clinic rather than walk.
Five million South Africans are living with HIV. Reducing the inequality between rich and poor might help towards treating this huge number of people. But this is not about averaging things out. Treating HIV cannot be average. Everything about HIV tends to the extreme. ARVs must be taken correctly 95% of the time otherwise the virus can become resistant. That means getting it wrong only one time in 20. A tall order. Also, there's little point in treating someone with HIV if they go on to develop malnutrition. Good nutrition is an equal partner in fighting HIV. There must be equity of access to food for the five million South Africans living with HIV.
I think as individuals we must do what we can. Leave a larger tip if you have the money in your pocket. Help prepare meals for people living with HIV if you have a free morning. Help someone with paperwork if it is baffling to them. Ask people about themselves – how they are, what are their wishes. Be like my friend Nombeka who spends so much time talking to people she hardly gets to where she's going.
Just don't do nothing. Don't sit back and think how terrible life is for some people. You can make a difference. We really can.
(Extracted with permission from http://hivnutrition.org.uk/)