It has been a mild day but, with the sun setting, the winter chill is creeping steadily into Mamelodi where Julian Hewitt is sitting with his shirt off. He handed it over to prove a point to a group of men who were dubious about his mission.
“They said it was a designer shirt and I shouldn’t wear it here, so I took it off,” he says. “I need people to see that I am here and living like they are.”
But it is a constant mission to convince people that he is not mocking them by moving his family of four from suburbia to a R170 a month shack in the eastern part of Mamelodi.
The group who benefits from his shirt, at first suspicious of his presence, is won over by his sincerity. They also want to meet his new companions from the Mail & Guardian. The ritual of extended three-point handshakes and name swapping brings smiles all round.
With a sprinkling of isiZulu and Setswana greetings, this is how Julian now travels, chatting to everyone on the bumpy sandy track that leads to his shack. The white paint on it is new, making it stand out from the worn yellow of its neighbours, but inside the single room is drab and dark. There is only enough room for a table and two mattresses.
Julian and his wife Ena are staying here for a month with their two young daughters, Julia (4) and Jessica (2).
“People have said we are crazy but we want to see how most of the people in this country live,” she says.
The mission is a personal one and the couple are puzzled about the great media interest it has generated.
“What does it say about our country when this is interesting?” asks Julian.
They thought of challenging politicians to stay the night but decided it would politicise what they were doing.
“Our challenge here is to cross some bridges and see how people are living. The scary thing is that so many South Africans really have no knowledge about what is happening in their own country.”
They moved in next to Leah Nkambule, their domestic worker. This gave them some familiarity and security and made planning easier. But even then they had no idea what they were really getting into.
“You have to be a little naive to do something like this,” says Julian.
The learning curve has been steep but their neighbours are impressed and excited about their willingness to adapt.
“They eat spatlho [bunny chow] and go to the toilet, even when it is smelly,” says Constance Nkambule. She has helped to teach them the basic tricks of life in a township. “Everyone on this street is looking after them, and we help them because everyone cares for them.”
People walking past the yard are so used to the family that most do not stop and gape. A few do, or maybe that is because of the journalists.
“I love this guy, man,” says Peter Tshapelwa while nodding at Julian. Before this month, the only white people he had seen here were from a local church, working with the local nyaope (whoonga) addicts.
“When he comes here, he makes us think that not all white people are the same.”
Now Tshapelwa has a more nuanced view of people, and says he takes more time to speak to people outside his comfort zone. “He makes me want to help people.”
The arrival of the Hewitts in the street, a path just wide enough to take a small car, has touched everyone the M&G speaks to.
“It feels good that people with money care about how we are doing and come to see for themselves,” says another neighbour, Matthew Mathebula.
“There is so much distance between whites and blacks in this country, or between those who have money and us,” he says. “So we need more of this. We need people to talk and know each other.”
With just a month to experience as much as they can, the Hewitts are constantly trying new things. They have used taxis, trains and buses and Julian has even jogged the 12km to his office.
He is the director of the Allan Grey Forbis Foundation and Ena is an estate agent.
Transport has put strain on their daily budget of R100 a day. They are trying to live on the average household income of about R3 000 a month. In less than two weeks, this has already taken R450 from food, making meat a luxury.
The only “luxury” items they have bought are wire cars – the Hewitt girls are taking full advantage of them in the yard, taking turns with their new young friends from the neighbourhood. They fit in very well, having asked only once to go back home.
The Hewitts plan to invite some of their old friends over for a shisa-nyama (braai) party near the end of the stay. “We’ll ask them to bring meat for three people because nobody here can afford it,” says Ena.
The party will happen around a fire in the yard, the gathering place for everyone in the bitterly cold nights because there is no electricity. Kindling comes from anything that can stay alight, with the fire being started with plastic bags.
With no budget for alcohol, Julian shares umqombothi (traditional beer) with his neighbours.
The surrounding shacks are built with an assortment of bricks, corrugated iron, and plywood or other bits of wood. At night, the warm breath of the occupants condenses on the metal, leading to drops of water dripping on people all night. With no power, washing is done in small plastic baths filled with cold water and one kettle of boiled water.
Those with jobs are awake at 4am to catch the buses that leave before 6am for Pretoria. In winter, the frost is heavy, with hills blocking the sun’s warmth until later in the morning. The bus route takes an hour – a car trip is quarter of an hour.
“People here work very hard. You won’t see them at home when the sun is out,” says Julia Samwenya. “These people [the Hewitts] are the same and now people respect them because of that. They are part of our community.”
For this week, their daughters are on holiday and the couple has more time to spend with them.
“In a way, we are getting to spend more time with them this month,” says Ena.
As the sun sets amid a haze of swirling dust, the four head out for their ritual evening walk around their neighbourhood. They stop to chat with everyone and are greeted warmly by people surprised to have white people wandering down the road greeting them with “dumelang”.
A history divided
Mamelodi became a township in the 1960s when people were forced to move from the suburb of Lady Selborne in Pretoria.
Its most famous white resident was Nico Smith, a dominee in the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa and anti-apartheid activist, who was given permission to live there with his congregation – the only white person allowed to do so.
Census 2011 shows that 215 white people live in the area, out of a population of 120 000. It also lists five shacks as each having a yearly income in excess of R2.5-million.
The township is the original home to Mamelodi Sundowns, one of the country’s most successful football teams.