Why My Apartheid-Era Johannesburg Neighborhood Was Tighter Than What I Found in Los Angeles
I was born in South Africa and lived in a neighborhood segregated for people of South Asian (mostly Indian and Pakistani) descent until I moved to Los Angeles in 1992. We lived in what's considered in Los Angeles a ‘low income community’. My street looked not too different from those I've seen in Inglewood or South LA.
South Africa continues to be today as it was 20 years ago, one of the most violent countries on Earth. Yet, growing up, my family intimately knew all the neighbors on the street. Grandmothers would gossip together, moms would cook together, families would party together, and kids would play together. And if anything ever went wrong, you would have an army of support at your door in every shape you could imagine.
In 1990, my small cousin passed away in an unfortunate accident. At the time, my aunt, uncle, and cousins shared a home with my parents, siblings and grandparents (and no, we did not have an expansive 5 bedroom abode). For months after my cousin’s passage, neighbors brought us enough food and supplies to keep us from having to cook or go to the store, so we could focus on healing our grief. Even though they could not take away our pain, they knew they could provide us at least with material comforts in our time of raw emotional distress.
I can’t say that it's always amazing to have close relationships with your neighbors—yes, sometimes there's drama, and sometimes there's gossip. But more often and more importantly, there is friendship and community, there are people to take care of you and your family in times of need, and there is comfort in knowing that you belong to a large extended family of people that you can relate to at least as neighbors.
As a GOOD LA chapter leader for the GOOD Local initiative, I have spent a lot of time over the past month talking with people about the concept of ‘neighboring’. One neighboring statistic that has struck me the most is how close relationships between neighbors can reduce crime. In reflecting on how such strong neighborhood ties as I experienced could coexist with extreme violence, I realized that the answer lies at the heart of what apartheid itself was.
Apartheid literally translated means ‘separateness’ or ‘apartness’. It was a system based on principals of racial hierarchy developed by social scientists and biologists of the 1800s in Europe and the US that placed European descendants at the top of a scale of human mental and cultural development, with Asian, mixed race, and non-African indigenous people scattered through the middle, and African indigenous (or those appearing African indigenous regardless of mixedness) at the bottom. Apartheid was a divide and conquer strategy—by separating people physically, giving them different economic advantages and employment opportunities based on race, encouraging people to have disdain for those ‘lower’ than them, and using law and military violence to maintain the status quo, socioeconomic control was ensured—much like the U.S. under the era of Jim Crow.
By nature of the apartheid system in South Africa, people only had their neighbors to rely on. Everyone else was feared and mistrusted. And deep income inequality and structural violence often resulted in desperate people turning to violence as a means to make a living.
The apartheid system remained entrenched until protest (entire neighborhoods rose up against apartheid), major civil disobedience at home, international boycotts of South African goods, and of course the freeing of Mandela, brought the regime down. Sadly, South Africa still suffers today from the legacy of apartheid – separateness, crime, and racial tension – even though neighborhoods might be more racially mixed than before.
I'm thankful that my memories of Johannesburg mostly consist of happy things like all the friends I had on our street, buying bread hot out of the oven at the corner store, bathing in the African sun in our tiny backyard, and tasting delicious treats made by the grandma next door. Ironically, childhood became much harder for me once I moved to the US than it was as a child in South Africa.
Moving to the US, the biggest culture shock for me was the fact that neighbors and communities in shared spaces often didn't have anything to do with each other. The isolation was choking almost. I made the effort to get to know all the kids on my block, with whom I became friends. This facilitated friendly relationships between my family and others on the block, but these relationships faded as we children turned into teenagers who all attended different schools and participated in activities with no crossover.
I have continued to observe through my adult life that good neighborliness in the US, at least in LA, is generally not the norm. And I’m sad to admit that I too have fallen victim to ‘oh no don’t make eye contact!’ syndrome at times. But how transformative would it be for society if neighboring became a movement at the grassroots level? At its heart, neighboring is only friendliness, after all.
For this reason, I have chosen to celebrate Neighborday this year. A good friend of mine, Rohit Kumar, writes about how the local food movement is not only building bonds between neighbors, but it is doing so across race and culture. Reflecting on this, I connected with another friend, TED speaker Ron Finley, who has built and maintains a food forest accessible to the public near his home in LA. When speaking with him, we talked about how some of his neighbors have given him resistance because they don’t understand what he is trying to do. For our Neighborday event, we will be seed and plant swapping with his neighbors and others, and sharing visions for how LA could be much healthier if people knew how to grow and eat from their yards.
What if ongoing movements, such as urban homesteading, sidewalk agriculture, time banking, bartering, freecycling, skillsharing, cycling, etc. became not actions between communities separated by a ride on the train or freeway, but instead became actions shared by the people on one’s own block?
And in this era where color lines continue to be broken down, how transformative could neighboring be if it spread from door to door relationships to inter-community relationships? Where we stop being afraid of people because of what they look like and come from, but have enough engagement with the diversity of our city/state/nation to find common ground? Perhaps, says the idealist in me, we could indeed move ourselves toward true peace on Earth.
image of author's childhood neighborhood taken from Google Street ViewHang out with your neighbors on the last Saturday of April (a day we're calling "Neighborday"). Click here to say you'll Do It, and here to download GOOD's Neighborday Toolkit and a bunch of other fun stuff.