|This article originally appeared in
|August 30, 2002
|Poor eclipsed by poverty summit
|By ERIC J. LYMAN
|ALEXANDRA, South Africa, Aug. 30 (UPI) -- This village is less than 5 miles from the center of the
U.N. World Summit on Sustainable Development, but it might as well be on the other side of the
Some 65,000 delegates, observers, activists and journalists have descended on the modern and
vibrant community of Sandton -- Johannesburg's business and entertainment center -- for the
summit to discuss poverty and the environment.
But the problems under discussion are not abstract in Alexandra.
In Alexandra, most people are without jobs. Statistics show life expectancy in the South African
shantytowns like this is 37, and infant mortality rates are six times higher than in the developed
world. Crime is rampant, electricity and clean water are rare and, locals say, hope is even rarer.
Michael Hattingh, 33, is a lifelong resident of the area. With one arm withered from birth, he
carries his sleeping 4-year-old son Mosses in the other. Like more than a third of the people in
the township, both father and son are infected with HIV -- the virus that causes AIDS. Both are
covered with dirt and grime and they walk through the filthy dirt streets in bare feet. And they are
alone: the boy's mother died of AIDS-related tuberculosis several months ago, and a younger
daughter died as a baby.
"We got some dried beans last week so there is enough to eat," the elder Hattingh told United
Press International. "Mosses feels very sick at night and he coughs very hard and ... (that means)
he sleeps during the day."
Other residents told similarly hopeless tales: the mother of two who residents said died last week
because she bled to death after cutting her arm on broken glass, the boy who was beaten by a
resident for trying to steal a sickly chicken and a doctor who specialized in creating deformities in
infants to increase their effectiveness as beggars.
Almost none of the people in Alexandra who spoke with UPI were aware of the $150 million
summit taking place just down the road. And perhaps even more disturbing, summit delegates --
passing their days in Sandton debating measures to help the world's poorest -- are for the most
part unfamiliar with Alexandra's plight as well.
From one perspective, it's not surprising: it would be impossible to imagine a place less like
Alexandra than Sandton, the richest patch of land on the continent, according to South African
government figures. Its wide streets, neon signs, modern buildings and malls lined with Gucci
and Armani stores would fit in better in Milan, Paris or New York than in a part of the world gripped
by famine and drought.
And, according to some of the experts on hand for the meetings, therein lies a big problem.
"In my opinion, the fact that an area so rich is so close to areas that are so poor is just proof that
governments have the wrong agenda," said Victor Menotti, an activist with the International Forum
on Globalization. "The fact that two dramatically different communities can exist so close together
shows that something is not working right."
Summit officials defend the location chosen for the meetings -- "We need proper modern facilities
for a meeting like this," one spokesman told UPI -- and it is true that an event of this size could
only be held at a handful of locations in Africa.
But in walking through Alexandra and seeing young children play in the same muddy fields used
to dispose of the human and animal waste from the neighborhood, it is easy to wonder how
things became so disparate.
Hubert Ngomana, a taxi driver from a nearby community, has his ideas about how it may have
"We have been forgotten," he said. "We cannot buy new cars and clothes and eat in expensive
restaurants and so we are not important. Maybe places like this and the people's lives here are
too depressing for the world to pay attention to."
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