“World Water Day, on 22 March every year, is about focusing attention on the importance of water.
Today, 2.1 billion people live without safe drinking water at home; affecting their health, education and livelihoods.”
The United Nations
As I wandered the streets of Soweto with the locals – trash burning on one side and crammed tin shacks with asbestos filled ceilings on the other – we came across a lovely cluster of apartments, that in all honesty stuck out amidst its bleak surroundings.
Akin to an oasis in a desert.
An oasis refers to a fertile spot in the desert, where water is found. And as expected, surrounding the oasis is an abundance of life. For many of the locals in Soweto, this housing project was their oasis.
Developed for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa – and with the eyes of the world upon the country – these homes were created to improve the quality of lives for locals within the township and was meant to be symbolic of a society moving on from its complicated and dark past.The apartment blocks had proper roofing, working amenities and most importantly, clean and fresh water. These were luxuries some locals had never dreamt of having before. And for the duration of the World Cup, the oasis of Soweto was full of life, providing a wonderful back drop to the colour and noise of the sporting showcase; the vuvuzelas were in full swing.
However, when Spain lifted the trophy in triumph and brought the curtain down on another exciting global spectacle, actions were taken to remove locals from the comfort of their new found homes and back into the crowded, tin cans from whence they came.
Back to the asbestos filled ceilings and lack of access to clean water.
Standing in the middle of the now abandoned housing project, I noticed a cracked pipe; and flowing out of it was an unrelenting stream of fresh, drinking water. If you would have shut your eyes, all you could hear was the gushing, like a majestic waterfall was just near by.
I turned to one of the locals quizzically, “can’t all of you just use that water?”
“It’s government property, we aren’t allowed to. There are patrols and guards that make sure of that,” gestured one man at a guard tower veiled with barbed wire.
And sure enough, a patrol car drove by and in direct response, the locals who were mingling about averted their eyes and wandered off in made up conversation. The waterfall of liquid gold – which at that point, I was told, had been flowing for months – was a cruel reminder of the relationship between access and status.
But that doesn’t stop everyone, with some locals choosing to squat in the empty rooms rather than let the locked doors keep them out.
That moment in Soweto still stands out as one of the most vivid and definitive memories I’ve ever had – seeing inequality become sheer desperation is impossible to forget.
But most unshakeable was the criminal irony that was present in that township; where the locals living in social squalor were directly opposite empty, yet perfectly fine homes. Homes that were collecting dust as each day rolled by. The ultimate salt in the wound being the free flowing pipe of fresh drinking water, that was being patrolled and watched so fastidiously like the last white Rhino – who ironically in its preservation, may have even better access to water than most of Soweto.
Today, South Africa finds itself in the grips of the worst drought in its short history, with many of the beautiful people I had met; their lives, education and wellbeing all hanging in the balance.
For the locals of this township, the promise of the oasis had turned out, like on many occasions, to simply have been a mirage.
Ryan Cheng is the founder of The 88, and is passionate about telling stories surrounding travel, culture and identity.
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