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Thursday, July 8, 2010
Ah, the irony of it all

Posted by Jemele Hill

JOHANNESBURG -- I spent most of Thursday morning in Alexandra Township and was struck by how many thick, electrical wires hung above the rows of squatter homes.

My driver, Dolf, told me that almost all those wires were connected illegally. Being from Detroit, I've known a few people with illegal electrical connections, but I've never seen practically an entire city running, well, illegally.

Illegal connections are a huge problem in South Africa, especially in the townships, where a high percentage of the residents are unemployed and impoverished. An estimated one out of five households in South Africa is without electricity, and along the freeways there are several signs warning people about the dangers of hooking up their electricity illegally.

But in Alexandra Township, it's not just the electricity that's illegal. It's one gigantic, illegal city. There are endless rows of shacks made of tin and aluminum, illegal homes built by the poor. Every block has two or three illegal shebeens (bars). The hair salons, glass-cutting shops, seamstresses, auto shops, food stands and cell phone stores -- most, if not all, are built and managed illegally. I saw a church and couldn't tell whether it was illegal, too.

Yet on every corner, there are at least three or four police officers. I'm betting they won't be there after the World Cup ends Sunday.

As Dolf and I made our way to the township border, a police officer motioned for Dolf to pull over to the side of the road. I thought he might have been busted for speeding. He handed his driver's license to the officer, and after a friendly exchange, she let us go.

I asked him why we got pulled over.

"The officer wanted to make sure I wasn't driving illegally."