Itsoseng lies in the North West province of South Africa, between Lichtenburg and Mafikeng, the provincial capital, near the border with Botswana. It was established during Apartheid, in the 1960s, on land that used to be a farm, as a township for African blacks (“Colored” was a separate designation). The population of about 20,000 is still 99% Black African, with a smattering of Asians and coloreds. As far as I know, nobody of purely European ancestry lives in the township.
The people we met, like almost everyone in the town, are Tswana. They speak Tswana, English, and Africans. They are comfortably multi-lingual, and listen to a radio station where the disk jockey would frequently switch from one language to an another.
The township looks run down. Many of the residential streets are not paved, but even the paved streets are full of potholes. There is trash strewn around. Everyone has electricity, but there are occasional black outs, “load shedding” by the local utility. There is clean drinking water, but they have almost no water pressure, so cannot make much use of it. Some homes have a private cistern and a pump.
As we were going through the town, Tsholo’s sister Matebogo pointed out the remnants of a shopping complex that had been burned down in the riots that accompanied the end of Apartheid 20 years ago. This was never rebuilt. There are stores around, where we did some shopping during the week, but nothing that would attract somebody who had easy transportation elsewhere. They do their shopping in Lichtenburg.
The general feeling is that the African National Congress has neglected the North West province in general, and Itsoseng in particular. While touring through South Africa, we saw other townships, Langa outside of Capetown, and Soweto, near Johannesburg; most of the roads in these towns looked much better cared for than Itsoseng, though to be fair, these are older, larger, and more established. On the other hand, Itsoseng does not have any of the large, rather dismal, informal areas, where migrants move in seeking work. There isn’t much around Itsoseng to attract workers: only one cement factory not far away.
Our hosts are well off compared to many of their neighbors: they are what Americans would think of as middle class. They drive late model cars. Their homes, though small, are nicely furnished. Everyone had a big screen TV. In a couple homes, I noted fine wood paneling on the ceiling, a decorative touch that I don’t remember ever seeing in America. Sioto, the bride’s father, is a school principal, and Kerileng, the mother, is a teacher. The adult siblings are all educated and have jobs. Like several of the people we met, Sioto has a farm outside of town, where he has cattle, a traditional form of wealth in the Tswana culture.
One thing struck us the first night of our visit: security is a major concern. Every one of the nicer homes was surrounded by a high barrier, topped by very sharp metal spikes, or sometimes, even razor wire. People had small yards, but every yard had enough space for a driveway, so that they could park there safely inside the outer wall. In the house where my wife and I stayed, they normally kept large dogs, not as pets, but for protection; for our visit, Dinanas, our hostess took these dogs out to the farm. Another family later showed us their sophisticated alarm system.
The night after wedding reception, we learned what could happen when these normal precautions were not followed. The reception tent was in the street outside the Molale home, and some fences around their house and their neighbor’s yard were down to allow access to more space. That night, the family awoke at around 4:00 am to find somebody rummaging through their house, looking for something to steal. He escaped when people woke up. A few blocks away, uncle David was hosting so many people that some of the cars had to be left out on the street. These cars were broken into and some valuable stuff was stolen.
I learned that they discovered one of the thieves, confirming their suspicions by finding stolen items in his house. They did not turn him over to the police, saying the police would not do anything. Instead, this group of vigilantes beat him, beat him severely, much to the distress of one the Americans who witnessed it. They got the thief to tell them who else was involved, especially with the break-ins to the cars. He implicated the local chief of police. I don’t know whether of not they believed him, but they could not meet out this rough justice on the police.
The last day that I was Itsoseng, well after the wedding, Kerileng, Tsholo’s mother, asked me how I thought life in Itsoseng compared to life in America. I could point to many things. In America, the infrastructure necessary to modern life is so much better developed. We have better roads, potable water that gushes out the tap, more reliable electricity, and access to the internet. We also have a government that is, on the whole, free from corruption, though this requires constant vigilance. Finally, there is no fence around our yard. My family has confidence in the social order: we feel safe in our home.
On the other hand, the community in America is fragmented. Although we have no fence, we live cloistered in our air conditioned or heated home, without much contact with our neighbors. In Itsoseng, they have a vibrant community. They are surrounded by Tswana, which helps give that community a cohesiveness that our diverse, integrated population simply cannot duplicate. For this wedding celebration, they were able rely on, to impose on, their neighbors to a degree that is unimaginable in America. Such a community can be a source of great resilience in times of trouble and adds immeasurably to the joy of celebrating a happy occasion like this wedding.