To talk about how I – an Asian American woman – came to live in Soweto for one year is to talk about love. When I first arrived in South Africa in 2005, I stayed with a friend’s friend in Pretoria or, what has since been changed to, Tshwane. He’s Ethiopian and was the director of UNISA Press. On top of his work, he was going through a divorce and caring for the youngest child. So, I found my social life in Johannesburg or Joburg. Since I was in the country for archival research and the National Archives was in Tshwane, visits to Joburg were fun times, moments to learn about contemporary social life.
I looked for Phindi, another friend’s friend, on my first visit to Joburg. Phindi’s South African from the Eastern Cape Province. She’s also Xhosa. Phindi had moved to Joburg after her studies in Cape Town. She welcomed me to her family, which, at that time, consisted of her son and brother. Working as an administrative assistance at the Market Photo Workshop, a photography school for marginalized (mainly referring to Black) communities (http://www.marketphotoworkshop.co.za/), I spent my days there with Phindi. Among her colleagues, I enjoyed Keo’s company most. She’s a self-taught photographer — among other things, I later found out — and was working on a project to teach youth in the Eastern Cape about photography. Her project captured my attention. It provided a group of young women with cameras and used their daily lives as backdrop to teach them photographic techniques. For me, the idea of socio-economic empowerment through photography was ingenious. I also wanted to learn more about photography, so a friendship struck up between us. The fact that Keo’s also lesbian identified meant that she would know about LGBT social spaces.
When I learned that Keo was living in the family’s house in Soweto with her mother, uncle, and brother, I wanted to visit the township only if she agreed to show me around. From my travels, I’ve picked up the habit of avoiding tour guides, who tend to have memorized scripts of things that visitors might be interested in hearing.The historical details of places, I could read from books or online. I’m more interested in knowing how people live day-by-day and feel or think about their communities. In any event, the visit was arranged; and on that day, a Portuguese friend, who was teaching archaeology at the University of Pretoria, came along. Keo introduced us to her family, but also a few neighbors who mattered to her. Unlike most of the neighbors who had shacks on their properties, her family had a two bedroom house and a two-story “cottage.” After that visit, our friendship evolved into a romantic relationship. My subsequent visits to Joburg were to see her, and she would spend time with me in Tshwane when I was focused on digging through archival materials for the PhD dissertation. By the time my visa was about to expire, we discussed about me returning for another year since, like all graduate students, I felt that I didn’t have enough information yet. I proposed to Keo about staying with her in Soweto upon my return. She was surprised, but agreed.
Keo’s family welcomed me to stay with them. We had the second floor of the two-story “cottage” to ourselves. Living with them was the easy part. Transportation was a challenge. South Africa’s public transportation hasn’t changed much since the end of Apartheid. Public transportation remains dominated by taxi companies (these are not the common metered taxis, but 9-12 seater mini vans). They usually run between the (mainly, Black and Colored) townships and city center or downtown, where the main taxi ranks are. From there, commuters would take other taxis into the suburbs (that were once inhabited by White people only). Between waiting for the taxis to fill up to getting to town and transferring to another taxi, one could easily spend one to two hours getting to a place that would take about half an hour to get to by car. This process is more complicated for newcomers unfamiliar with the taxi routes or hand gestures to indicate the directions we’re wanting to travel. On the days when I wanted to go to the University of Witwatersrand (Wits), my host institution for that year, I would have to catch a taxi with Keo, who had started an internship at the provincial treasury department located downtown. On days when I didn’t have to be at Wits early, she would ask a male friend to accompany me on the taxi.
Keo was worried about my safety on the taxis and walking around Soweto for a couple of reasons. In the township and anywhere else in South Africa, I am viewed as “White.” Although post-Apartheid South Africa has been presented in the media as a post-racial society or “rainbow nation,” racial – especially, Black and White – tensions remain palpable. Being a foreigner and “White,” any Black commuter or taxi driver could find my presence offensive. Furthermore, the townships have a track record of (sexual) violence on women and lesbians. Corrective rape – the aim being to “set” lesbian women straight – is endemic in South Africa. Early in our relationship, Keo had drawn my attention to Black women who bind their chests as well as dress and carry themselves a specific way to “pass” as men. Her pointing this out to me was so that I would be cautious of the danger that I could potentially attract to myself and that she could bring upon me (Keo is not a “femme” lesbian) when we’d walk around Soweto together. The “inconveniences” linked with race, gender, and sexuality encouraged me to buy a car (1987 brown Toyota Corolla), which I used until 2012.
With “Mr Brown” (the Toyota), I’d drive to Wits alone during the day and return to Soweto at night with Keo. After living there for one year, I’d subsequently live in other parts of Joburg. Keo and I would go between my place and hers in Soweto.