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I Will Not Grow Old Here: A Girl from Alex

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This story starts with a number: 70%. That's how many young people in South Africa are unemployed. Youth hustle and hope to find success, but how do you make it in a place like Alexandra township in Johannesburg? And how do you get out? In this three-part series, 23-year-old Mary-Ann Nobele brings listeners into her life in Alex and shows us why she's made this promise to herself: I will not grow old here.

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Mary-Ann (scene): OK, so today is the 5th of May 2022. It’s actually my little sister’s birthday. And I want you to come with me. So there’s this little gem I want to show you. It literally has one of the best views. It’s a bit of a walk but it’s totally worth it.

I’m fine thanks!

Jeez, I’m just very warm for the outside weather. I didn’t realise how cold our house is until now that I’m outside and I’m kind of burning in this hoodie that I’m wearing.

Hi… Hello!

This is it, my friend. This evergreen cricket oval.

Hi. Can I sit there?

Man: Yeah you can.

Mary-Ann (scene): Thank you.

So you see the in the background, those big skyscrapers, that’s Sandton. A suburb of Johannesburg. It’s also a financial centre for the whole of South Africa. It’s the kind of place where you see people driving with the top down on the way to like a pool party on a Wednesday afternoon. Exactly. You’re going to work, they’re going to pool parties, because it’s different. So Sandton is actually the richest square mile in the whole of Africa, not just South Africa, but this whole big continent. I know, right? Such a flex. Of course. It’s mostly white. Don’t know if it’s ever going to change.

But I want you to look at this. Right in front of us. You see those shacks built from scrap metal and piled on top of each other? Well, that’s Alexandra, one of the oldest and first black townships in South Africa.  Many people in Alex work in Sandton. The cleaners, the nurses, the gardeners. You know, they kind of keep Sandton running. That’s just part of the legacy of Apartheid, really. Our struggles are endless here. Sometimes I have to sit in my bedroom and just pray not to hear gunshots. And if I do hear gunshots, I have to pray harder that it’s not someone I know.

When I look around at Alex, it reminds me of a line from a poem by Wally Serote, “Alexandra, I would have long gone from you.”

Mary-Ann (narration): I’m Mary-Ann Nobele. I’m 23 years old. I was born in Alex. I grew up here too. And, it’s true. I want out.

I think it’s cool Nelson Mandela lived in Alex when he was my age. And, you know, there’s also the art and poetry and politics Alex is known for. And, the music – like this amapiano music. It was born here. You hear it everywhere.

I love all of these things. But please. There’s a reason why Alex is called Gomorrah. From Sodom and Gomorrah. You know, the place from the Bible?

So, yes. I will not grow old here. No ways. But, right now I’m stuck. In limbo. Uncertain. Uncertain about how or even when I’ll be able to leave.

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