School was out, the sun was setting and the children of Kliptown were playing in its labyrinth of shacks and shanties. A girl popped into the doorway of a small community center and, in Zulu, made her request.
With a quick, practiced motion, Bob Nameng plucked something from behind him and reached out his hand: A toffee, wrapped in pink wax paper. The girl grabbed it, thanked him and ran back outside to play.
Ten minutes later, she returned with two friends.
As the song “Sunny,” by tenor saxophonist Houston Person, played in the background, Nameng explained how, 31 years ago, he founded Soweto Kliptown Youth, known around here as SKY, to help the young people in this shantytown. Their tools: arts, theater, games and a cache of candy.
“I’m trying to say to everybody — not only kids — to say that money is not what makes life. It’s life that makes money,” he said. Nameng, his dreadlocks gathered atop his head, stamped out his cigarette and opened up a book about Bob Marley. “I’m reading this book that captures what money’s doing and has done to us, separating us.”
On its tour of South Africa, the Minnesota Orchestra is playing grand halls, tapping into a classical music tradition rooted in its European past and largely white, affluent present. But part of what brought the orchestra to this country was its poverty.
When music director Osmo Vänskä conducted the South African National Youth Orchestra in 2014 — the experience that inspired this trip — he was struck by students playing on instruments and living in houses in poor condition.
“When I heard that there were some kids from those shacks there, which are not even a real house … it went very deep in my mind,” he said. “There is a need here.”
A quarter-century after the end of apartheid, South Africa still grapples with massive income and wealth gaps that fall along racial lines. One-tenth of the population controls more than 90 percent of the wealth, according to a 2016 Stellenbosch University study. More than a quarter is unemployed, a percentage that swells in townships like Soweto.
Nowhere is that poverty as visible as in Kliptown. On a recent evening, a woman, carrying an infant on her hip, hung laundry on rusted mattress coils. Houses, cobbled together with brick, tin and tarps, do not have toilets. Stinking water with a silvery sheen streams down the narrow dirt passageways.
That’s dangerous, said our guide, Lebohang Sello, pointing out the children playing nearby.
A former dancer, Sello has volunteered with SKY for decades. He also gives tours of Soweto, where he’s lived all his 42 years. In Kliptown, like the rest of the township, he focuses on its key role in the anti-apartheid movement. This neighborhood, the oldest residential district of Soweto, was where, in 1955, some 3,000 leaders — including the late President Nelson Mandela — gathered to form the Freedom Charter, outlining the movement’s aims.
Sello led us inside a brick tower in Walter Sisulu Square, where the charter’s 10 tenets are etched into stone. Among them: “The people shall share in the country’s wealth.”