Coming of Age in Johannesburg’s Eldorado Park
THE FORMER TOWNSHIP STRUGGLES WITH DRUG CRIME. BUT FOR SPINNING SENSATION STACEY-LEE MAY IT’S HOME.
Pulling into the Eldorado Park Toyota dealership where she works, it's not uncommon for Lizel May to see twenty-somethings squatting on street corners, peeling off sweat-soaked clothing and moving erratically.
"Sometimes you're just driving around and you see how these kids are out of their minds," she says. "I'm not sure what they're using, but it's not just marijuana."
It's a scene far removed from the life of Lizel's daughter, Stacey-Lee May, one of South Africa’s most prominent spinners: A master of revving her car, burning rubber and performing acrobatic tricks in front of roaring crowds. Spinning has gone from illegal act to professional sport in South Africa.
Lizel and her husband both grew up in Johannesburg's Eldorado Park township and spent the last 15 years raising their family here. But just as Stacey has to outmaneuver disaster when she's spinning, she and her family have spent most of the past two decades dodging the social pitfalls of everyday life in Eldorado Park.
Located just southwest of Johannesburg, Eldos, as it's known to locals, is eclipsing neighboring Soweto as South Africa's most notorious, crime-ridden township.
"Every day we struggle, and we strive to make sure that Eldorado Park gets known for more than what's happening here," says Lizel.
Eldos is a municipality of Johannesburg that was once a "colored" township: Although the term, colored, is often debated in the post-apartheid era, it is still a commonly used classification in the country, when referring to individuals of mixed race.
South Africa's raft of apartheid laws once dictated that coloreds, blacks and whites couldn't live with one another, leading to the creation of townships like Eldos where colored families like Lizel's were split off from the rest of the population.
Segregation has had a lasting geographical impact. Today, over 85 percent of Eldos' 65,000 residents are colored, according to census data.
“Poverty is taking over … because the people are idle”
South Africa's white government once allotted more privileges to coloreds than blacks, allowing many to climb the social ladder within their caste. It's how Eldos quickly became a hub of white-owned textile factories under apartheid and a prime destination for middle-class coloreds, says Lorna Fisher, the founder of Persevere until Something Happens (PuSH), a community outreach center in Eldorado Park.
"We had quite the buzzing economy," she says. "Many years ago, you would never see a person during the day, you would never see young men and women loitering in the streets."
But things changed when democracy came to South Africa in 1994. Many social advancement programs were denied to coloreds, leading to widespread poverty and social discord within their communities.
In Eldos, the textile factories that were once the lifeblood of the township moved away, leaving seas of jobless youths with no other option but to turn to criminality or government aid to survive, says the community worker. Teen pregnancy, HIV rates, childhood poverty and drug addiction skyrocketed.
"Poverty is taking over and the social ills – the pregnancies, the violence, the substance abuse – all those things are taking over because the people are idle," says Fischer, who's lived in Eldorado Park for almost 50 years.
Lizel May's family hasn't been immune to those developments. Stacey’s uncle died tragically in a gang shooting, and the husband of a family friend – eight-months pregnant at the time – was recently shot dead.
"It’s gotten worse in the last couple of years," she says.
Even Stacey's school proved to be a microcosm of the greater issues at play in Eldos. Most kids were too busy jacking cars, doing drugs and drinking to focus on bettering themselves and their communities, according to her mother.
"I was bullied a lot," says Stacey. "People used to come beat me up, or tell me to do this and that, and I was afraid."
So Stacey's parents threw her into an array of extracurriculars – including spinning – to steer her away from Eldos' vicious circle of poverty and criminality.
Whipping her bubblegum-pink BMW 325i around to the roaring applause of a crowd is an "amazing feeling" that freed Stacey from insecurities borne of her circumstances.
"Now nobody can tell me what to do or how to do it," she says.
Stacey now spins in competitions from Swaziland to Botswana. But the May family plans to stay in Eldos and want to use Stacey's newfound fame to spark positive change.
"We always make the joke, my husband says when he wins the lotto he’s never going to move out of Eldos," says Lizel. "We want to try and help our community."