"How are things in South Africa?"
As a journalist who has lived there off and on for more than 10 years, I get asked that question a lot. My answer can go either way: I can be bullish as I envision the office towers rising in the business districts, the new city buses that are clean and safe, the success of the World Cup and the collective celebration of Mandela's life. Or, I can disparage the endless sprawl of shacks, the crime, the lack of trained teachers and the seemingly intractable unemployment.
But there are less tangible measures to chart the country's progress. Stories that can't be plotted on a graph, that are not linear and unfold slowly.
In 2004, I began photographing several families in Khayelitsha, Cape Town's largest township. More than one million residents there live in dense rows of shacks and, increasingly, brick houses. Momtolo and her family are among them. When I met her 10 years ago she was working as a house keeper earning $10 a day.
I visited her neighborhood regularly in 2004. Every week I brought back a stack of pictures and we would walk through the neighborhood passing them out and making new photographs. She translated for me, introduced me to everyone, and pointed out details I missed. In another life, she would have made a great journalist.
This year I went back with a stack of pictures to find everyone and to to see what, if anything, has changed.
From the freeway, the sprawl of tin shacks and the columns of paraffin smoke looked familiar. But new taxis and cars clogged the streets. There was a shopping mall. Momtolo was living in a government-built brick house. But these weren't the biggest changes. It was in the small details of their lives that I noticed a shift in attitudes, a sense of opportunity and certainty. For the first time in 10 years, Momtolo had bought herself a new dress.