The Earth Summit is Johannesburg is being held at a convention center in the city's wealthy Sandton area. Just three kilometers away is the impoverished township of Alexandra, known locally at Alex. Summit delegates are visiting the township on tour buses. But as VOA's Challiss McDonough reports they get only a glimpse of the hard life in South Africa's most notorious township.
Alexandra is considered one of the worst slums in South Africa. Parts of the crowded settlement have recently been given a facelift by the government, but most of the residents still live in shacks or other informal dwellings.
A visitor to Alexandra could be forgiven for wondering why anyone would want to live here. Beauty Bodumele moved to Alex two years ago from her rural village, in search of work.
"Why did I come here? The reason I have been coming is there's no job there. Then I come here to seek a job," she explains.
Life in Alex is hard. Ms. Bodumele and her two-year-old son live in a single room, with no toilet or running water. Like most residents of Alex, they pay no rent, and they share a communal water tap and toilet with about 20 neighbors.
The township is notorious for violent crime. Ms. Bodumele does not go outside after about nine o'clock at night. She says it is not safe.
But still, she prefers to stay here rather than return to her home village near the town of Mafikeng, in rural North West Province.
REPORTER: How is it living in Alex compared to Mafikeng?
BODUMELE: Life at Alexandra is corrupt compared with Mafekeng. Mafikeng is cool and bright.
REPORTER: Do you miss it? Do you feel like going home?
BODUMELE: Yeah, but I cannot, because at least at Alexandra life is better.
REPORTER: How is it better?
BODUMELE: You can do selling food and whatever to get an income.
REPORTER: And in Mafikeng there's nothing?
BODUMELE: There is nothing, because there it is a village.
That, experts say, is exactly why most people move to cities, and why according to U.N. statistics, Africa is urbanizing faster than any other part of the world.
U.N. officials in Johannesburg for the summit call Alex a case study for many of the principles they are discussing in the Sandton Convention Center - poverty alleviation, housing, water and sanitation.
A number of high-level delegates have taken bus tours to the township to see what the government is doing to try to improve conditions for the residents. They see neat rows of newly-built houses, new schools, and new apartment buildings.
They also see the old Alex, the one the government is trying to replace. But few of them venture far into the maze of shacks and tumbledown buildings. When they do get off the bus, they walk around in areas ringed with police and volunteer security guards.
Beauty Bodumele is one of those volunteers. She is trying to help both her resume and her neighborhood.
"Like for example, yes you are a volunteer, we are not getting any money, but at least we are helping our community," she says.
Ms. Bodumele has time to volunteer because she has not found the job she came to Alex looking for. Roughly 60 percent of residents here are unemployed.
Ms. Bodumele is, however, studying finance at a local junior college and hopes to graduate next year. In the meantime, she sells fruits, vegetables and potato chips by the side of the road to earn enough money to feed her son.
Like many residents of Alex, she hopes the visiting delegates will bring something more than curiosity to the township.
"I am very happy because maybe they will come up with something to develop our Alexandra and create a job," she says.
To develop Alex, the government is working with a group of local residents who call themselves the Alexandra Renewal Project. Project member Zakhele Lengoati hopes the delegates who visit Alex will leave with ideas about how to make it a better place to live.
"We definitely think this is an opportunity for Alexandra to get what it always has not been getting," she says. "Basically, for them to come here and see Alex the way it is, it will help Alex to change in the future. And maybe our kids will not grow up in such an environment, they will grow in a better environment - an environment like Randburg, like Sandton, and it will make Alexandra a beautiful place."
Some residents of Alex benefit much more directly from the visiting delegates. The tour buses that stop by Nelson Mandela's old home, where Beauty Bodumele stands guard, go first to a temporary marketplace where Alex residents are selling their handicrafts.
In one stall, surrounded by colorful Zulu beadwork that she makes with her cousin, Gugu Zungu says the people of Alex are trying to make the best of their situation.
"In Zulu there is a slogan, that's vuka uzenzele. In English, wake up and do it yourself. So that is what we are doing here," she explains. " You don't have to sit down and tell the people come and help me. Because God gave us hands and brains and eyes. So you must use these things to develop yourself. At the end of the day you won't blame anyone. But if people don't come and buy our things, aish!"
Mrs. Zungu hopes visiting delegates will buy her traditional Zulu hats, belts and necklaces. But she is also thinking long-term; she asks an American reporter to take pictures of her goods back to America, hoping someone will want to import them.
Only a handful of craftspeople like Mrs. Zungu and community volunteers like Ms. Bodumele are working directly with the summit. Other residents of Alex are actually suffering because of the massive U.N.-sponsored event. Hawkers who normally sell their goods on the streets of nearby Sandton have been chased away by the police until the summit ends.