My curiosity continues to pull me beyond the cozy boundaries of our V&A Waterfront condo. This time I want to visit a township. The term ‘township’ refers to the planned peripheral communities around South African cities like Jo’burg and Cape Town where “non-white” race groups (aka blacks, Indians and “coloureds”) were forced to live during apartheid and often continue to live today, some by choice, some by necessity. Townships continue to be a very real part of life in South Africa and the term is no longer used in a pejoratively. Indeed, approach Cape Town by car from any direction and you pass the townships. You can’t miss them.
Each township has its own personality, occupied by members of specific tribal groups. Some are safer, some offer better opportunities, some are richer, some are poorer. As we approach one of the less savoury townships a sign warns us about the high risk of “smash and grabs” here: instances when a car is stopped for a street light and thieves may smash your car window to rob you. Vigilance is key!
The history of townships is steeped in apartheid. In 1948, when the apartheid administration began, South African cities adopted strict zoning principles with respect to their culturally diverse populations. City centres were reserved for “white’s only” housing while the “non-whites” were relocated to peripheral township centres. These communities consisted of rows of identical “matchbox houses” laid out in strict grids and surrounded by a metal fence. There were generally only two or three points of entry to a township and, in some cases, large floodlights kept them bright throughout the night, apparently for better control and management purposes.
Township communities were often underdeveloped and lacked proper infrastructures like sewage, roads, electricity and clean water. Over time, informal settlements sprung up within and around the townships built by those too poor to afford even a government home. Those living in government houses would often rent out their backyards to someone who would then construct a shack for themselves. These settlements spread to become, what are today, essentially shantytowns (“les bidonvilles” in French) scraped together with found materials. Although governments will argue that they are illegal, many residents have lived in these informal communities for over 15 years. In addition, in some cases the governments have made electricity, water and portable toilets accessible indirectly conferring a level of approval whether they meant to or not.
Langa Township is the oldest and largest of the Cape Town Townships. Consisting largely of members of the Xhosa tribe, Langa was the seat of black resistance during apartheid, as well as the site of a number of protests and riots during that time. There was a time when it would have been impossible for a white person to walk safely through any of the townships. Today, however, there are a few entrepreneurs who recognize how curious travellers to South Africa are about life in the townships and have, therefore, set up up businesses to make these visits possible. After some research I opted to visit Langa with a young entrepreneur named Siviwe, who created his own tour company in partnership a South African business man. This young black man and his older (but not old!) white business partner, Garth, ignored the concerns of many of their friends and family to work together and formed the tour company Vamos. Vamos complements Garth’s tour company Footsteps to Freedom which offers a number of fascinating walks around Cape Town.
Together, the mission of each company is to provide travellers with interesting and unique experiences around Cape Town and within the Langa township (Langa Experience with Siviwe). Although I only spoke with Garth on the phone, Siviwe has an energy, passion and a depth of knowledge about township life that can only come from being raised in one. In conjunction with Vamos, Siviwe also started a non-profit organization for children in Langa called “Happy Feet”. He supports this cause both through Vamos and through the donations of visitors (watch Siviwe explain his mission – Siviwe and Happy Feet ). Siviwe and his contemporaries are adamant about building businesses that will support and benefit the townships they come from.
Wandering through Langa with Siviwe is like walking around your own neighbourhood with a friend. Since he grew up and still lives here he knows lots of people, as well as the various neighbourhoods, intimately. Through him I begin to understand the social structure of Langa and why many people now choose to live here even when they have other options: there’s a strong sense of community. Yes there are still huge challenges within all the townships: lack of proper housing for a large portion of the population (including heat, water and electricity), drugs, gangs and more, yet for all that’s bad about the township, there’s a sense of belonging that people like. In fact, over the 22 years since apartheid was abolished many blacks that have become quite wealthy have chosen to stay in Langa and simply renovate or build themselves new houses here. I walked through each of wealthy, middle class and poor neighbourhoods during my four-hour visit.
The poorest of the neighbourhoods in Langa is called ‘Joe Slovo’. It is one of the largest informal settlements (aka ‘shantytowns’) in South Africa, comprised of dirt laneways, shacks built from an assortment of found materials and only the most rudimentary of public service, some of which (like electricity) are secured without government permission..
It was particularly interesting to visit one of the four local female brew masters in her shack . Beer is brewed in tin buckets over a 3-4 day period. Men pay for and share the beer among themselves throwing in whatever they can afford to help pay for it. One bucket of beer costs about 30 Rand (1.50 Euros). The smell of malt is strong in the dirt floor shack as the men sit waiting for their brew to be ready.
This is the free market system at work and there are many other similar small enterprises throughout this informal settlement. It is, in fact, one of the only ways that these people are able to make a living. Many of them are older and never learned to read or write during the apartheid years. Although their businesses are essentially illegal they seem to be tolerated for the most part by local authorities – at least for the moment.
We also visited a local church, again built from found materials. There are a number of such churches within the township.
Siviwe explains that, although these churches are essentially Christian based, their success is due to the fact that the priests have folded many of the traditional Xhosa tribal beliefs into the rites and practices. He adds that, during apartheid, these churches were about the only places the black people could go to discuss politics and to plan resistance demonstrations.
Since shortly after the fall of apartheid the Cape Town government has been trying to eliminate informal settlements like Joe Slovo. Under a project called the “Gateway Housing Project”, the government has been working to relocate residents so it can remove and upgrade the Joe Slovo neighbourhood. The residents of the area strongly oppose this project, in large part, it seems, due to fear of what this “new and improved” housing will cost them. With so many members of this community already having little or no income their reluctance to move is perhaps understandable. And so Joe Slovo lives on….at least for the moment. (To read all about this fascinating battle click here: All about Joe Slovo community).
My visit to Langa finishes with a “braai” or BBQ at the popular restaurant Mzoli’s in the Gugulethu township.
Mzoli’s started as a butchery in 2003. Since then it has become one of the most popular hangouts for Cape Town visitors and locals alike – including the rich and famous. There’s a newspaper article hanging in the shop that shows Jamie Oliver visiting Mzoli’s for some braai when he was in town. Our mix of lamb, pork and beef is delicious. If you want utensils though….bring your own! Mzoli’s is half restaurant/half DIY picnic! The bbq sauce is amazing, but unfortunately it’s a secret recipe that Mzoli refuses to market on a mass level! It’s a delicious ending to a fascinating experience. My head and my stomach are full to the brim when Siviwe drops me off back at the Waterfront. I can’t believe how fortunate I was to meet this amazing young man and his company! I’d highly recommend looking him up at Vamos Tours if you ever make it to Cape Town.