From the moment we arrived at Spier Vineyard in Cape Town I was hyper-aware and very sensitive to the race and class divisions that are so glaringly and uncomfortably prevalent all around. I was humbled and incredibly excited to be able to travel to South Africa at all. I wanted to see and experience every remarkable thing and, from a typical tourist’s view, I did exactly that…only to return to Spier in the evenings and take note of the service staff at the end of each day who would hitch-hike for rides to their township homes. All the while during my time out on Safari, on bus tours, and being driven from one breath-taking place to another, I knew I wanted to visit a township. I couldn’t feel or properly grasp where I was until I’d put myself where over half the population of all South Africans live. I had seen the townships from the car windows. Metal topped shanty shacks sprawling for as far as the eye could see, existing right outside of what I can only describe as the immense wealth of inner Cape Town when compared.
Township Tours are readily available and advertised as full day tourist group activities. The more I read the descriptions, the more wrong it felt to me. It felt like I would be gawking at the hardships of others with a group of people where none of us could ever know what true hardship is. Gawking was the last thing I wanted for anyone to feel I was doing – the idea of making another person feel on display made me cringe inside. I thought, maybe this wasn’t something I should be doing at all. What right did I have to take a “tour” through someone else’s impoverished life, snap a bunch of photos and then return to my own comfortable white life?
Racism is not on a piece of paper. Just because we vote it out, doesn’t mean that people stop being racist.
~South African Musician featured in Anthony Bourdain, Parts Unknown: South Africa
Then came Arthur. Arthur was our taxi driver for our last few days in Cape Town. He became our willing tour guide, showing us places that no one else had and befriending us. He drove us to safari, and while he ate lunch with us (something no other taxi driver would do, even though I asked) he told me about his life in Cape Town. Originally from Zimbabwe, he came to Cape Town hoping for better opportunities for making money, but has found it to be very hard. He’s applied for a visa to come work in the U.S., but has been turned down. Now he has a wife and a new baby boy to think of, and only a year left before his working visa for South Africa expires. Arthur was very open and genuine with us in describing his life. His honesty and openness about living in a township himself gave me the courage to tell him how conflicted I was feeling. He asked why I felt that way, and I explained my thought process to him. He insisted it was not insulting for me to want to know about the world around me. He offered to arrange something for us outside of the regular group tours, but I was still unsure. By the end of that day, even though I still felt deeply conflicted, we gave Arthur the go-ahead, and he graciously arranged our visit to Cape Town’s oldest township: Langa.
Arthur pulled into the entrance and parked us right outside the community center which houses a new theatre built by volunteers, a pottery workshop, a music room and an art gallery. The community center is where they put on performances and teach pottery workshops and music classes.
As we walked under the burning sun and the stifling South African heat we were guided down the street past small businesses operated from tiny shacks to an open door in a row of beige wooden shipping containers, just off the small paved main street. Our guide, Antonio, leaned politely in and spoke in Xhosa to the woman inside. I didn’t understand his words, but I put together that he was asking her permission for us to look into her home. Antonio waved us forward to introduce us. Feeling sheepish, I only came forward enough meet her eyes and say hello to her as she sat on her bed. He explained that half of this divided shipping container was home to her and her 5 children, the smallest of which lay on the bed in front of her for a nap. Antonio gestured for me to come closer and have a full look inside. As I shrank back from his invitation he assured me that we wouldn’t be there if it weren’t ok – that he’d never invite me where I wasn’t welcome. I bowed my head and peaked quickly inside. She threw me a peaceful and welcoming smile as she sat there with her hand on her son’s forehead while he slept.
Electrical wires were draped from container to container to provide them with power. There was only room for her bed, a small refrigerator, what looked like a Bunsen burner for cooking, and a small side table with a TV. The faucets for running water and the toilets were elsewhere. The toilets are non-flushing and are only sometimes attended to once a week. Many are forced to use the polluted river that runs behind the township. At night, while she and her smallest child sleep on the bed, her 4 other children sleep on the cramped floor space no more than 4 and a half feet wide. She is on the wait-list for government housing, a wait that will last 15 hot and cramped years. Her demeanor in the face of this seemed accepting and patient, at least in that moment. I remarked to Antonio that 15 years is such a long time to wait to which he replied, “Yes yes, it’s a long time, but it will happen.”
We continued walking between the rows of donated shipping-container homes, past other families with open doors and windows, and down the dirt pathways into the depths of the poorest part of the township. I was slapped in the face with the eye opening reality of what sits just behind Cape Town’s thin veil of white-washed tourism. Reading the history of Apartheid in a book or watching the documentaries about it on television in no way prepared me for standing right in the middle of its far reaching and blatant effects. Apartheid ended 20 years ago, except that in so many ways it didn’t. Not really. To undo it seems like an unattainable goal at best.
Antonio explained that even within the townships themselves there are upper (which they call “the Beverly Hills of the Township”), middle, and lower class dwellings. Upper class houses are owned by occupants who have higher paying jobs and can afford to live outside the township, but choose to remain near their friends and families. Middle class housing consists of hostels that have been converted into duplexes which are then rented by clerks, nurses, etc who make a decent living, but not enough to leave the township. Lower class housing is made up of predominately shanty shacks built from wood, plastic and metal, which tend to leak in the rain and catch fire easily.
Top left: Langa residents ask to have their photo taken. Top right: Arthur, our tour guide and friend. Bottom left: Left over maze after the brewing process. Bottom middle: Boarded up shack. Bottom right: One of several pieces of wall art throughout Langa.
I found a sense of comfort in their sense of community as we passed the tiny makeshift pubs made of plastic and cardboard where they brew their own beer (called mqombothi) from maze. Every sense of comfort I felt was consistently met with a sense of guilt about not being more acutely aware of the world I exist in. I felt small in the face of its bigness. Small in the face of so much unfamiliar. It brought me to tears, which I instantly hid from view. I only took a few photos, only one of which included the people of the township, and I took that one because they asked me to. Taking too many photos was a boundary I felt I shouldn’t overstep.
As we made our way through the winding paths where laundry was strung across the roofs and water puddled on the ground under the public faucets, Antonio asked me why I came to see the township. I told him it was because I needed to see how the real South Africa lives. He told me it was the right reason to come.
As we walked along to see the hostels, Antonio said something to me that I will not soon forget. He looked at my phone with its fancy camera lens, and in his thick accent he explained that I could feel confident and protected in Langa. He explained that if someone were to steal my phone or bother me in any way, they would be chased, mobbed and possibly even beaten to death. He said that in Langa, they took the law into their own hands. He meant, in his own way, to make me feel safe. Instead I felt terrified at the prospect of someone being beaten to death on my behalf. He explained further that if arrested at all, a thief or a rapist might spend a month or two in jail only to be released and commit these crimes again. Rather than take that chance, certain members of the community take it upon themselves to enforce the law in their own way.
The townships have a sense of community in so many ways, but they also have drug issues, gang violence, taxi wars, and they’re forced to have to work against government corruption and not enough police presence. Some will say they feel forgotten and that things were better under white rulership. Some will say the politicians within the African National Congress (the ruling political party of South Africa) spend so much time fighting that nothing gets done. Meanwhile, within the townships there is fighting between its colored and black occupants as to who deserves what from the government first.
South Africa, Langa and Arthur’s gentle patience with my persistent questions have given me a sense of awakening that I can’t compare to any other experience. Our visit to Langa and our stay in Cape Town have left me in a state of deep, penetrating thought and a visceral need to become much more seriously involved both in my own community and abroad whenever and where ever I go. I will, from now on, commit to feeling and experiencing what’s around me no matter where I am. Next year when we’re in Cape Town again, I will plan ahead and volunteer my time to whatever community project needs me the most in the townships. From now until then and beyond, I will actively volunteer my time here in my own community.
If I leave you with anything at all, I leave you with two bits of advice:
ONE: In the short term, if you don’t know what Apartheid is, who Nelson Mandela was and how the effects of Apartheid coupled with government corruption are still affecting South Africa today – I implore you to embrace any opportunity to educate yourself on it. Start by watching “Anthony Bourdain, Parts Unknown: South Africa”.
TWO: Travel. Go and see the world. I believe whole heartedly there is no other way than to actually experience being somewhere.
We’ve made a friend in Arthur; a connection that will stay with us. I will never forget you, South Africa. Ever.