“Poverty is no zoo” – thoughts on visiting a township in Cape Town
“How are you?” I ask our tour guide L., a Xhosa (South African tribe speaking the infamous click language. Listen to it here). “I’m happy. I have no reason not to be. I’m always happy,” he answers before he’s about to take my mom and I to Langa, Cape Town’s oldest township – sometimes falsely referred to as a ghetto. Townships are settlements of non-white people who worked in a white-only area during Apartheid. L. is adamant about townships not only being associated with poverty.
“Apartheid may be dead on paper…” but we all know it’s not in reality, I let my thoughts finish our guide’s words. As we drive towards Langa, he explains that the townships are still segregated into coloured and black parts; and the Chinese have their area too. With the exception of an albino pastor, I have not seen a person lighter than a rich chocolate brown on this whole tour, not even caramel – that’s how divided these places still are.
Walking through Langa, you will see BMW’s next to shacks out of corrugated metal, in which whole families live in one room with small kitchen facilities, a sleeping arrangement, and a TV. Even the tiniest shack will have a satellite dish outside. Electricity is available, running water and bathrooms are not. Stalls are outside. Numbered. Public. L. tells us about the pain especially women endure because of all the bacteria in these toilets with merely a bucket. I also haven’t seen handwashing stations with soap anywhere.
If you’re lucky, you get moved up the waiting list to live in a concrete housing block. If you have no job, you will have to illegally rent out your apartment in there (you’re not allowed to do that due to government restrictions) and make money to feed your family.
If you have a well-paying job, such as a lawyer or doctor, you can move into the so-called “Los Angeles” of Langa with beautiful, fenced but not locked houses, only separated from the shacks by a street. Why would these successful people stay in Langa? Because they want to give back to the community, L. explains. He tells us that he asked one of the wealthy families if kids from the streets can come inside to know what riches can look like when you study and work hard. He wants them to see the plasma TV as big as him that’s in the family’s house.
Ironically, L. views TVs as people’s enemy. He mentions that people rather buy and pay for a TV to entertain their kids instead of paying for food or further education with their monthly average income of 2,000 Rand (roughly $150).
Despite the many playgrounds in Langa we see more kids playing on the streets or close to their homes. Some of them come up and wrap their tiny little arms around our legs. “If you bend down, they will play with your hair,” L. says. “That’ll most likely be the first time they’ll have touched hair like yours.”
During Apartheid, people’s hair structure was one way to determine your race. If a pen went through your hair with no resistance, you were classified as white. If the pen struggled, you were considered coloured, and if it stuck in your hair, black. Blacks were given a dompas, literally a “dumb pass,” and whoever was caught without one was beaten and sent to jail for six months. No matter if you were male or female. L.’s grandmother had to endure this three times.
As we pass a church on this Sunday afternoon, I ask L. if we can check out the service. He brings us in. We are hugged and greeted by two ladies, one of them whispering something in our ear which ended with “Jesus.” While the pastor is still preaching loudly, everyone else’s eyes are on us as we are guided to sit in front, a camera filming us. That makes me uncomfortable – it’s not like we stick out enough already. After we sit down, I realize everyone is standing and getting back into their trance. People throw money into a small box by the podium. I try hard getting into the zone, taking in this moment, appreciating it for the experience. But being put on the spot in a church in a foreign country with only strangers is just not something I feel comfortable with… I’m also not a big fan of churches…
Five minutes later I find myself back outside. L. continues to tell us about his home: According to him, Langa is the safest of the townships because people here are a unity. They honor the great commandment of loving their neighbors, help and respect each other. “If I stole from you, I wouldn’t get far here,” L. claims. “Chances are, a person who knows me saw me and is going to report me to the police.” In other townships, that’s not the case. You can get shot and nobody cares – reminds me of LA.
Officially, Langa is governed by the legislators of Cape Town; however, L. tells us that elderly people are very much respected also.
The concept of “me-time” is foreign to him and Langa’s residents. “If I don’t see you for three days, I’ll come check on you.” They also believe that too much me-time drives people to commit suicide. Relying on one another, learning from each other’s mistakes, and helping people in need are core values in this township.
Despite the Langa’s unity, a few problems have surfaced: drugs like crack (“rock”), cocaine, and alcohol are on the rise. So is teenage pregnancy. About forty percent of Langa’s residents are unemployed. The ones that aren’t mostly run their (predominantly hair and car) shops unofficially.
Talking further about Apartheid, L. and I agree on most points; however, on one we exchanged arguments. He tells me that the only thing blacks in South Africa can do is to forgive. Ignore race and not give it any significance. He states this despite having been removed from tables that a group of white people wanted to sit on (long after Apartheid!). Despite the racially profiled treatment and prejudices that you get to sense while you’re in South Africa. I highly, highly admire him for that! Loving everyone and being grateful for the positive aspects of Apartheid is also important to L. “What are those?,” I ask because I never thought of Apartheid in a positive way. Infrastructure, for example, he notes. “And the colonizers stayed and didn’t just leave us with a system they opposed on us. Because the colonizers left other African countries, these are now poor, but South Africa is not,” L. theorizes. “All we can do is be patient,” L. says. Patient that the racial tensions just dissolve at some point in the future.
I wanted to agree with him, but because one of my life goals is decreasing racism and discrimination by inspiring people to travel and diving into other cultures, I want to be proactive rather than patient. I want to believe that my actions are making a difference while I’m on this earth: exposing myself and people of different cultures to one another – on my travels or at house parties I throw (I’ve been told they’re the most diverse people have ever been to) or at my International Board Games event, where my partner and I organized board games from all over the world for kids to play.
Surely, both L.’s and my approach have their pro’s and con’s and I don’t think either of them is right or wrong; however, the two of us agree that cultural dialogue is necessary to show people things that they’ve never seen, heard, or thought about before.
My mom’s friend didn’t see it like that. “Poverty is no zoo,” he told her. “I’m not going on a tour through one of these townships.” He had been raised in Germany and immigrated to South Africa a few years ago. Here’s where I disagree with him: Yes, poverty should not be a zoo; however, the townships are not only poverty – which you’ll only find out if you go. Townships are part of something bigger. A culture, a movement, families. They’re part of South Africa and its heritage and that’s why – to me – it’s important to include them as a kind of history lesson. Also, it provides an opportunity for deep conversations and meeting people who don’t live like you and supporting the youth by buying art. Furthermore, these tours may serve as a small step towards more cultural exchange, which is important to me so that people of different skin colors or cultures hopefully can see race just as what it is: A social construct and human divider to gain power.
Now, I’d love to know from you: Would you go on a tour to see a township? Have you been? If so, what are your thoughts on it?
This is NOT a sponsored post, but if you want to go on the same tour, you can check out www.siviwetours.com. Inbox me a request for our guide’s name and I will provide it to you.
I also went to Cape Town’s biggest township Khayelitcha with my friend Cojea and his Vakasha Tours. If you want to support this local entrepreneur as well, read about my experience here.
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