Experiencing the townships

This is yet another must when you visit South Africa: a visit to the Townships. The total population of Cape Town is about 5 mllion people, 1,2 million of which live in a township. Only blacks and coloured live there. During the apartheid’s regime people were classified in Whites (of pure european descendence), Blacks (original inhabitants of SA) and Coloured (moslims, hindous, etc. bascially anyone who doesn’t belong to the first two groups). Certain townships like Langa (about 10.000 inhabitants) are almost exclusively black, others are mixed blacks and coloured. The townships were set up as housing for the slaves and the poor. Blacks and coloured were actually taken away from the city and placed in a township. Certain neighbourhoods like District Six, were completly destroyed and all the residents were taken into a township. Nowadays the townships have decvelopped in such a way that they have become independent micro economies. Businesses are set up, houses are being built, and they all pay no taxes. Event hought most of the businesses are “illegal”, they are not shut down by government agents and that has helped the inhabitants to start building up their lives in a rather unconventional way.

Once we entered a township, I had a very uneasy feeling: there you are, a “rich” tourist, touring to take a look at the people’s poverty and misfortune. It’s a terrible feeling. But thankfully, that feeling soon washes away as you hear the stories of our driver/guide who is himself an inhabitant of Langa. What on the outside looks like little hut which ready to fall down is on the inside a small space with everything you might need: fridge, microwave, TV, DVD-players, etc. People are benefitting from the no-tax policy top improve their lives without caring much about the outside. “Real” houses are being built, complete with garages and gardens, and you see fancy cars parked here and there. That is certainly not the image I had in mind. The people who start to make some money and become able to build bettering housing for themselves, don’t leave the township. They stay and coutinue building theri lives there. Even our guide, Lumubo, said he would never leave Langa. He’s always lived there, and for ever will.

Another interesting aspect of the development is the tourist oriented businesses. It all started with Vicky’s Bed & Breakfast. That was the first to open, and others followed. And our highlight of the visit was the little school behind Vicky’s B$B. When we decided to do this tour, I imagined myself with little children laughing and singing. And that did happen, except the singing part Smile It was a three room school with children up to 4 or 5 years. They were sooooooo cute!!!! I think they were fascinated by out “whiteness” because they couldn’t stop touching us and rubbing our skin, hihi!! It was so nice! Unfortunately, it wasn’t long enough. We could have spent the whole day there!

On the way to the B&B we had made a stop at a medicine man, the local doctor who makes his own potions and medicine from plants and animals. Amond all the dead animals and dried plants we saw a bunch of condoms. When we asked him why does he have this, he said “this discease, we no cure for, so I always say Protection”. That was great to hear because AIDS is a very big problem in SA and worse than that it’s a taboo.

Next to the “success” stories you have the not so bright side of the story: the squatters. These are people who built small hut out of anything they can find, cardboard, glass, metal plates, practically anything. And they built them anywhere. This where the poorest people live. But according to Lumubo, things keep getting better, many of the squatters’ hut are being replaced with housing built by the government, work opportunities are being created. Though the biggest problem is education. To our big surprise, education in townships in not free. People have to pay to send their children to school, even to public schools. As some people, mainly the squatters, don’t have enough money to send their children to schools, it becomes harder for them to find the better jobs and start to move into better houses.

There’s a lot still to be done, but the most important thing is that things ARE being done. And our fascination never stops!