South Africa · South Africa travel · Travel

The other side of Cape Town

I wrote about this back in June, but I’ve decided to put up a more detailed post. As I said before, Cape Town was really spectacular and it’s my favorite city, hands down. Its beauty is tempered by the fact that, just like other cities in South Africa, it has a significant amount of poor and working-class people who live in townships outside its city center. One of these townships, Khayelitsha, is even believed to have a million residents and is considered the largest township in the country (Soweto is a collection of townships so it doesn’t count). The townships are literally an entirely different world from the city proper that’s just 15 minutes’ drive away. And yes, I know that’s probably become such a cliche when talking about SA but it is true.

I did a township tour that started with a visit to the District 6 Musuem, that’s profiled in an earlier post. After getting a sense of how insidious apartheid was during its time, we were taken to the physical manifestation of the apartheid policies in the present- the townships. Driving into Langa, the oldest in Cape Town, it didn’t seem that bad at first. There were a lot of modest one-story brick and concrete houses on decent paved streets. The more we saw and the longer we spent there, the less “idyllic” things seemed. There were a lot of small shops and stalls selling things like vegetables, snacks and drinks, call centers (for people who don’t have phones) and even barber stalls. There weren’t any formal businesses such as supermarkets or restaurants. Eventually we saw a lot of shacks, made of wood or galvanize, as well and wooden outhouses.

At some parts, there were wooden shacks built in the backyards of regular brick and concrete homes, suggesting either more people coming in from elsewhere or a problem with the homes. It wasn’t that the townships were giant slums with overflowing gutters and garbage everywhere, like what you’d see in parts of Nairobi or Mumbai or along the Beetham (Trinidad),  but there was a sense of sterility that accentuated the people’s poverty. Originally residents had been forced into these areas in the past and I’d think that for the previous government, these areas warranted not much beyond basic infrastructure. You also need to remember that people didn’t come here by their own free will originally, they were forced to come here.

Some regular houses, left, and an apartment block by one of our stops. Both are in Langa, a black township.

The unemployment rate is high in the townships, above 40% for adults according to Thabani, our affable guide. But he also stressed that contrary to the perception that many of these unemployed people weren’t looking for jobs, a lot of these people couldn’t get jobs because of a lack of education. Under the Bantu education given to blacks during apartheid, subjects like maths and science weren’t really taught, in order to keep them uneducated and to train for manual work as opposed to the medical or engineering fields. Thabani wasn’t shy about telling us about apartheid and its effects such as his defense of jobless township residents above. Though he was a funny, talkative guy , this tour wasn’t about laughs and kicks as he gave a continuous, stirring commentary on apartheid, the townships and the nation that included an optimistic view of where the country and its government was heading.

Of course, the tour wasn’t just a running commentary on the nation’s ills, but consisted of several actual stops. In Langa, we visited an arts centre, a kindergarten, a “hostel” (but not for backpackers), and an apartment. Then Thabani drove to Gugulethu township, another black township, and stopped at two memorials of people killed by opposite sides of the race divide, the first was for 7 young ANC activists who were ambushed and killed by police, and the second paid tribute to an America grad student who was killed by black radicals.

While Langa, Gugulethu and Khayelitsha are black townships, we also drove through a colored township. This was another aspect of government policy during apartheid where blacks and coloreds not only had to live in townships, but were forced into separate ones. Nowadays, people can move around freely, but the majority of people in each township are still of the original ethnicity.

A “hostel,” left, and the van we came in, with a partial view of Table Mountain, in Langa.


Another of our stops was a kindergarten, which was surrounded by a wire fence topped with razor wire. Outside the kindergarten, a little guy ran up to me and made me take his picture. For some reason he didn’t attend the school.

Inside the kindergarten, a group of kids sang, then these two did some dancing whilst the others continued to sing. On the right, this was one of the better houses in the township.

The decent houses soon gave way to shanties and shacks like these. At right, a shack sells bags of oranges, one of many little stores.

It’s easy for some to see these kind of tours as a bit of poverty “porn,” making a spectacle of poverty and hardship. There is a little element of that, but I think a big part of these township visits is getting an indepth look and understanding of something that’s a major part of the society. Besides the fact that these tours contribute something financially to the communities, these tours let tourists and visitors pick up some social awareness as well. I’ve seen poverty close-up before, both in Trinidad and Toronto, but the visit to the Cape Town townships was unique and troubling.

Even in a sprawling collection of township houses and wooden shacks, Table Mountain looms splendidly.

Some more wooden shacks, left, and recently-built government-subsidized houses, right.

This is part of Khayelitsha, the largest township in Cape Town and probably, all of South Africa. In the right-hand side photo, a line of portable toilets are clearly seen, for the use of residents of the shacks, I’d think.

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