When most people think of South Africa, they think of impoverished communities, desert, safaris, and African tribes. These are some of the first thoughts that come to my mind when I think of Africa. Most people are a little surprised (and probably disappointed) to hear that Cape Town is very westernized and that there aren’t lions and giraffes outside my window (but that would be pretty awesome though).
I pictured Cape Town to be a booming city center with these impoverished communities that surround it on all sides. Driving into Cape Town from the airport, I would say that my expectations were not far off. The highways were lined with communities of tin shacks that had no running water. You could see all the port-a-potties used as bathrooms for the entire community. And it was obvious that the ratio of bathrooms to people was very off.
This past week, I had the opportunity to go through a township called Langa with a local named Michael who was born, raised, and currently lives in this township. Langa is one of the oldest townships outside of Cape Town. (In case you don’t know the history, townships are communities that were created by the Nationalist Party who came to power in 1948 to create separate living spaces for black and colored people from the white population. Even after South Africa became a democracy 23 years ago, many people still live in these overcrowded and underprivileged communities.)
Some brief history of some things that happened during Apartheid
- Between 1950-1956 many Apartheid laws were passed – Population Registration Act, Group Areas Act, Mixed Marriages Act, Suppression of Communist Act, Bantu Education Act, Separation Amenities…and many more…
- Black and colored people had to carry a “Dom pass” (pronounced like dumb with a British accent). Police could ask for them at any time and these passes severely limited black and colored Africans
- 1976 there was a student uprising because the government made it a law that schools would have to teach in Afrikaans instead of English (there are over 12 official languages in South Africa and many more tribal languages)
The township was nothing like what I expected.
We started our visit by the Catholic church that was built when the township began. The church brought education to the community and provides a preschool and adult schooling that are still used today. It was also interesting to hear from our guide Michael how Africans often will attend a church and also adhere to traditional cultural customs. For example, at 18 or so, they have a whole ceremonial process where a boy becomes a man.
Next, we visited their sports fields. This was one of the first shocking moments to me. This township is actually a well established community and not just a bunch of tin shacks. They had a swimming pool (like what???) and four or five fields that are used on a regular basis. Michael told us sports have become an integral part of African township culture. It keeps the kids out of trouble and teaches them to work for a goal as a team. Sports even brought the nation together after Apartheid. Michael said one of the coolest experiences he has had since Apartheid ended was when South Africa was in the World Rubgy Championship. It did not matter what your skin color was, people came together all over South Africa to watch and support their home team.
This township even had cafes, a community center that holds little concerts, and pretty much everything a normal town would have. This was shocking to me. From the road, all you see are the tin shacks, and you don’t realize the whole community that does live there and how well established they really are. And surprisingly enough, at least it was to me, people choose to stay in the townships. That is their home and community. To them, they would rather be surrounded by the people they know and love than up and move out for a little more luxury.
We also got to visit one of the government built housings in the township. Originally these rooms, which could barely fit three wooden beds the size of a twin bed (probably smaller), held 9 people in three sets of bunk beds. I have no idea how people lived in these conditions. They had to be deplorable. And where would they have put their stuff? It was just amazing. Then, to make matter worse, there were 6 of these rooms (so 54 people) that shared a small common cooking space and a bathroom. ONE BATHROOM FOR 54 PEOPLE!
As we were walking around though, one of the more surprising things to me was that the townships were not all these tin shacks. There were more established concrete and brick houses. Actually, a lot of the houses were nicer than I thought they were going to be. There was even a “Beverly Hills” part of the township. Though, sadly enough, right across the road from these was the worst of the worst of the township with overcrowded tin shacks without running water. The sharp contrast in wealth just from which side of the street you live on was sad.
As out guide put it “we are making progress but you can’t expect everything to change overnight once Apartheid was abolished. People are still living with the same feelings and ways of life as if they were under Apartheid. It is going to take a few generations before we are truly a free South Africa.” He then used the example how many young black and colored people still don’t know how to swim even though they grew up after Apartheid. Certain ways of life and feelings are still engraved in their minds. It is going to take a long time to get to a truly free South Africa, but progress is being made slowly.
But I also had one of the happiest moments in this township too. While walking through the township, all of a sudden about 10 kids came out of nowhere running toward us. I had one little girl grab my arm and started hanging on it and jumping around. Then as giggles and laughs began to get louder, kids flooded from around the corners of buildings and from the houses. Then there were probably 50+ African kids running around a group of 18 American students. I had four kids hanging off of me and climbing me like I was a piece of playground equipment. But I don’t know that I have ever felt so much pure joy and happiness in my life. These kids had so much joy and didn’t even know who we were or what we were doing but they just wanted to play with us. They have no idea how sad their living, economic, and social situation is but ignorance is bliss.
This was definitely one of the most eye opening experiences of my life. The fact that people actually made legislation to discrimination against a group of people. Like how does anyone think that is ok? The conditions these people were living in even post-Apartheid. Something about these communities has a special place in my heart. Walking through Langa, I really could see myself in the future living in one of these townships doing who knows what, but immersing myself into their culture and way of life.
*I really wish I had better wifi and could upload more pictures but I will be posting some on facebook when I get the chance. so stay tuned…