To the Western eye, the Langa township near Cape Town is visually shocking, with tiny tin shacks housing large families, rows of communal toilets with no running water, (the buckets are picked up daily, most of the time), people everywhere. Langa’s population is about 60,000 people in just over a square mile.
The townships have an undeserved reputation of violence, poverty, and despair. Despite the chaos, Langa has a strong sense of community, one that I have rarely seen, the kind of community that America has lost, (a third of Americans know none of their neighbors).
During Apartheid the people of Langa had to rely on each other to survive the racist government and because of this, neighbors looks out for neighbors, adults look after all the kids on the ‘street’. As a community, against a history of repression and violence, the people of Langa have come out on the other side of Apartheid, a little dazed, hungry for change and incredibly un-bitter from the decades of repression.
We booked a tour with one of the few tour groups based in the township of Langa, where the tour profits go back into the community. We were with our friends, Jamie, Lucy and their three children, Hamish 9, Talia 11 and Holly 13. We met our guide Richard ,and piled in the mini van. He gave us a history of the townships and his own personal history growing up there. He said people always ask him what is it like to grow up and live in the townships. “When it is all you know, it’s hard to explain how you live; you have to see it and experience it.” I knew the only way to understand the township was to see it for myself. Plus the townships were said to be dangerous, forbidden territory, (which is clearly our favorite kind). Off we went.
Our first stop was a communal living building. A two-story brick building beside other identical buildings on a dirt road with clothes hanging in the courtyard above random debris on the ground. We walked in the open door to the communal kitchen area; small dingy, two tables, some plastic chairs, a hot plate, a sink.People wandered in and out: a woman was boiling water on the hot plate, a man strolled in and sat down, his shirt riding well above his large exposed belly. We all said hello, he said ‘hi’ back, and looked amused or maybe annoyed; I couldn’t tell. He watched us look around; I could not have felt any more uncomfortable and we could not looked anymore out of place.
Richard takes his tours into people’s actual houses, but explains to the residents that we are not here to see what you don’t have but to understand how you live, how we are interested in your neighborhood: your community. It was true, but you couldn’t help thinking, “Could I live like this?”… And the answer came quickly, NO.
Richard looked around and said “let’s go check out one of the bedrooms.” We walked through an open doorway into a small room about 10 x 10 ft. With two concrete slabs for beds modified into bunk beds, this tiny space could apparently house a family of four. There were bags and boxes filled with personal property squirreled away in corners, under handmade shelves. It was intense, to walk into someone’s private space; there is nothing more intimate than to see how people live.
The doors have no locks, personal items are out in the open, people are constantly in and out. But there is less crime than you think; everyone knows each other, there is not much to steal, there are no gangs. Langa is basically self-policed.
It was Sunday and we stopped at a church service that apparently ran all morning. The service was being held in a large warehouse style church; new construction with a tin roof. Not only was the main hall full but also the adjacent buildings and rooms attached were packed, everyone watching the service on closed circuit TV. There were hundreds of people attending; standing room only. The community was out in force.
There were four singers on the stage belting out gospel, accompanied by a band: drums, electric and bass guitars. They were rocking some power gospel and everyone was on their feet. Mothers with babies on their hips, dancing and singing.
Outside in the dirt lot around the buildings they were setting up tables for a craft and bake sale, Sunday School was getting ready to start. Church is apparently an all-day, big affair on Sundays in the townships.
We next drove through the township, by the dilapidated train station and down the ‘high street’; the main shopping area. Most of the shops we’re in converted/modified shipping containers or small shacks. Hand-made signs hung, stating the nature of the business. The tiny ‘shops’ all specialized in a product or service that you would find all over the world: meat stands, fruit stands and bakeries.
But there were also some shops that you don’t often see in Seattle or anywhere else. Doctors, listing the ailments they could cure (including bad luck!) and the sheep head shop?!
The townships are complicated, not something you learn by reading about in a tour book or a newspaper; it’s a place you have to experience first-hand to get any clue. If you have read about what they endured over the past few decades, you would think these communities would be beaten down.
But nothing could be further from the truth. You see it time and time again, communities coming together in times of crisis or tragedy. In the case of Langa, they were under the thumb of a brutal, racist government for decades and whilst many are still poor in financial terms, they came together as an unmovable, vibrant force to become victorious as a strong Community.
“When people are determined they can overcome anything.” – Nelson Mandela