Posts Tagged With: township


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.


shanty town

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.


Laundry day in Langa.

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.


The kitchen.

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.


The Bedroom.

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.


Sunday Worship.

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.


Dr Kaama

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?!


Half cooked sheep heads lined up for sale.

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


Categories: South Africa - October 2013 | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Soweto; Don’t believe the hype.

From everything we have read about Joburg, it sounded like a war zone. All of the tour books listed the many dangers in the city And warned don’t wear jewelry, never take your camera out, half of the city is totally off-limits, never go out at night. Car jacking is epidemic, if anyone approaches your car and you feel threatened, you can legally run a red light. Could this all really be true, we wondered; could it be that bad?

Of all the areas of Joburg, Soweto has the most dubious reputation. Soweto is short for SouthWest Townships and was essentially a camp where blacks were segregated in Apartheid. Now, between 1.5 to 3 million live in Soweto and its reputation has not changed much. It’s a maze of corrugated tin shacks and tiny houses with a reputation for violent crime and poverty, however over the past decade there has been a rise in the black middle class here. We had read that over the past few years guided tours started in Soweto and have become popular; not only that, but night tours have started visiting shabeens, (local bars). During apartheid these were illegal;  shabeens were essentially  speakeasies serving a home brew beer made of maize. Helen and I consider ourselves connoisseurs of dive bars and so and the idea of a shabeen tour at night intrigued us. We heard back late that afternoon from the tour  company, Imbizo, by email; we did not have much info other than it was from 6.30 to 11pm and they would pick us up at the hotel.

So we pulled into our small boutique hotel in Joburg; through the fortress-like gates, there was a Rolls in the courtyard and the staff met us with a glass of sherry. The room had a walk-in closet and the bathroom was bigger than our living room at home. It was over the top, kind of embarrassing in a way, not really our thing, but you can’t complain! Helen had got a great deal for the night but we had no idea that lodging, food and drink are about half the price compared to the states, so it was completely excessive.



At 6.30 we got a call from the front desk; in a questioning voice the woman said, “there is a driver here to pick you up?”. We walked into the courtyard and two kids in their twenties were standing in front of  a red VW Gti from the mid-eighties. We introduced ourselves and hopped into the VW to the wide-eyed amazement of the hotel staff.

We instantly hit it off with our guides, Moyo and Sumi, who later said they were worried when they pulled into the hotel that we would be stiff, and were happy to see us come out in t-shirts and jeans. We asked how the tour worked, “are we meeting other people? “, “No just you two, it’s a private tour, we will fit right in with us and this car”. That sounded great to us.

We stopped for a quick bite and a beer at a popular spot on Vilakazi Street and we chatted about the neighborhood; both Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela have houses on the street; only street in the world to boost two nobel peace prize winners.  According to Moyo, there is not a lot of crime in Soweto; not a lot to steal, the robbers go to the more affluent areas; the Robin Hood idea, an ‘informal redistribution of wealth’.

We next moved to a shabeen up the street; The Shack’, Built mostly with corrugated tin and two by fours for support. The bar was a large window with steel bars, which the bartender handed beer through. The furniture was a random assortment of plastic cars old car seats and a couch made from an old bed-frame.

Moyo knew a few people who invited us over to drink with them, but first they had to find us some crates to sit on. I sat next to a slightly inebriated fellow. I could only understand about half of what he said; but luckily this worked out because he kept on repeating himself….drunk. He was teaching me curse words in his tribal tongue until the conversation moved to a car maneuver popular in the township: spinning, which is donuts where I come from. Essentially this is driving in circles as fast as you can with the wheels spinning; I was quite good at this in my youth, and so told him “I can out-spin you any day”. He stood up, pulled out his car keys and said “let’s go right now”. Luckily Helen saved me with a decisive “You are not getting onto a car with him, and You, (pointing at my new friend) you should sit down”. Which, wisely,  he did.


New friends

The next stop was a open-air club next to a old abandoned coal power plant. There was a DJ and  accompanying  drummers. Everyone in the place was dancing, so we ordered some beers and joined in. I am the epitome of a white man who can’t dance; no rhythm, off beat, stiff, with moves from the eighties. Not only was Moyo, Sumi and Helen making fun of me, but complete strangers were ribbing me.  After a few beers I didn’t care, it is more embarrassing for Helen! Anyway, it was all in good fun and we had a great time.


Chaf Pozi Nightclub


Good Times!


We pulled up to the hotel, well after 1am! Tour was only supposed to last until eleven, so we offered our two friends some more money but they refused, saying “we should pay you – we had a great time”.

We gave them a healthy tip and hugged them goodbye. They had mentioned earlier that the people of  Soweto were welcoming to visitors that made the effort to visit the neighborhood. That’s exactly what we found; everyone was great and interested in ‘the foreigners’ and we felt totally at ease.  In fact, totally the opposite we felt in Joburg.  Don’t believe the hype!

Categories: South Africa - October 2013 | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

I ain’t gonna play Sun City

Arrived in Joburg, rented our 4×4 pick-up and got to our accommodation, the Airport Game Lodge about 11pm. It was a strange little place with a fenced-in area with impala and ostrich. We were a little peckish and parched from our long flight, so we were happy to hear that the bar was still open. Turns out the bar consisted of a vending machine with snacks, beer and wine. That works.


Bar’s open

We got up early for our two-hour drive to Sun City where we were spending the night. Sun City is a casino/resort built in the late seventies during Apartheid and was for whites only. It was the first casino allowed in South Africa through a technicality, and quickly expanded into multiple hotels, restaurants and a concert venue. There was an anti-apartheid song from the 80’s, “I ain’t going to play Sun City” sung by a collaboration of artists; good intention, bad song. Anyway, the place was no longer segregated and looked kitschy and bizarre and so a good place to get over our jet-lag and get acclimated.

As in England, they drive on the left side in South Africa. The steering wheel is on the left, the peddles are the same but the gear shift is in your left hand. With a mild case of jet-lag, driving in sprawling Joburg was a bit of a challenge; left hand turns were the worst. The biggest problem I had, was that the turn indicator lever and the windshield wipers were reversed; Whenever I went to turn, I would hit the wipers. It drove Helen nuts; but that’s ok, that’s my job.

We drove past the outskirts of some townships with corrugated tin shacks packed in tight; dirt roads and lots of people walking; bleak, like nothing I have seen before. Only a little later we were driving through the affluent northern suburbs. We passed gated communities, high-end car dealerships, large malls: All of them surrounded by ten foot high walls with razor wire and electric fences. They were like mini-fortresses with huge metal gate and guards: one even had guard towers like a prison.


Shanty shacks

We rolled up to Sun City which, like Vegas, is in the middle of nowhere, rising out of the scrub brush like a surreal temple of doom. Sun City has a jungle theme with elephant bridges, monkey mountains and lagoon pools; A fake jungle in the real African bush. After lunch we went to the wave pool and water park; I’m a sucker for waterslides and have been known to push small children out of the way to be first in line!





Sun City was surreal and odd but we got a chance to recharge for our upcoming, intimidating, return to Joburg.

After two days in South Africa, I was having a hard time getting my head around this complex country; the first world and the third world living side by side, the filthy rich and the dirt poor; the fake and the real, the black and the white.

Categories: South Africa - October 2013 | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

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