The International Writers Magazine - Hacktreks in Africa
Cape Townships 10 years On
Jack Shenker in South Africa
Khayelitsha, Cape Towns largest township, a poverty stricken
city within a city which a million and a half people call home
Its almost ten years since Nelson Mandela was elected the first
president of a democratic South Africa. Yet a decade on, millions in
Cape Town still live in poverty and there is a bitter divide over South
Africas future, a debate being played out in bars, cafes, taxis
and dinner tables throughout the country.
Strolling down Cape Towns sun-kissed beaches, cruising up the
Table Mountain cable car, even just walking the bustling promenade at
the busy Waterfront development you can be forgiven for thinking that
you have stumbled into a tourist fairyland where everything on the horizon
is beautiful, clean and photo-friendly. Yet somewhere, deep in the back
of your mind, something is bothering you. The Disneyland vista is incomplete,
yet you cant quite put your finger on what is missing. Thousands
of tourists push this irritating doubt firmly to the recesses of the
brain and hold it there until they are safely encased on the plane back
home. Sadly, many residents ignore it permanently.
But for the perceptive few, a sudden realization washes over them and
they ask themselves this - in a city of nearly three million (Source:
Cape Town Demographics) people, where on earth is everybody?
The answer lies far beyond the imposing plateau of Table Mountain and
north of the center, out towards the airport, where mile-long stretches
of wire mesh shield the freshly-arrived tourists eyes from the
city the government doesnt want you to see; the city Cape Towns
residents never think about; the city you wont find on the postcards.
This is Cape Towns squalid townships, home to millions of black,
coloured and Malay Capetonians struggling to survive. Ive
been working as a township tour guide for two years running two tours
a day, seven days a week, explains Basil proudly. He shakes his
In that time I have shown thousands of tourists the townships.
But only ever two or three South Africans. They dont want to know.
Basil is a middle-aged coloured Capetonian, former resident of both
the troubled District Six and one of Cape Towns largest townships.
He tells us his background eagerly - born a descendent of both the indigenous
Khoi tribes and of the Asian slaves who arrived in the 16th century,
his life has been one of struggle and hardship. Yet today he holds no
bitterness over the apartheid years and insists that South Africans
of every race and colour are genuinely committed to reconciliation.
Expelled from school because of his activism in the 1976 Soweto uprising,
he spent the apartheid years working as a processing controller for
a US oil firm. In 18 years he never once saw promotion and watched white
boys whom he had trained leapfrogging him into better positions year
His stories of those times are incredible - he tells of how borderline
coloureds who wanted to be reclassified as whites would have to
undergo a pencil test. Officials would wedge a pencil into
the applicants hair and if it fell out, the hair was deemed to
be smooth enough to be that of a white person. If it stayed in, your
hair was deemed to be tight and curly and therefore that of a black
person and you were turned down. (See Rabbit Proof Fence for how
that was done in Australia too- Ed)
Reclassification was forced on many due to economic necessity yet tore
apart families - children who recognized relatives in the street where
told by their newly white parents to have nothing to do
with them now.
Arundel Street District Six
of this was explained to us as we were led around the District Six
Museum, the last remaining monument to a once vibrant area at the
heart of Cape Town that boasted a thriving population of whites,
blacks, Malay, Jews, Coloureds and Muslims, all living side by side
in harmony. Now, there is nothing but barren wasteland where thousands
of homes, schools, bars and jazz joints used to be, thanks to the
Nationalist Governments decision to raze the entire district
to the ground; in an attempt to reclassify the area as whites-only.
The empty grassland is a chilling symbol of apartheids power
to destroy not just individual lives but whole communities.
the simple yet powerful museum, I met Noor Ebrahim, one of the 60,000
residents forcibly removed. He was given two weeks to vacate the house
his Grandfather had bough seventy years earlier. He pointed at the giant
street map that covers the museums floor. I lived at 247
Caledon St, he tells me. When he involuntarily left in 1976, he
only got as far as the corner before he had to turn back. I got
out of the car and started to cry as the bulldozers moved in immediately.
Many people died of broken hearts. Thats what apartheid was.
Understanding the bitter history of District Six is the key to understanding
the story of the townships and, in many ways, the key to unlocking the
essence of Cape Town and South Africa today. The districts multicultural
population was brutally segregated and shipped out en masse to the townships,
each of which was reserved for a certain race. Today, District Six has
officially been returned to the people and yet the sprawling carpet
of hundreds of thousands of corrugated iron shacks remain, lending weight
to Basils assertion that whilst apartheid may have been taken
off the statute books it will be generations before economic apartheid
drove along the huge highway in the fierce midday heat, catching
only occasional glimpses of the world which lay beyond the fences.
We passed great expanses of bushlands where teenage boys from the
Xhosa and Zulu tribes camp out for weeks in makeshift plastic bag
tents in preparation for the circumcision ceremony that will mark
their passage into manhood. Finally we turned off into Khayelitsha,
Cape Towns largest township, a poverty stricken city within
a city which a million and a half people call home.
traveling, it is tempting to glorify poverty as a tourist attraction
in your mind; to store up as many tales of flea-ridden dogs and starving
children as possible so as to have the edge over your fellow travelers
when such stories are exchanged. When you have never experienced first
hand unspeakable squalor there is a perverse thrill when it hits you
in the face. In this way we glorify and therefore de-humanise shameful
living conditions, forgetting that for the people who live here, this
is reality. I felt guilty of this as I saw Khayelitsha for the first
time. On the horizon, rows of shacks, no bigger than an average sized
bedroom yet home to huge families, glinted in the sunlight.
As I drew closer to each shack I saw that instead of just plain sheets
of metal, the shacks were adorned with colourful rope, plastic bags
and slabs of concrete - anything the residents could get their hands
on to strengthen and personalize their homes.
We thread our way through the dusty gravel in the van, with Basil softly
nudging crowds of playing kids and lazy animals out of the way with
The township tour is the fastest growing sector of South
Africas tourist market yet most people opt for a sanitized
visit, with the constant comfort of a plexiglass barrier between them
and the poverty, not daring to step outside the tour bus for fear of
being swamped by disease, with demands for money, with guilt.
Luckily Basil was not one of those operators and as we turned off the
main highway - adorned with rows of brightly coloured shipping
containers converted into butchers, grocers and barbers with meat steaming
on trestle tables next to the road - and down a dirt track, he explained
to us that such fear is understandable, but misplaced. Crime is
never a problem in the townships, he assured us as we clambered
out, leaving the van unlocked. Basil cheerfully reeled off countless
examples of residents who left their shacks unattended for days on end
and returned to find not a stone out of place. He explained that each
township was governed by a council of wise men who had the power to
mete out punishments if any crime took place within the community. News
of wrongdoing spreads like lightning and the consequences are disturbingly
harsh and as such, the townships themselves are largely crime-free.
Consequently, many of the men are forced to travel into the city center
to defraud or mug unsuspecting tourists who are busy shocking each other
with tales of how dangerous the townships are.
We walked through the maze of shacks and were greeted warmly by everyone.
Khayelitsha throbbed with life as people went about their daily business.
About fifty boys and girls packed a side road in a football match with
an old leather ball that was falling apart. Women with buckets of water
on their head ducked in and out of the shack of the witch doctor, the
dark interior of which was hidden from view by a waterfall of herbs
and strange plants hanging from the doorway.
Young men wearing Manchester United tops and holding broken pool cues
sat chatting on plastic garden chairs outside the sheebens, the townships
drinking dens. Basil knew and was known to everyone - Khayelitsha loved
tourists, he grinned, because its residents were proud of the steps
they were making and upset that so few South Africans wanted to know.
And those improvements were breathtaking. We climbed the biggest hill
in the area to look down on a huge plain crawling with bulldozers and
The machines once used to destroy communities are now set to work rebuilding
The government is committed to ensuring that no South African is living
in a shack by 2010 and selects square kilometer expanses within Khayelitsha
one by one at sets to work replacing the shacks with small but sturdy
concrete houses with running water and electricity. Nobody gets a house
for free but they are heavily subsidized, with some residents paying
just R80 a month (about seven pounds) for their new home. But the social
change is happening from within, where incredible individuals are working
to overcome the townships huge problems.
We met Rosie, a mother who has spent 13 years getting up at the crack
of dawn to feed breakfast to hundreds of children in her kitchen. She
asks for 60c (less than 5p) from the children but if they cant
pay, she doesnt make them.
Without her, most of these kids would go hungry - with unemployment
standing at 75% there is simply no money in most families, even for
basics like food.
We were introduced to Golden, a man who pays local children to collect
soft drink cans for him from the streets and turns them into stunningly
Vicky, an intelligent woman chucked off her engineering degree course
when apartheid came into force, now runs her own B+B in the heart of
Khayelitsha where tourists stay in an ordinary shack and get a chance
to experience the sense-assaulting Khayelitsha nightlife. And lastly
we met Beauty, a fashion designer turning scraps of cloth discarded
on the streets into lovely garments and who shyly showed us her work.
It is with these people that real change is being effected in the new
South Africa, a land where democracy is only ten years old and full
Nelson Mandela is considered by everyone in the West to be a hero but
it is only when you get here that you realize why. Far from just being
a prison martyr, he preached forgiveness and peace when the nation was
poised for bloodbath and civil war. That South Africa confounded historians
and politicians by transforming peacefully into a land of equality,
with the oppressed living contentedly side by side with those who had
been the oppressors for decades, and with no thought of revenge, is
largely thanks to him. But as the squalor of Khayelitsha shows, South
Africas problems are by no means over - the economic divide between
black and white is as gaping as ever and HIV looks poised to wipe out
almost an entire generation.
In Cape Town, everyone has an opinion and each one is guaranteed to
be vehemently opposed to the last. My aged Jewish grandmother spent
many hours over tea raging against the new president Mbeki for his inaction
over the Aids epidemic and his unwillingness to challenge Mugabe across
the border. My Xhosa taxi driver who took me home from Table Mountain
agreed with her. Mbeki is a nobody, he repeated, thumping
his hand on the dashboard as we lurched precariously round the narrow
bends of Kloof Road. We are starving - he does nothing. We are
dying from Aids - his ministers tell us that HIV does not cause it and
refuse to give anti-viral drugs. Our brothers in Zimbabwe are living
in misery - and he stands by Mugabe. I have to leave my wife for 9 months
of the year to scrape enough money to live on just for us to survive,
His family, hundreds of miles away in East London, are struggling and
there are no jobs for his sons. He has to come to Cape Town for most
of the year to eke out a living as a cabbie. Unemployment lies at the
heart of the countrys problems yet there is little that can be
done to overturn it. The legacy of apartheid is that three quarters
of the population are uneducated and unskilled because much of the education
budget in the second half of the 20th century was allocated to the whites,
comprising just 8% of the population.
The real controversy lies in the debate over what should be done to
reverse the effects of apartheid. Mr Isaacs is a coloured history teacher
who took me round my Dads old school and then walked me back to
the station. We passed through the overwhelming hustle and bustle of
the street craft markets, where rows of masks and wooden carvings cram
the pavement. People want the government to flick a switch and
make everything OK. These people are stupid. When the scales have been
tipped so drastically one way for so long, you have to tip them drastically
the other way to make up for it. At the moment, positive discrimination
means that by law, if a black man and a white man apply for a job with
identical qualifications, the black man will get it. It even applies
to the Springbok rugby team where quotas for black player provoke more
howls of controversy than anywhere else.
It makes me angry, says a family friend who was an ex-professional
footballer and one of the first white players to make a statement by
moving from the white league to the coloured league and then to the
black league during the apartheid years. People kick up a fuss.
They say it is just a game and that the best player should be in the
team. These people are blind. Isnt equality more important? Of
course we need positive discrimination - how else will society ever
transform? It is a furious argument that will not be quelled because
it raises the fundamental question of South Africas future. Will
it be a democracy in name only, as the rows of black townships seem
to suggest? How can the government take steps towards equality whilst
avoiding replacing the old white dictatorship with a new black one?
If you ever go to South Africa, take the time to ask those who you meet
what they think about their nations fragile democracy. The manufactured
tourist conveyor belt that whisks you round Robben Island tells you
some of the story - the ex-political prisoners who take you round are
living examples of how reconciliation really is working. The rotund
elderly doctor decked in a Hawaiian shirt, treating me for an uncalled
for bout of gastric enteritis, patiently explained to me that Africans
were incapable of democracy because their mindset is that of a tribal
savage. With a thermometer shoved in my mouth I couldnt respond,
but thought to myself how hard it was for the old attitudes to die out.
From shelf-stackers to rich businessmen, many Capetonians have embraced
the new era and their opinions are fascinating. But the real answers
are to be found in the townships, where despair and hope live hand in
hand in the new South Africa.
© Jack Shenker Jan 2004
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