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The International Writers Magazine
- Hacktreks in Africa

The Cape Townships 10 years On
Jack Shenker in South Africa
... Khayelitsha, Cape Town’s largest township, a poverty stricken city within a city which a million and a half people call home

It’s 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 Africa’s future, a debate being played out in bars, cafes, taxis and dinner tables throughout the country.

Strolling down Cape Town’s 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 can’t 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 doesn’t want you to see; the city Cape Town’s residents never think about; the city you won’t find on the postcards. This is Cape Town’s squalid townships, home to millions of black, coloured and Malay Capetonians struggling to survive. “I’ve 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 head regretfully.
“In that time I have shown thousands of tourists the townships. But only ever two or three South Africans. They don’t want to know.”

Basil is a middle-aged coloured Capetonian, former resident of both the troubled District Six and one of Cape Town’s 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 after 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 applicant’s 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
All 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 Government’s 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 apartheid’s power to destroy not just individual lives but whole communities.

In 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 museum’s 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. That’s 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 district’s 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 Basil’s assertion that whilst apartheid may have been taken off the statute books it will be generations before economic apartheid is overcome.

We 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 Town’s largest township, a poverty stricken city within a city which a million and a half people call home.

When 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 horn.

The township tour is the fastest growing sector of South Africa’s 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 township’s 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 cranes.
The machines once used to destroy communities are now set to work rebuilding them.
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 township’s 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 can’t pay, she doesn’t 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 beautiful flowers.
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 of contradiction.
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 Africa’s 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”, he lamented.

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 country’s 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 Dad’s 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. Isn’t 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 Africa’s 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 nation’s 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 couldn’t 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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