January 22, 2013
We passed this township many times on our South African trip, as it was located next to the highway we used to reach our safari, winery tours, and so on. All the activities that tourists are supposed to enjoy, encouraged to do, yet which left me feeling ashamed each time this scene whizzed past our rental car window.
It was hard to fathom the scale. The shacks stretch back as far as the eye can see, and this is just one of countless “settlements” scattered throughout the Cape and beyond. This particular one is called Khayelitsha, one of the newer and fast-growing townships, currently home to around 400,000 residents. Shockingly, this would rank it as the 11th largest city in my country of Canada.
We passed children playing amidst garbage, people emptying buckets (the contents of which I don’t wish to imagine) into ditches, herds of goats roaming freely beside the highway, and on one occasion, a hyena making its way up a hill towards some the shanties. Could it snatch a human kid as easily as a goat kid?
I practised guerilla photography at 100km/hr each time we drove by, asking Jody to make a few u-turns as I tried to absorb and capture what I was seeing. I didn’t mean any disrespect; I would have done the same if we had been driving through a wealthy neighbourhood of unusual mansions. Lifting my camera is a compulsion.
I wanted to experience and photograph as much of South Africa as I could while I was there, and that included the uncomfortable and the upsetting. Ignoring what was all around us and sticking to the lovely attractions struck me as a little like going to an all-inclusive resort and then saying that you’d seen the island. I also needed to remedy my embarrassing near-total ignorance of how the townships came to exist, and persist.
My South African sister-in-law recommended we take an official township tour, an option we hadn’t even known existed. After some Internet research, we settled on Siviwe Tours because their guides are actual township residents, and the reviews were unanimously positive. The tour would take us through Langa, the oldest township in South Africa. And so, on a blazingly hot Sunday afternoon, my wife, mother-in-law, and myself met with our guide Gladstone in a parking lot to begin our education. It was no surprise that he waved to our car as soon as we turned the corner, given that we were the only white people in view. That would be the case for our entire visit.
Because it is the oldest settlement, Langa has over the years developed an infrastructure and amenities that were surprising to us. They have a community centre, churches, and other communal buildings near the entrance that looked like what you would find in any other neighbourhood.
Gladstone did an incredible job of describing the history and culture of the township and its people to us. He encouraged us to ask questions, and stopped to explain the meaning of sights that came up on our tour, like this group of young men:
Their clothing has special significance, the caps and jackets indicating that they are all 18 years old, and have all been recently circumcised. This rite of passage is still done out in the wild in tribal fashion, and means these boys now command the respect of their community as men. Gladstone explained that anyone refusing to undergo the procedure is ridiculed, viewed as being less than a man, and unlikely to ever marry.
Our walk continued, with the next stop being the site of the old pass office.
A pass was exactly what you fear it would be: a passport-style book that every black person had to carry 24/7, to allow them to travel in “white-only” areas for work purposes and so on. To be caught in public without your pass meant imprisonment, and obtaining release was near-impossible due to fines that far exceeded most people’s wages. This building served as the pass office, the court, and the jail.
It was here that my eyes were truly opened as Gladstone provided some additional history. What I knew of apartheid was that it was a government-sanctioned era of segregation and discrimination, but I mistakenly likened it to what had taken place in the southern USA. I had no idea that a more accurate comparison would be to what had taken place in Europe during the Holocaust. Stupid me, I thought these shanty towns came to exist because impoverished people chose to move towards the cities, and that the townships had continued to exist because of the discriminatory practices and reduced opportunities for black Africans. I did not realize that black people who had property and land and functional lives had everything seized by white people in power throughout the first part of the last century, and were then shipped off to these townships. I was in shock, and very much aware of the colour of my own skin as I stood there. Of the relative ease of my life, and how my own trials paled in comparison. I wondered how we couldn’t have studied this in school, and then realized that the apartheid government was still in power when I graduated from high school.
As we rounded the corner, the landscape changed significantly from paved streets with brick and mortar buildings to shops and homes made out of shipping containers.
The scenes deteriorated from there. Next stop was an open area with a giant garbage pile, and women hard at work cooking and preparing some sort of meat in extreme heat. It soon became all too clear what food was on offer.
Bloodied sheep heads sat on several available surfaces, dirty and swarming with flies. The heads would be boiled first to kill any bacteria and remove the wool, then barbecued and smoked. A full head could be had for R40 (about $5), or a half head for R20. I’m keen to try new things, within reason (I tasted springbok on this trip, and ate kangaroo in Australia) but for me this is not a snack, it is an episode of “Survivor”! And I would not survive.
The preparation was laborious, the women scraping and flattening the meat on the heads as they smoked. What made the scene all the more peculiar was that the women were dressed in heavy clothes, winter hats and sweaters in the sweltering heat. Incredible.
I asked everyone’s permission to take photos as I went, and tipped them all for their participation. Clearly I was not the first, as people were often only too happy to see my camera coming. Gladstone had assured me that the residents were fine with being photographed, but I was disturbed by the arrangement even as I participated in it. I didn’t know how to make it better. I was what I was: a privileged white person observing their real lives while on my vacation.
Gladstone led us to a large “courtyard” surrounded by solid communal housing, where he told us he had lived himself for nearly 30 years. The men were standing around talking, while the women were inside cooking, doing laundry, and other domestic chores. Kids played amidst rubble, garbage and broken glass in bare feet – and seemed to be managing just fine. I thought of how irate people (myself included) become back home if there is a broken bottle in the dog park. It’s just impossible to process the discrepancy, even now.
Inside the building, Gladstone explained to us that rooms with multiple beds were not there for various members of the same family, but often for various families to share the same room.
Gladstone shared with us that life in the complex was so noisy and lacking in privacy that he had trouble focusing on his studies as a child. While working in a bakery as a very young student, the opportunity arose for him to purchase a used trailer from the bakery owner. It became his pride and joy, and his sanctuary. It still rests on blocks outside the apartments, looking like it’s hosted more parties of late than study groups.
The road behind the complex held a wild assortment of structures: perfectly nice detached homes owned by residents who had beaten the odds and achieved success, food stands, and other small businesses that were easy to overlook. Children came pouring out of doorways as we came into view, running up to hug our legs in the hopes that we would share the candy we’d been advised to bring. We brought bags and bags, but as the crowd grew larger we did eventually run out.
The last stop on the tour was the saddest. The newer section of the township contains the stereotypical tin shanties, the homes created out of whatever scraps are available. Power lines supply electricity, but there is no running water or plumbing. Across the unpaved road stands a line of outhouses, barely disguising the ditch full of garbage and muck behind them. Some of the shacks in the area were so lopsided I wondered how they remained standing.
I can’t believe the struggle of daily life for millions of people in these townships. They must fetch water from communal taps, do laundry by hand, cook on hot plates, make use of outhouses, walk or hitchhike miles to work (if they are lucky enough to be employed), and fight for decent wages. None of those things are a reality for me, my family, or anyone I know. By the dumb, random luck of having been born Canadian I realize I am in the smallest top percentage of fortunate people on the planet. I knew this before, but this experience reinforced it in a way I’m not likely to forget soon.