Tales from South Africa #1: Townships

Hi there! You might find it odd that you are getting pinged now from a travel blog that has been silent for nearly two years, and from a person that is currently residing in the United States. The reason that this is happening is because for the past few years, I have had some blog posts that I wrote while in South Africa and had mostly finished, but never quite found the time to fully complete them and post them to this website with pictures. Instead of letting them continue to lie neglected and collect digital dust, I’ve decided to fill in the missing pieces and post them here for people to enjoy if they choose. So here is a bonus story from my time in South Africa!


Another entry finally! I’m still alive! Things have been continuing to go well here in South Africa, and classes plus activities are now in the full swing of things so the pace of life is picking up (but not too intensely).

A few weekends ago, I got the opportunity to visit what are called “Townships” in South Africa. Townships are these underdeveloped communities in the country, typically just outside of the cities, where non-white people were forcefully re-located to during the Apartheid and pre-Apartheid eras.

A drone image taken just East of Cape Town – city homes on the left, township on the right

To give a little history for those who haven’t the slightest clue of South Africa’s past, the country of South Africa has been racially segregated for a long time. In the 1920s the government began building settlements, now called townships, specifically to put black, Indian, and other non-white people in. They continued constructing these settlements and moving non-white people to them into the 1980s. Though they were started before, conditions in these townships continued to get especially more difficult during the years of Apartheid. For those (probably younger) people who don’t know, “Apartheid” was a series of laws and policies enacted by the South African government beginning in 1948 to legally segregate the country. Different laws were created during this time to do things like make inter-racial marriage and sex illegal, make it illegal for black people to go on strike, make it illegal for non-white people to enroll in university, require Asian people to live in specific parts of towns and cities, fully require black people to live in specific segregated areas outside the cities (townships), allow police officers and other government officials to maim, detain, and kill anyone they decided was a threat to them, make it illegal for black people to be represented in Parliament, make it illegal for political parties to be multi-racial, institute “tribal leaders” into native communities around the country, and make it illegal to hire black people to work in the cities.

What continues to keep surprising me is how recent all of this history is in South Africa. Apartheid only ended in 1994, when the country held its first democratic election. Even though the horrible, racist laws had started to be dismantled slightly before that, it still boggles my mind that these horrifying and seemingly backwards ways of living were still being practiced in the decade I was born in, a decade that most current middle-aged adults were alive in and still remember. I also hadn’t realized that there is almost no written history of Africa prior to the 1800s, and that it was only in the late 1900s that the majority of African nations gained independence. That is so recent! These arbitrary borders between countries in Africa are things I grew up taking for granted, and I assumed they had been there forever. I had no idea how “new” everything happening in Africa really was.

My first trip was with all 13 of the students from my study abroad program was to Cape Town’s oldest township, Langa. The townships are laid out around the city similar to the way suburbs are arranged in the U.S., except a bit further away. They are all incredibly densely packed with people and contain very few franchises or businesses of their own (just homes), yet they are where the majority of black Cape-Tonians live. Langa alone has 100,000 people and each of the other townships have similarly large populations. On this first introduction to the townships, we were essentially given a “tour” of some of the most important places in Langa by local residents of the location who work for an awesome organization that focuses on community development in the neighborhood.

I actually really loved getting to walk around a small section of the township and see the ways in which the local organization was trying to empower the community towards developing its own identity instead of just being a nondescript collection of ramshackle houses. I was really inspired by their mission and would honestly love to work for an organization such as theirs. I really appreciate that they are such an authentic project run by people who actually live in the community itself; they do not feel like an “implant” from some external source that are paternalistically “coming down” to help the people below them. There is no sense of “look, we came and helped these oh-so-poor-people” that can sometimes come from short-term, first-world-country church service trips. Similarly, there was not a condescending tone given off by the people working to help those in the Township or “feeling bad” for them in a way that implied those doing the helping were “just living such better lives” than those people they were living with and trying to help. Seeing this ministry has changed a lot of the way that I have been thinking about doing work with those in need, especially in countries outside of my own.

A shot I snuck of some of the houses in a part of the community

What happened a couple of weeks later was even cooler than the daytrip tour of Langa, however – I got to stay overnight in one of the townships! A number of us from my Study Abroad group who decided to pay extra were driven out to a different township, this time to the community of Gugulethu instead of Langa. We were broken up into pairs, and each assigned a home to stay overnight in with the gracious owners of those homes. A fellow student and I got to stay with an amazing woman named “Momma Noks,” who opened up her small house to us and cooked us dinner that evening. We arrived at her house in the late afternoon, and after only being there a short while some little heads began popping in through the gate to look at us. Momma Noks, it turns out, often opens up her house to kids as a place for them to come and safely play after school. She has been doing this for years, and it is a really cool ministry that she runs all by her own volition and resources. After inspecting us from afar, those cute little munchkins soon overcame their hesitancy and moved from the gate into the courtyard and then soon began playing with my friend and me. They crawled all over us, and in typical child fashion seemed to have a limitless supply of energy! The two of us played with the kids for what was probably a little under an hour, exhausting every game idea we could come up with (Sharks and Minnows, Simon Says, spinning children in circles, you name it). We tired out much more quickly than the kids, and eventually Momma Noks helped us make some excuses to get away after being totally worn out.

That evening, after the sun had gone down and after we helped get some ingredients for dinner, the other student and I chatted with Momma Noks and her husband about life and their experience living in Gugulethu. We heard some crazy stories about gang violence, which it turns out is a real problem for people in the Townships, as the education system is extremely lacking in these marginalized South African communities and kids will often find belonging or just something to do with their time by joining gangs. We talked about the constant power outages (“load shedding,” they call it there) that plague South Africa throughout each week, and how the load shedding is even worse in the townships than it is in the city. We discussed the difficulties of land ownership, and how challenging it is to confront the complexity of a situation where one group of people was unfairly displaced from their own property, but now finds that others have been living on it for decades and have built their own lives and histories with that location. Many places in the world have to grapple with this same complex issue, such as in the United States or Israel, but South Africans have the added challenge of the displacement occurring in much more recent memory than many other places.

One conversation that significantly stuck out to me occurred when I asked Momma Noks what it would be like to move back to the place her parents were displaced from, and into the city. I was shocked to hear Momma Noks respond “I don’t want to move back. This is my home and is where all my friends are. Why would I want to move back into the city where I don’t know anybody?” I had always assumed that those living in poverty must always prefer to just be “out” of it and would want to uproot and move away into a better living condition as soon as they got the chance. Who would ever prefer to live in a cramped hovel like the dwelling of Momma Noks when they were being offered a chance to move into a nice, “modern” home with all of the space and amenities that a middle to upper class dwelling provides? I had never once considered the great importance of a person’s community, their memories, and the comfort brought by familiarity with a place. I had always approached things purely logically, recognizing that to raise an entire community in poverty up (especially groups as large as these Townships) would be a gargantuan endeavor, and therefore thought that it was “too much effort” to do that instead of just re-displacing people and putting them in a newer, higher class setting. I was left with a lot to think about in the way I approached helping those around me and ministering to those without great material resources.

After spending the night in Momma Noks’ house, my fellow student and I awoke and rejoined the rest of our ISA peers to meet our tour guide for the townships. Our guide himself lived in the townships, and as he lead us from the area we were previously in, he explained how the townships had been constructed. The white government had first constructed somewhat nicer housing for those they were going to move out of the city, intending to make the townships a real alternative to the places people were living before. These houses were usually made purely of concrete and had one or two bedrooms, attached to some other spaces like a kitchen, a bathroom, and a living room as well. However, it quickly became apparent that the number of structures they had built were not nearly adequate for the amount of people they were beginning to displace, and a pressure was added to complete construction faster and faster. Houses went from multi-room homes to single room spaces quickly erected, and even still they could not be built fast enough to keep up with the influx of people that were being sent to the townships outside the city. As such, some people were left to fend completely for themselves and used whatever materials they could find to construct themselves dwellings in what became shanty town sections of the townships.

We walked through these shanty towns with their streets of mud and properties delineated by thin tin sheets or pallets of wood. It was a standard of living I had never been face-to-face with before, and it was eye-opening to see people living this as their everyday lives. Our friendly tour guide allowed us to all visit his house located in one of the shanty towns, and even let us look inside his one-room “house” that had no lights and which was constructed of surfaces he had scavenged and pieced together himself. Even there, he had found a way to be of service to his neighbors and start a sort of “youth camp” similar to Momma Noks’ ministry. I’ve rarely met a person so genuinely dedicated to service as this man was.

As we left the shanty town portion of the township and continued walking through Gugulethu and the neighboring Nyanga, we got to try a local dish of sheep head, complete with tongue, eyes, and brain! It was cooked in front of us with a flamethrower by a man who had the head stacked on some cinder blocks, and it was more delicious than you might expect!

We continued walking through a lot of the township, exploring tons of different areas including a grave yard, a memorial, and even some of the few businesses that existed (like a single gas station). I was struck by the amount of refuse littered around everywhere, though it was hardly surprising considering there was no garbage disposal service to take care of it.

The final destination in our trip was to a butchery/restaurant to have the samplings of a South African braai. “Braais,” for those who don’t know, are a cultural South African event that are essentially barbeques with many different types of meat present. Braais happen on many different occasions and holidays, and are a way that South Africans congregate to spend time together. Often present are all sorts of meat imaginable, including pork, sheep, beef, fish, and others. This particular place that we were brought was supposed to have our food ready in 30 minutes or so, but instead ended up causing us to wait in their empty lounge area for over 2 hours! Our guide was moritified, and apologized profusely despite it being a situation completely outside of his control. He brought us snacks while we waited, and while nobody in the group was upset or angry, I think every member eventually became a bit tired and irritable after having walked multiple miles in the morning and then having to wait another couple of hours on top of that while to consume the food we could all smell.

The meat eventually did come!

Overall, the townships were a great experience and I am extremely glad I got to go. Speaking with the real people who lived there left me with lots to process and and it will probably continue to inform how I think about poverty in the future. It showed me the value in discussing an issue in theory versus discussing it in context of the people whom it actually affects.

2 thoughts on “Tales from South Africa #1: Townships

  1. Ethan, this is amazing and fascinating! What an experience for you, and an education for me in many ways! Thank you for sharing this with us!!

    Sent from my iPhone

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    Liked by 1 person

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