A Forgotten People
By: Karen Doyle,Cape Town, South Africa,
2006 Travel and Transitions travel story contest participant
Township tours are becoming an increasingly popular
tourist attraction in South Africa, but it's the locals who shy
away from this remnant of their segregated past.
The first time I see Zipho he is running down the
driveway, away from my dog. "Hai! I am not usually so fearful,"
he says. "But that dog is big."
And then we are off, careening down familiar streets towards the
city of Cape Town, Zipho already late for his next pick-up.
"Are you a taxi driver?" I ask half-jokingly.
"Ha ha," Zipho chortles, a hearty laugh from a big, jovial
man. "No, I don't normally drive like this, but we are very
He changes gears forcefully and speeds along the freeway, dodging
cars and switching lanes like the best South African taxi driver
"Jesus!" he swears at a man on a bicycle who is innocently
making his way across the intersection. The gold hoops adorning
Zipho's ears swing impatiently as he shakes his bald head. "It
is not my lucky day."
He looks like a pirate, but the safari-style uniform he wears gives
him away. Zipho is a Grassroute's tour guide, and this is my first
taste of one of the most authentic African experiences in South
Africa: township tours.
We pick up the rest of the tourists, all foreigners
– an elderly Dutch man, an American couple, two Australian
girls, and a student from California. No South Africans. Zipho shifts
into full tour-guide mode as we make our way, a little more sedately,
into the bowels of the Cape Flats - a low-lying, poverty-stricken
area, where hundreds of thousands of people live squashed between
middle-class suburbia and the city limits.
Our first stop is in a township called Langa, which
in Xhosa means "the sun". Zipho points out a run-down
block of flats where he himself lives.
"There are four standards of living here," he explains.
First shacks and wooden buildings, known as either formal or informal
squatter camps (formal ones are only slightly better off with makeshift
roads and basic amenities). Then there are the hostels, built originally
for men who came to the city to find work, now decrepit and tired-looking,
with strings of washing strung from the windows. Next are simple,
colourful houses, with 99-year leases ("no one has ever
lived long enough to own them," says Zipho light-heartedly).
Finally there are the famous "Beverly Hills
of Langa", where people have built $40 000 - $100 000 homes
in the midst of the existing township. They seem strangely out of
place with their sturdy wooden fences, conservatively painted exteriors,
and formal street numbers.
When I ask why people would want to carry on living
amid such poverty when they can clearly afford to move into a better
neighbourhood, Zipho tells me an interesting story.
"A friend of mine left to buy a house in the suburbs,"
says Zipho. "But he spends more money on petrol now coming
back to visit us. He misses the sense of community we have here.
In the suburbs, he never even sees his neighbour."
Zipho parks the van and we all pile out –
a conspicuous bunch of "whities" clutching our cameras
and handbags tightly to our chests – but no one takes much
notice. Amid the hodgepodge of shacks, crumbling buildings and "Coca
Cola" spaza shops, old men sit together drinking beer, women
carry laundry back to their homes, and children play idly in the
While walking around we bump into another tour group,
and another – tourists, it seems, are common enough in these
parts. One woman sells sheep's heads, a local delicacy, on an outdoor
table that emits a strange smell and attracts a horde of buzzing
flies. She demonstrates the cooking process by taking a severed
sheep's head (complete with wool and still-open eyes), heating it
in an open fire, and then slicing it in half to be sold as a ready-made
Zipho directs us down a dirt alleyway into a family-owned
shebeen where the residents serve traditional Xhosa beer ( Umqombothi
) by day and sleep during the night. It seems that every tourist
in Langa has congregated here, forcing the usual customers to sip
their jugs of homemade beer elsewhere. A woman with a baby tied
onto her back brings in a foaming pail of Umqombothi and passes
it around the circle. I gingerly take a sip and am pleasantly surprised
by the sweet, subtle taste of the thick brew of maize and sorghum
"It's a meal in a glass," says Zipho.
A few wizened locals who managed to retain their bench in the corner
break out into song, and the tourists begin clapping enthusiastically.
It's hard to tell whether this is a customary practice or simply
for the tourists' benefit.
For a moment, as I watch a Japanese couple pose
with their jug of beer, I wonder how the locals feel about
the hundreds of foreigners who pass through their lives every day.
Surely these bizarre "human safaris" are intrusive
and voyeuristic? I ask Zipho what he thinks. "At first we did
township tours with the car doors locked and the windows rolled
up," he says. "But the people in the townships asked that
we get out and walk around. They are glad to see the tourists; it
makes them feel like they haven't been forgotten."
Vicky's B&B, situated in Site C in the township
of Khayelitsha, is the final stop in our township tour. I feel rather
nervous as I bid farewell to Zipho and the others for the ultimate
township experience: I'm spending the night. "The smallest
hotel in South Africa" is just like the many other shacks in
the community, simply made with wood and corrugated iron. The walls
inside are eye-catching – cleverly crafted out of tree trunks
and painted with red varnish – and cast a cheery glow over
the rest of the home. The living room contains brightly coloured
curtains, a few well-worn couches, and a prominent TV. I am
surprised to see that the floors have been professionally tiled
just as in any regular home. There is also a small kitchen, three
bedrooms (one where Vicky, her husband, and five children sleep,
and two for the guests), and a tiny bathroom, which is unusual.
Most shacks have communal "outhouses" that are shared
among several families, and showers are a luxury.
Vicky and her two eldest daughters run the B&B
– cooking, cleaning, and serving the guests – while
Jerry, their 17-year-old neighbour, helps out by walking tourists
through the community. Vicky shows me to my room and I'm immediately
made welcome by a horde of children clambering all over me, my bed,
and my belongings.
"What is this?" asks a small girl, examining
my notebook, while an even smaller girl tries to grab my dangly
earrings and a two-year-old boy jumps into my lap. For an instant
I worry about dirty feet on my bed, runny noses being wiped on my
clothes, and – ashamedly – the germs that might be floating
around. But I soon realise that personal space is not an option
in this place – nor is it desired. Hlumela, a remarkably well-spoken
girl who has just turned nine, shows me the picture she has drawn
for me in my notebook. It is of two girls, dressed in matching skirts,
high-heels and chunky jewellery, aptly labelled "you"
and "me". The girls have exactly the same hair, noses,
lips and eyes – we look like twins. I am strangely touched
by the way Hlumela, however inadvertently, has shown that she thinks
me no different from herself.
Vicky, a dynamic, larger-than-life woman dressed
in traditional African clothing with a colourful scarf tied around
her head, sits with us in the living room a little later, nursing
her two month old baby. The younger children watch Isidingo, a
local program on TV, while Vicky's daughters prepare the evening
meal. Numerous letters, newspaper clippings, photos, and framed
certificates adorn the walls, including long features from various
foreign newspapers – testament to how far Vicky's fame
has spread. A display cabinet holds bank notes from all over the
world, and there are knick-knacks around the room hail
from America, Europe, and even Asia.
"Only about 10 South Africans have ever come
here," Vicky says when I ask her about her variety of guests.
"Why do you think that is?" I ask, but Vicky can give
me no certain answer. "Perhaps they are scared," she muses,
a common response which is certainly part of the truth. Tales of
gang-related violence and crime are common knowledge in these parts
"How do your neighbours feel about the tourists who stay here?"
"At first they were confused," explains Vicky. "They
thought I must be in trouble with all the white people coming to
my house! But I had a community meeting and explained to everyone
what I was doing, and how it would benefit all of us."
"Have you ever had any problems?"
"None of my guests have ever been robbed," Vicky says
proudly. "If there is ever any trouble, like if a camera is
stolen, the community will chase them and get it back."
Later, as I stroll through the streets with
Jerry, a small child tugging at each of my hands, I marvel at how
safe I feel. The township is alive and busy – music blares
from all over, corner shops do fast-paced business, girls play jump-rope
in entryways, and young adults shoot pool in the shebeens. Smells
of cooking waft out from open doorways where TV's are always visible
and the viewers wave at us as we walk by. I notice a small boy,
about two or three years old, marching fearlessly among the throng
of people in the gathering dusk.
"It's a lot of fun growing up here," says Jerry, when
I mention the vibrancy of township life. "It's nice to know
everyone on my street." I ask him if there is anywhere else
he'd like to live. "No," he shakes his head as if this
has never occurred to him before. "I don't think so."
One of the girls holding my hand has been keeping up an almost inaudible
commentary of everything we pass. She tugs on my arm as we enter
one of the corner shops selling everything from fresh fruit to household
tools to beauty cream. "Those boys are naughty," she whispers,
and I have to bend down to catch her words. She gestures to a few
youths idling at the entrance. "Hold on to your bag."
Back at the B&B, I'm greeted with a polite "dinner's
ready" from Thando, Vicky's eldest daughter. She has prepared
traditional pap made from maize meal, thick pork sausages,
and a vegetable "curry" with tomato, onion, and beans.
A large bottle of Coca Cola is the only part of the meal that looks
familiar. We say grace over the food and begin to eat, but my mind
involuntarily wanders to severed sheep's heads and fly-invested
outdoor butcheries. Gulping down Coca Cola I try desperately to
get over my inhibitions, knowing that it would be disrespectful
not to finish the meal.
Excitement erupts a little later when Piksteel,
Vicky's husband, arrives home with birthday cake for his nine year
old daughter. We all gather round and sing Mini Emnandi Kuwe
(the equivalent of 'Happy Birthday' in Xhosa) and the girls carefully
divide up the cake. Lholho, a chubby three year old, anxiously awaits
his turn, before stuffing his face with the treat, smearing white
icing all over his cheeks and hands. The others follow suit, spreading
icing like war-paint on their faces. Hlumela is more dignified and
eats her cake with ladylike bites, only allowing a dot or two of
icing on her nose. Vicky just laughs and let's the kids go wild.
For a moment I am reminded of my seven-year-old cousin and her friends
who decorated their faces in much the same way on her birthday not
too long ago. Maybe it's not too different a world after all.
The next morning I awake to the sounds of African
hymns being played on the radio. It is Good Friday, and Thando and
Landi are sweeping and mopping the floor while Vicky sleeps in and
looks after the baby.
"They are good girls," Vicky says of her daughters. "Not
like the other young people who go out partying with their friends
and skip school."
When my transport arrives, the children all grab onto my legs
in an appeal for me to stay. I feel a tug at my heart as I exchange
hugs, kisses and smiles with everyone.
Driving back along the highway, I watch as the mass
of shacks stretching out on either side of me slowly change into
more familiar roadside scenery. Vicky told me of
a Xhosa concept called ubuntu – meaning collective
unity. "Having tourists here is the first time we are
seeing black and white people in the same place," she explained.
Back home I wander around the wide expanse of empty rooms, feeling
strangely displaced. It seems odd to have so much space, and no-one
to fill it. Suddenly I realise why people in the townships refuse
to move to more spacious surroundings. The suburbs may be clean
and spacious, but they have also lost that sense of community.