Monday, February 6, 2012

Meeting Afrika

South Africa is the Cape, beautiful beaches, Table Mountain, winelands. But also: millions of people living in the Townships, segregated communities outside the main city centers established under Apartheid. In Cape Town they range from  "colored" zones with reasonable if modest houses in the Cape Flats, to formerly "black" townships or completely informal settlements, motley assemblies of houses, shanties and shacks, overcrowded with ten to a hundred times as many people per square kilometer as they were planned for.

The largest one in the country is Khayelitsha, with over 400 000 inhabitants as of '05 and growing rapidly, located on the outskirts of CT. When my friend Michael came to visit, the first thing he remarked upon getting off the plane was "this place is very orderly, you know, even the shantytowns are built on a grid" -- that was Khayelitsha from a bird's eye view, planned and executed by the Apartheid regime.
The next thing you see when leaving the airport, fittingly, is another big semi-informal township named Guguletu. 340 000 inhabitants, one murder every 2.5 days, and on most days a cloud of smoke hanging over some burning block of shacks off in the distance; the gas burners they use in these make-shift homes tend to self-ignite.

After some searching we found a guided tour through a smaller township named Imizamo Yetu, Xhosa for "our struggle". Our prospective guide was an inhabitant of that same township, and we decided it was way better to be shown around by a local than to oggle at dirt and poverty from the top of a tour bus.

Afrika Moni - first I thought my travel companion was pulling my leg, but that is actually the name that our guide introduced himself by when we met him in the parking lot of the local police station. From there it was just a few steps to the first shacks built on the edge and into the drains of the official settlement of Imizamo Yetu. A recycling center on the edge of the township provides a welcome service to the surrounding neighborhoods and employment for the locals - out front stands a big papier machee elephant, soon to be painted by local children.

Then Afrika led us into the township proper. The central road, paid for by Lufthansa's fundraising efforts, looked new and well-paved, while the further-out streets barely deserved the name. Some few hundred small single-family houses had been built by various charities along the main streets, most of them now sporting one or two make-shift shacks in the yard, homes to subletters - no square inch was left uninhabited. When I asked about growing vegetables or keeping chicken at home, the reply was "space is too precious". Children soon came up to us and tried to climb on our backs; My first reaction was to shake them off and clutch at my valuables, until I realized that they in fact just wanted to play with some interesting strangers, and maybe get some candy out of it.

Stopping at a shabeen, the not-quite-legal bars selling beer to locals out of the owner's home, we got to admire one of the charity houses from the inside: the kitchen looked pristine, just like in a little townhous in Germany. We met the future president of Uganda ("Once we kill Mugabe, I will go back and go into politics"), and found out that corruption reaches deep into the townships: the lists governing the distribution of these nice little houses are kept by city hall and can be altered at the price of a few thousand Rand slipped under a door. This was how Afrika's uncle lost his rights to one of them and still lived in a shack, after 20 years in IY.

Many things were not so bad here, compared to other places: this township sports the first clinic distributing free anti-retroviral drugs in all of Cape Town, a Kindergarten had been established a few years earlier through the fundraising efforts of a German couple, and a new, modern, big school for the children was under construction during our visit. "The children are our future, they are our hope", said Afrika.

Because he had some extra time and seemed to enjoy my incessant questions about everything, he then decided to take us to a less visited place, where even he doesn't go at night, the outskirts of the township. Shacks built into the national park bordering IY, the sprawl of the underbelly of the city. No running water, electricity haphazardly tapped from the main grid, no streets, under the majestic trees at the foot of Table Mountain. "They say 'we don't have the nice things you have down there, but at least we have a view'" - of the rich villas of Hout Bay on the other side of the valley.

We encountered more children, keen on being photographed and see their pictures on the little screens of our cameras. Many of them barely spoke English. Afrika insisted that "they don't let it show, they keep their dignity - if you saw these people outside the township, you would never know they live here". And it's true, many of the locals we saw were far better dressed than us. Meanwhile I began to wonder how positive the old phrase of holding on to your dignity really was; maybe it was just a sign of resignation to take better care of your suit than of your life?

As we were walking back to the main part of town, I began questioning Afrika on the fermentation habits of his Xhosa culture. I was not surprised to find that the Xhoisan make a home-brew from cornmeal and sorghum, called Umqombuti, some of which we got to sample out of a large plastic bucket in the back of some woman's shack, at the foot end of her bed. I learned to say "Thank you" in Xhosa - "Ngosi" - much to the delight of the motley crew of Xhoisan ladies assembled in the room.

On the way to our last stop, Afrika's home, we saw some PVC pipes that the government is laying to provide drainage to the higher up parts of Imizamo Yethu. Michael pointed out that while PVC is a fine material for indoors, it will degenerate rapidly when exposed to UV. "These pipes would last at least twice as long if you just covered them up with some cardboard" he said, but Afrika didn't seem to care much. He led us onwards, through the hut of his tuberculotic uncle who was passed out on his bed, to show us his project number one: the Imizamo Yethu museum. So far only a collection of photos and memorabilia in his living room, from old maps with the original street plans to the building of stone houses in the main part, he planned to raise funds and turn it into its own building. The artistic rendition of it showed a wooden structure standing on stilts over Afrika's family's little home.

When we left, our guide gave us the warmest of goodbyes. Nevertheless I felt a bitter aftertaste in my mouth: if there was such warmth and sense of community in these groups at the very edge of South African society, why did they not organize? Why did they not spend less time dressing in proper clothing and going to work for minimum wage and more on forming a political presence and becoming an actual part of society, with a voice of its own?

To my estimate, about a third of Cape Town live in circumstances like these. Their government is neglecting them, and while they are working and surviving - somehow - , they do not seem to be aware of any possibility to change their situation. Is there none?

See more photos of IY

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