Touring Cape Town’s Townships and Learning the Meaning of Ubuntu
Faldela, during our Cape Malay cooking class, had already taught us the meaning of Ubuntu – sharing, interconnectedness, being open and available – and we would see it in action during a day spent touring Cape Town’s townships.
There was no question about it. To really get beneath the skin of the place, we had to visit Cape Town’s townships. But how? The advice from locals on touring Cape Town’s townships was unanimous: the best and safest way was to do a township tour with a responsible tour company.
Cape Capers had been recommended to us by Cape Town Tourism, our followers on Twitter, and the manager of another ethical tour operator who said of its owner, award-winning tour guide, Faizal Gangat: “That guy is a legend!”
Cape Capers has a Township Experience, a District Six and Bo Kaap tour, and a Cape Care Route, showcasing inspirational township projects. Faizal offered to give us a taste of all three in a full-day tour. It was a transformative experience.
Touring Cape Town’s Townships and Learning the Meaning of Ubuntu
BO-KAAP AND DISTRICT SIX
On our drive through colourful Bo-Kaap, Faizal tells us how his ancestors came to Cape Town from India in 1906.
“My wife was ‘Cape Malay’, as the Muslim slaves brought here from the Indonesian archipelagos were called. She could have owned property here in Bo-Kaap,” Faizal tells us, “But as an Indian, I couldn’t.”
We cruise through the desolate area known as District Six, where large lots of long grass remain vacant except for a mosque and churches left untouched when the apartheid government flattened the area.
“District Six’s history begins in the 1840s as a boomtown after diamonds were discovered,” Faizal says. “It was vibrant, full of life and diversity. My wife was born here, her father had a curry and rice house, and I married his youngest daughter and lived here as well. Then apartheid came and it was stolen. In 1966 it was made a white area. If we didn’t move, they packed us up and moved us,” he says.
“By 1970, the place was flattened. 30% of Cape Town’s population was affected. The first thing they did was build a freeway through the area.”
Faizal drives us to a car park and pulls over.
“That was where Hanover Street ran,” he says, gesturing to a barely discernable track overgrown with weeds. “It was once the area’s lively main street.”
He points to a church. “Moussa, a Muslim, was the bell-ringer of St Andrews Church. Uncle Izzy and Sarah, our neighbours, were Jewish; he was in our kitchen more than his.”
DISTRICT SIX MUSEUM
On our way to District Six Museum, Faizal shows us an enormous mural of Nelson Mandela and anti-apartheid activists Steve Biko, Cissie Gool and Imam Haron; the police station that was the scene of brutal tortures and killings of political activists; and outside the museum, once the Methodist Mission Church, the ‘plaque of shame’ mounted on the wall as a reminder of the thousands of people forcibly removed from their homes and other injustices that took place that whites had ignored.
Inside the impressive District Six Museum, where multiple forms of media, art, crafts, historical materials, documents, and photographs communicate the stories and experiences of the District Six community, Faizal points out a few special exhibits.
Above us, hang large portraits of well-known former residents, including Dr Abduraman, founder of the African People’s Organisation, his daughter Cissy Gool, a Cape Town City Council member, writer Alex LaGuma, and internationally-acclaimed ballet dancer, Johaar Mosaval, whose career was destroyed by apartheid.
There is a ‘memory cloth’ upon which former District Six residents have written messages and personal memories, while beneath our feet is a floor map where former residents inscribed their family names to indicate where they lived and marked out long gone local landmarks.
Dominating the room is a collection of 75 original street signs, rescued when the area was demolished, a tangible reminder of the homes and lives destroyed.
“The signs are very poignant for me,” Faizal says. “Each street sign erected here tells stories. But for me they also say that we’re rising again. Buildings and lives are being built again.”
A LESSON ABOUT THE HISTORY OF APARTHEID
On our drive to the township of Langa, Faizal gives us a condensed version of how South Africa got to apartheid, from 1652 when the Dutch planted the flag of the King of Orange on South African soil and the indigenous people’s resistance and subsequent massacres; through the import of slaves from South East Asia and the Dutch East India Trading Company’s domination until 1790 when they went bankrupt and the British took over; through the many treaties, abolition of slavery, establishment of the Boer Republics, raiding of Boer farms to pre-empt trouble, the Boer War, discovery of gold and diamonds, second Boer War, and eventually an uneasy peace between the Boers and British…
“It’s a classic story of the brutalized who become the bullies. For them to never be bullied again, they instituted apartheid, which lasted 48 years,” Faizal says. “When apartheid began, racial segregation was legalised and forced removals started.”
In the 1970s, protests by workers and students began, including the Soweto Uprising in 1976, and continued through the 1980s.
“There were protests, people didn’t pay their taxes, and the country became ungovernable,” Faizal says. “Billions were sent out of the country because the government could see the writing on the wall.”
A turning point came when anti-apartheid bills were passed from 1985 onwards. In 1990 De Klerk lifted the ban on anti-apartheid groups such as the ANC and Mandela was released from prison. In the 1990s, apartheid was legally abolished, culminating in the 1994 election when all adult South Africans were given the right to vote, no matter what their colour, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established.
“That was another turning point,” Faizal tells us. “When we all said ‘I know what you did to me, and it was ugly, but I’ll forgive you.’”
We arrive at the fairly bleak township of Langa, a short drive from the centre of Cape Town. Townships such as Langa didn’t fall under city council jurisdiction but under the government’s Native Affairs department.
“As a result, there was no money allocated here,” Faizal reveals. “The townships were filthy, there was garbage everywhere… from 1994 they started to rebuild. Now Langa and the other townships are starting to feel like communities. They have sporting facilities, schools, community centres. For the first time, people can get loans and buy their own homes.”
We visit the Guga S’thebe Culture, Arts and Empowerment Centre, where Faizal introduces us to artisans who are creating beautiful pottery, woodwork, and picture frames, initiatives made possible by fund-raising for the centre and successful locals who donated equipment, such as kilns in the pottery workshop and a photographic dark room.
Naleti, one of the pottery designers, talks to us about his craft and the processes they go through to make the pieces they sell at the centre. Nombulelo, who is painting the pottery, said she wanted to study psychology but couldn’t afford the education fees so she did a skills development program to learn skills that would “put food on the table”.
We meet Monwabisi Sobitshi, an actor and artist who makes crafts from recycled cans when he’s not running school drama workshops. Faizal asks him to perform a scene from the Fatima Dike play Isandulela about a young man who helps a frail old gentleman get to the voting station on election day 1994. Monwabisi plays the old man, who is emotionally moved at being able to vote for the first time that he breaks down as he makes his way to the booth.
“If I put my hands on this paper, I will be like a new person with a present and a future,” he says with tears in his eyes. “What do I know about freedom? I don’t know how to be free.”
It’s a powerful performance that moves me to tears.
A STROLL AROUND LANGA Township
Mpumie, a guide from Langa, takes us on a walking tour of the township, pointing out beautiful mosaic ‘memory towers’, schools, churches, a crèche, and a library, admittedly many of them behind high fences topped with barbed wire.
Langa was a centre of resistance against apartheid, and Mpumie points out significant spots, such as the place where seven student activists died in 1960 after Pan African Congress leader Philip Kgosana led a march of 30,000 to protest the Sharpeville Massacre when police opened fire on the Langa crowd.
Mpumie takes us to see the infamous old hostel buildings and ‘single quarters’, blamed for destroying families and creating dysfunctional communities. Constructed in the 1960s for male migrant workers, the reality was that ‘single’ rooms would typically sleep three men, with up to 64 people in one apartment, with a shared bathroom and kitchen.
Crumbling and badly in need of renovation, the buildings still house migrant worker families. Mpumie takes us to a small dimly lit room, crammed with suitcases, boxes and bags storing personal possessions, with just three single beds. We meet one of the women from the three families that share the tiny room. From the Eastern Cape, she is wearing an apron as if she’s about to go to work, yet she tells us she is unemployed.
Mpumpie takes us to a renovated new flat. Considerably smarter, it’s still small for a family. Rent for one of these is R350 per month, yet the family only brings home a salary of R800 per month, and the husband is currently out of work.
We pass a makeshift stall in a cloud of smoke, where ‘smileys’, char-grilled sheep heads, a popular meal for township residents, are being prepared (half a head is R30, a whole R60), and a shack bar shabeen, where a bottle of beer is sold for R10 and a 6-pack for R38. It’s difficult to understand how any of the families can even afford to ‘eat out’.
We stroll down a tidy street of compact brick and wooden houses that would be considered modest for many neighbourhoods but according to Mpumpie is “the Beverley Hills of Langa”. By contrast, at the end of the street is a ritzy development of contemporary two-storey townhouses that would be swish in any part of the world.
“These have been empty since they were finished over a year ago because of a complicated allocation system plus nobody can afford the R2000 monthly rent,” Mpumpie says.
Within sight of the swish new homes, down a dusty track, is the Joe Slovo ‘informal settlement’ of tiny wood and wrought iron shacks butted up against each other. The homes have no fresh water – they use buckets to bring water in to bathe and wash dishes and clothes – and opposite is a row of public toilets.
Made mostly of wood, the shacks occasionally catch fire, which can be catastrophic for the whole community, Mpumpie tells us, and when it rains, they flood. Mpumpie takes us inside one of the homes where three young boys watch television. Their mother is working. The family has lived here for 15 years.
Faizal drives us through the Victoria Mxenge Housing Project, named after a female political activist murdered by the state. The development of 140 houses was built by a group of 30 women from the South African Homeless People’s Federation who had been living in squatter shacks in the township of Khayalitsha.
Faizal tells us that the project – which doesn’t allow strangers to come and live here, and boasts ‘safe houses’ – has been a catalyst for racial harmony, with the black women here teaching ‘coloured’ women how to start similar developments.
We drive to Khayalitsha, a ramshackle township that sprawls across a flat plain. While Faizal tells us it’s the most developed of the townships, the area we’re driving through appears to be the least developed of the three townships we’ve visited so far.
Corrugated shacks that look as if they’d tumbled down at the slightest touch appear stacked upon each other. Hairdressers, mobile phone stores, and fish shops operate out of disused shipping containers. There is garbage everywhere, scattered across the street, and piled up in heaps by the side of the ride, the result of a recent worker’s strike, according to Faizal.
We could easily imagine this township in Nigeria or Mombasa but it’s world’s away from upmarket Camp’s Bay.
Our final stop is a business in the township called ‘Golden Flowers’, developed by an Eastern Cape man named Nongauza.
A former gardener who dreamt of a rubbish heap of flowers, Nongauza was inspired by a Coca Cola can to craft beautiful flowers made from aluminium, which he paints in pretty colours and sells to interior design stores.
Nongauza’s success has enabled him to send his three daughters to university and help his Eastern Cape village. He recently donated money for them to build a bridge.
I buy two lilac flowers and wish I could buy more.
On our drive back to the city centre, we ask Faizal why he wanted to be a guide, and why he and his doctor wife do the volunteer work that they do.
“Ubuntu,” Faizal says simply. It’s a word we have already learnt.
“Humanity. If there wasn’t a ‘you’, there wouldn’t be a ‘me’. For our existence to be meaningful it’s just something we have to do.”