An Insider’s Look at Life in a Township

During the era of Apartheid, blacks in South Africa were forced to move from white areas into designated black areas, which came to be known as townships. The townships were crowded and poor, and the people, many of whom had come from nice homes and stable lives, were left to live in squalid and often hopeless conditions. (Though, unfortunately, many also lived difficult lives prior to Apartheid as segregation and repression were not new ideas; simply more strictly enforced ideas.) Pass laws required blacks to carry passes designating when they could enter white areas and for how long they could stay. For these people, who could rarely find work, who were not given good education, who were forcefully kept out of society, the future—and the present—was a bleak one.

With the end of Apartheid, change came to Africa, but as with all such dramatic changes, it’s realities came slowly. Today, nearly two decades into the “new” South Africa, many blacks still live in townships. Some still live there, despite opportunities to move elsewhere, because it is now “home;” many others still live there because they, practically speaking, have no other options. For those visiting South Africa, a tour through a township is almost a must, an opportunity to see firsthand how the majority of South Africans live. Soweto, the famous township in Johannesburg where the uprisings that eventually led to the end of Apartheid began, is the most popular place for a tour.

We, while interested in visiting Soweto, were also a bit turned off by the info we’d seen on the tours, as we felt it might feel too much as if we were treating the people and their neighborhood as a sort of “zoo.” You know, a big group of probably all white people, walking around, taking photos, and gawking. But we did want a chance to see a township and to learn more about life there. As luck would have it, we literally ran into the perfect opportunity. While walking down the streets of Graaff-Reinet, a man said hello and stopped to talk to us, asking about us, telling us about himself, and discussing the politics of the day (Presidential elections in South Africa are April 22, and the president of the ANC, the party of Mandela, was just that morning cleared of charges of corruption, though it seems he was probably quite guilty.).In the course of conversation, we learned that he was the guy listed in the Lonely Planet who gave excellent tours of the Umasizake township outside Graaff-Reinet. It seemed like fate, so we set up a tour with him.

It ended up being an excellent opportunity. It was just Jeff and I with our guide, Xolile Speelman, and he treated us like friends, talking to us with complete honesty. He didn’t sugarcoat life in the townships, but he didn’t dramatize it either. He didn’t make the people into martyrs, and he didn’t make them into sinners. He talked of their challenges (both others-imposed and self-imposed) and their successes. And being a popular guy in the neighborhood, Xolile (pronounced with a clicking sound as many of the words of the Xhosa people are) introduced us to many people, quite a few of whom asked us to take their photos (so that we could send copies to Xolile and he could pass them on, as many of these people don’t really ever get an opportunity to own a photo of themselves). We met an older gentleman out with his wife, women working in their yards doing laundry and preparing food (each house has water and electricity provided by the government), and a lot of children, a bunch who hammed for us while wearing Jeff’s sunglasses.

We also were able to get a close look at some of the houses, which ranged from shanties of discarded wood, cardbood, and tin roofs, to nice brick homes.

We saw the schools, which are getting better, but are still not great due to the past inequality in training of teachers as well as distribution of resources. We visited a clinic, where free health care is available to the population, of which 14% is known to have HIV/AIDS. But as we learned that number is probably low, because most people don’t get tested, and unfortunately the disease is still highly stigmatized (more on this in a later post). We talked about international aid and development, politics and voting, corruption and crime, employment opportunities and government handouts, the ups and downs of affirmative action, and the problems of poverty. It was eye-opening, interesting, and highly educational. We left the tour feeling as if we’d gotten a true insiders look at life in an African township, and were not left at all with the feeling that we’d imposed or treated the people as a tourist attraction. So if you’re ever in the area and want to understand a bit better how a huge portion of the population lives, look up Xolile (Irhafu Tours in the Lonely Planet).