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).

7 Replies to “An Insider’s Look at Life in a Township”

  1. What an interesting and cool experience to be able to really get a feel for what life is like there. Funny how kids seem to act the same no matter where you go 🙂

  2. Over the past few years I have become much more wary of people approaching me when I am out of my element. I am almost always on the defense, trying to figure out how one might try to manipulate the fact that I am a tourist. In part, I believe this comes from living in D.C., a city full of cold shoulders, but also from a general mistrust of ‘strangers’. Clearly, this has not been an issue for you. I am astounded by how many friendly and genuinely helpful people you both seem to have met. Did you have to get over any feelings of apprehension? Or did the trust come naturally? Do you not report back on the sketchy characters, or are you really only meeting wonderful people?

  3. This was a wonderful story. That’s awesome that you are going to be able to send back pictures of the people you met. Usually you use your camera for photos so you can remember, but these photos of themselves will remind them of you. There is more to a picture than meets the eye.

  4. So nice to find Xolile Speelman in your blog!
    We met him nearly four years ago and visited also his township with him. We found it very, very interesting and found him the same honest man you described above. We learned so much! Sure, we knew a lot before we traveled to SA, but this knowledge is so different from seeing by your own eyes and talking to “really” people! Specially for our daughter, she was eleven than, was this such a huge experience. These hours will stay in our hearts forever!
    We kept in contact with Xolile (by mail) and we hope, that he will find many tourists to show around. It is really worth it and we recommend it very much!

  5. i was there , and i pass through townships a few time but i really afraid of that experience cuz its very dangerous. Because people can kill you even for your clothes..

    its hard to live there , but really beautiful nature and hospitality rated people. But crime is very high , %25 of people doesnt have jobs and other percents are not having good salaries..

    but it worths to go and see that place in life time 🙂 good luck

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