In this post, we bring you a cultural perspective on Cape Town with a description of our Langa Township tour. From our last post, you may remember that Cape Town is among the most diverse cities in the world. There are deeply embedded racial classification systems in place, dating from the earliest days of the Dutch settlement and of course becoming all the more entrenched throughout the era of Apartheid which officially began in the 1950s. During this era, the four main racial categories were “White,” “Coloured,” “Indian,” and “Black.” Both the Coloured and Indian categories were divided into additional sub-categories, but the basic concept is that whites were at the top of the totem pole, Indians and Coloureds fell somewhere in the middle, and the Blacks were relegated to the very bottom. Some would argue that not much has changed in this regard, even in the 21st century, but there has certainly been tremendous progress since the end of Apartheid.
Under Apartheid, South Africa was carved up into specific areas or “homelands” divided along racial lines. The residents of these homelands provided the labor force for mining and other white business interests (farming, vineyards, etc), but had no civil rights or government support whatsoever. Essentially, the system was akin to recreating slavery in the modern world.
When male or female workers came to the cities to provide labor, they were housed just outside the cities in what are now known as the Townships, They lived in single sex hostels or rudimentary structures similar to dormitories. The men and women living there were not allowed to see their families back in the homelands other than for two weeks per year. These townships grew significantly when the laws of Apartheid were dismantled and the extended families of the workers moved away from the homelands and into the cities to be with their loved ones. Hostels which once slept 16 men now became homes for 16 families, and the residents of the townships live this way still.
Our family took a tour of Langa Township to get a sense of the culture and living conditions of its 250,000 residents. Despite a past history of violence against whites, most townships are now quite safe to enter and tourists are welcomed by the local people due to a strong sense of cultural and community pride within. Langa is only about a 15 minute drive from the center of Cape Town, but seems a world away once you enter.
Langa hosts a small museum dedicated to the history of Apartheid. The museum is housed in what used to be the administrative headquarters for the “Pass System,” whereby all non-whites had to carry a passbook as identification with them at all times. If caught without their pass (even while gardening in their own yard, for example), men, women and even children could be arrested and immediately repatriated to the homelands, losing their jobs and the ability to return to the city. This system, in place from 1950 to 1990, represented Apartheid’s most extreme restriction on civil rights and freedom of movement for non-whites in South Africa.
Our fabulous guide, Odwa, himself a resident of a Langa hostel, showed us the different types of housing available to residents (depending on their economic status). Hostels are considered middle-range housing. A step up from those are government-funded apartments which might resemble the lowest-income housing developments in the U.S. and which are highly coveted and hard to afford for most Langa residents. A few lucky residents even own small homes, and Odwa labeled these streets the “Beverly Hills” of Langa. The majority of residents actually live in the “informal settlements” or shanty-towns surrounding Langa. Dirt streets are lined with shacks made of corrugated metal and cardboard, one seemingly on top of the other, for as far as the eye can see. Small stores dot the streets, children run among the shacks unattended while women cook on the side of the road and men gather in dark stalls selling beer and sundries. Following are some photos depicting the various accommodations.
We entered a hostel, exploring the communal kitchen space and then a bedroom that had three single beds crammed within, which was home to three separate families. Each couple had one bed, and the children slept on the floor. The photographs below do not capture the reality of the situation, but it was too tight to get a good shot. In total, 16 families are sharing a unit which was built for 16 individual men to share.
The girls shopped for bead work in the Township, enjoying the experience of truly “buying local.”
The Informal Settlements…
Below are images of Langa’s shanty-town. There is electricity for those who can afford it, but no running water. Residents have to pay to use an outhouse and they collect their water from a well or communal faucet. Notice how closely together the shacks are erected. There are many more people needing a home than plots of dirt to accommodate new buildings, so all of the structures are crammed together. One of the biggest problems in these areas is therefore fire. As soon as a candle is left burning by accident or a burst of electricity blows a fuse, hundreds of homes are at risk. Fires jump from one shack to another in the blink of an eye, and the residents experience total destruction of their property and few possessions. Sadly, this is a common problem here.
We also visited a pre-school in Langa, and were greeted by singing children. Schuyler, Zoe and Thayer enjoyed listening and then reciprocating with a couple of songs of their own.
THAYER: I didn’t understand the children’s singing because I’m not used to their accents. But I loved the kids when they danced and sang with us. There was a little girl, about 3 years old, and she was playing the drums! She played the beat exactly right just like her teacher wanted her to. It was fun!
Outside the pre-school, some junior high school girls gathered by the fence to peek at the girls. Schuyler and Zoe engaged with them in some giggly conversation before we had to move on.
We stopped in at a community art center, built to help Langa celebrate it artists, musicians, and dancers. Local artisans exhibit their crafts in the halls, and use the studios in the back as their workshops.
We met a sand artist who showed the girls how he paints, literally, with sand on canvas. He is one of only a couple of sand artists remaining in Langa, as the craft is dying out.
There is a great deal of cultural pride in Langa, and many traditions have actually been maintained by the residents. This is in part due to the fact that Apartheid kept the Blacks so totally segregated from other races, it unintentionally (and thankfully) allowed for the safeguarding of their cultural heritage. One favorite tradition amongst this population is to eat “smiley” or sheep’s head (this may be is a bit gory for our younger readers, so be warned). On the side of the road, we came across a smiley stand. An open fire burns next to a basket of chopped off sheep heads. A woman cooks each head over the flame, burning off the wool and roasting through the skull so that all parts of the sheep’s face are cooked. Then the locals buy the head and enjoy each part (tongue being the best) with some spices right there by the side of the road. It’s like a fast food snack. If you have a weak stomach, skip these photos, but you should know that Thayer and Zoe both sampled the smiley, so if they can do it, so can you!
THAYER: I went first to try the sheep head because I was brave. Then Zoe went, but she didn’t like it, so I had a bigger piece! I actually kind of liked it!
ZOE: Smiley was gross. It was really gross. I tried a teeny tiny bit but I could barely get myself to eat it.
SCHUYLER: Smiley was so disgusting I couldn’t even go near it. It was completely non-hygienic and I had a hard time not gagging. After five minutes of watching, I had to go back to the car.
JEFF: It’s a little hard to admit this, but I am in Schuyler’s corner on this one. I have a similar problem with the old gag reflex – tends to overreact to things like roasted sheep head.
BLAIR: Don’t ask me why I thought it was ok to feed my kids this food. Traveling for this long will loosen one’s perspective I suppose. It’s a bit ironic that I’ve trained my kids to say “eeeewwww gross” when they see a McDonald’s sign, but roadside-cooked sheep face seemed somehow acceptable to sample. And going back to that minor incident where I put Jeff’s phone through the laundry… all of our clothes reeked of the blackened sheep skulls when we got home from Langa, so getting the clothes into the washing machine was something of a priority of mine. Jeff’s phone was just a casualty of smiley!
Final thoughts on Langa…. I think it’s safe to say that we all gained a lot from our few hours in this township. It was fascinating to bear witness to such poverty in combination with cultural pride and joyful living. Although their history is complicated and sad, the people here have a deep sense of community and seem to be always looking ahead rather than looking back. When our family sat down to dinner together on the evening after our tour, we had a long conversation about the differences in living conditions just within Langa, and then compared the lifestyle there to our own cultural and personal expectations re privacy and living space, hygiene, personal possessions, and family relationships. To date, it was one of the most compelling and reflective conversations that we’ve shared on this trip.
Next stop, our own little home away from home – the Bo Kaap! Post coming soon….
We love Africa!