Driving past the townships such as Masiphumelele, close to Cape Town it is easy to consider them a blight on the area. Filled with ramshackle, rundown temporary accommodation, streets littered with garbage, effluence, or even open sewage streaming down the streets, and discarded vehicles abandoned in the shanty-like communities.
Masiphumelele, means “I will succeed”
Originally, the symbol of apartheid, where black South Africans relocated to make sure segregation from the white population. Now they are home to an ever-growing mixed community of African nations.
Taking a walking tour in an informal settlement needs including on every visitor to South Africa ‘must do’ list. Discovering the alternative, positive side of townships, learning a little of the history, their culture, and gaining an understanding of the people who call them home.
I was fortunate enough to visit Masiphumelele, which means “I will succeed” in Xhosa. It was a stark contrast to a morning spent swimming with sealions at nearby Fish Hoek, ultimately, it was an uplifting experience. There are around 30,000 inhabitants, and is one of the smaller townships, but the settlement is at saturation point, yet more continue to arrive.
It seems likely they arrive filled with hope, looking to improve their lives, realising they will initially need to live in substandard accommodation, unhygienic conditions, and work will need finding. The reason for their optimism, is the promise of eventual homing in purpose-built housing, with electricity bills the only expense.
“There is a real sense of a community”
They must first register for consideration, there is a long waiting list, as building is a slow process. Apparently being first isn’t necessarily the best option either, as the first built homes have corrugated roofing, the later lucky ones are tiled. The settlement has already reached it’s boundaries, so it’s now necessary to build upwards, any new developments will be two floored apartment blocks.
There is a real sense of a community helping itself, nobody is moping around, or feeling sorry for themselves. There are broad, friendly smiles everywhere, people getting on with their daily lives, in the streets of the shanty settlement. The routine is similar to any small community, if slightly individual; school runs from the back of pickups, there’s eclectic commuter traffic, and impromptu, roadside market stalls sell fresh produce, and other assorted goods.
Young children play in the street on the way home from school, mothers buy dinner from ramshackle shops, or do the family laundry, and workmen pull up slabs, repair fences or build new ones. Corrugated iron sheds in a kaleidoscope of colours house grocery stores, butchers, photography studios, hairdressing salons, bars, and internet cafes, people attempting to eke out a living, and building a community.
Somalis are often the shopkeepers, renting from South Africans, while Nigerians look after people’s hair, as they make better hairdressers. At least eight languages are spoken in the clinic, community centre, and restaurants of the township.
The library in particular is a hub of the settlement, a grass roots initiative, which has been in existence since 1992. Apart from improving literacy, there are computers for self-help, and group study. Providing organised courses in a number of subjects, and art and craft workshops are also held regularly.
There are several schools, including some individually run private ones, using their allotted ground space to provide an education for children instead of building accommodation. I visited an infant school just after a play period, the children should have been sleeping, but were mischievously grinning, and restless throughout my visit. Before leaving, a young girl sang for me, I was unable to understand her words, but it was a lovely treat.
The shack which acted as their school was too small for the number of children present, but these volunteer tutors, teachers, and headmistress, provide for a small fee, an essential service, enabling parents to go out to work.
“Madiba would be proud of their determination”
The community also pulls together to improve the facilities of these small schools, making improvements to the existing buildings, and assisting the tutor with obtaining essential teaching qualifications, required to gain a full school licence.
Along with teachers and shopkeepers, there are doctors, and those offering legal advice, this willingness to self-help has encouraged assistance from international sources. An extensive, and effective volunteer programme is in place, with qualified doctors, and teachers from across the world, particularly Europe, and the United States. They have their own hostel style accommodation, and spend several weeks, or months providing expertise in areas where there maybe a shortage.
Among the ramshackle corrugated shacks, there is a vibrant community, playful children, industrious storekeepers, and parents just doing the best they can for their children, hoping to build a better life for them. They have the spirit of success, and they deserve to succeed, and Madiba would be proud of their determination to succeed.
Townships are not among the most popular Cape Town attractions, but I found Masiphumelele one of the most fascinating, and uplifting. The conditions in parts are shocking, it is totally unsanitised tourism, and often the conditions emphasise this.
My guide was Zwai of AWOL Tours which provide ethical, respectful walking, and cycling tours of townships, led by a member of the community.