While the tour of Robben Island was historic, the most rewarding and interesting experience so far in South Africa has been the visit to a township. Many South Africans have warned me that a “trip to South Africa would not be complete without a trip to a township” – and they were right. After a quick web search, I found a local township tour company, Sivewe Township Tours, which conducts walking tours of one of Cape Town’s biggest and oldest townships, Langa. The tour was perfect; it was given by a local Langa resident (h/t Chippa) who not only provides the ins-and-outs of the township, but also the history behind its development and progression. He even picked me up and dropped me back off! Spot on – highly recommended for anyone visiting Cape Town.
The township was very different than I imagined. What did I expect? Poverty, crime and another world? While I saw the various stages of poverty throughout, there is an impressive sense of community between those who live there. The children were incredibly friendly, wanting you to take pictures of them and grabbing for my silly bandz. Can you imagine random strangers just walking into your neighborhoods taking pictures? Take as many as you want, Chippa says, the people of Langa don’t mind.
However, I was struck by the levels of inequality inside the township itself — there are those who can afford the more expensive housing and those who have to basically build their own. In fact, there is even an area referred to as the “Beverly Hills” of the township with those living in the nicest and most modern housing. But, don’t be deceived: while you walk down one of the streets in Beverly Hills, the next can be lined with shack-like looking structures that border the main highway into Cape Town. I would assume that there would be growing tension between friends and neighbors as they rose within the different levels of housing. I asked Chippa about this and he said this wasn’t the case because of the strong sense of community in the township. I also asked Chippa about the crime rate to which he responded, if any, it was small petty crimes otherwise they would be beaten by the others. I think he was half joking, but also half serious.
The tour with Chippa started at the visitors center with some of the residents who run a project making mugs, plates and other items out of clay. From there, we walked for about an hour (I walk fast, but it would probably take a normal person a little longer) through the different neighborhoods while Chippa offered different stories and facts. The township is essentially a small community or neighborhood with public schools, police station, medical clinic and shops throughout. The tour ended on a high note — Chippa took me to a program called, Happy Feet Youth Project, an after school dance troupe that performed for me. The project provides an after school activity for children throughout the township. The kids were great and excited to perform.
One of the major health issues facing the townships — and South Africa for that matter — is the increasing rate of HIV and AIDS. With the lack of education, residents do not know how to protect themselves resulting in a mounting stigma about the disease. Given my own experience with the disease and living among one of the highest infections rates in Washington, DC, I found this to hit home in a big way. The other day, a friend reminded me to read Frank Bruni’s New York Times’ piece, Living After Drying, about the role of Act Up in the AIDS epidemic in the United States.