Visiting Langa Township, Cape Town, South Africa

At first, I was troubled at the thought of a tour of a black township. Wasn’t it simply voyeurism staring at a way of life we were fortunate enough not to have to live? But I wanted to see for myself how much, if anything, had changed in the new South Africa. Also, I reasoned, by visiting we were contributing in a small way to their economy.

So we selected a tour of Langa, the black township on the eastern side of Cape Town and were met there by Nathi, a resident and our tour guide. He was well-informed, keen and enthusiastic and welcomed us all to his home town.

Langa Township

Langa was set up during the Apartheid era as a planned township for black workers and their families. Hostels were built to house the migrant workers who flocked to Cape Town in search of jobs.

Hostel blocks in Langa. (photo credit and copyright Ann Burnett)

Hostel blocks in Langa.
(photo credit and copyright Ann Burnett)

Langa means ‘sun’ in Xhosa but its name actually comes from Langalibalele, an African chief who was imprisoned on Robben Island in 1873 for rebelling against the government.

Schools, churches and sports teams developed as the township grew and many small businesses were set up to cater to the township’s needs.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • It gives you a reality check as to the poverty still endemic in South Africa.
  • It makes you appreciate how lucky you are.
  • The attitude of the residents is positive and inspiring.
  • Good for anyone willing to discover how the other half have to live.

Nathi took us first to one of the hostels built in the 1920s. They are now very much in need of renovation. Despite that, families still live there. One small room held two sets of bunk beds while, in a corner, a young man sat glued to a soccer match showing on a TV.

My companion peered closely at the screen. ‘Manchester United,’ he said. Immediately a big grin spread over the young man’s face. ‘Manchester United,’ he repeated, giving the thumbs up. Despite not having a common language, they managed to discuss the relative merits of members of the Man U team. They were friends for life.

Next, Nathi took us to a kindergarten where delightful four- and five-year-olds sang songs and danced accompanied by a young lass whose skills as a drummer were impressive. We could have watched them for hours.

Life in the Shanty Town

One of the many small businesses (Photo credit and copyright Ann Burnett)

One of the many small businesses (Photo credit and copyright Ann Burnett)

The shanty town alongside the planned developments grew up as more and more people came to Langa. They built themselves shacks out of whatever building materials were to hand, using up every spare piece of land so that the shacks leaned against each other all along the ‘street.’ The one Nathi took us to was spotless inside; one room was used as a living room where the lady’s prized crockery and ornaments were proudly on display and the other, the bedroom, had a magnificent gold colored throw covering it.

Women at the communal taps (Photo credit and copyright Ann Burnett)

Women at the communal taps (Photo credit and copyright Ann Burnett)

But facilities were very basic; water was collected at a communal tap, cooking was done outside over empty oil drums converted for the purpose, chemical toilets were provided by the local council. Electricity was led by very dodgy links, obviously set up unofficially, to some homes but otherwise, candles were used to light houses at night. A recent fire, caused by a candle being knocked over, killed one resident and destroyed almost 400 homes.

The people were very welcoming. They rushed to set up stalls of souvenirs and knick-knacks for us to buy; they were obviously used to hordes of tourists descending on them and determined to make the most of it. As our guide pointed out, sales of souvenirs boosts their economy and money from the tours also makes its way into Langa’s coffers.

What surprised us were the private brick-built single storey houses alongside the poverty of the shacks. Successful and relatively wealthy residents apparently preferred to stay in Langa with its sense of community and neighbourliness rather than move out to the predominantly white suburbs. But perhaps that will change as the black middle class expands.

The entrance to one of the private houses (Photo credit and copyright Ann Burnett 2013)

The entrance to one of the private houses (Photo credit and copyright Ann Burnett 2013)

What we took away from Langa, apart from the colorful plaque depicting a street in the town, was an admiration for the resilience and entrepreneurship of the people there and a respect for their positive outlook for the future.

Practicalities

  • Go with an organised tour. Proteamsa was founded by Lizo Mgobozi, a resident of Langa.
  • Wear comfortable, stout shoes as it can be muddy in wet weather.
  • Support the local businesses and take every opportunity to buy from them.
  • Small gifts such as pens and pencils are much appreciated by the schools.

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