The Township

In South Africa, “township” is synonymous with an impoverished area, regardless of what the legal definition might be. “Township” in Ohio meant a subsection of the county, usually an unincorporated area, but the township might also have a city. The point is, it took me a while to understand the different meaning.

After leaving L’Agulhas with Christiana and Alfred, we drove back through agricultural South Africa, and re-crossed the mountains. As we came closer to Cape Town metropolitan area, we passed large open areas where there were people milling about.

I had no clue what was going on, but Christiana recognized it right away. These were homeless people getting ready to set up a shanty town, known locally as an “informal settlement.” These were people who were from rural areas, moving to the city, and squatting on open, public land – or sometimes someone’s open field, I was told later.

The problem, of course, is that as they build their shacks, there are no facilities. The local government has to play catch-up with toilets and electricity. And then the satellite TV dishes show up, which tends to elicit some cynical remarks from the “formal” residents. And they look like this:

There are a lot of these settlements around Cape Town. They come because there is no employment available where they came from. I have been quoted a number of unemployment percentages. I don’t know which, if any, is accurate, but they are all extremely high – as in over 50%.

In the apartheid days, employment was difficult to come by, but they were mostly out of sight, and many jobs were reserved for whites only. That’s no longer true, but it does not seem to have helped very much.

A couple of days later, I went with Christiana as she made her rounds, visiting constituents and checking in to see how they were doing. (Christiana is an elected official – a city councilor in Cape Town. It is one of the things we had in common. You don’t know until you’ve been there.)

Because her district is in Cape Town, some of her constituents live in these informal settlements. The first place we stopped was to visit a social worker who works in one of these settlements. Christiana is on the right.

The young woman talked about some of the people in the neighborhood, what their issues were, how they were doing, what, if anything, Christiana could do to help.

After a while, we went to pick her son up from daycare, and I got a look at the program they are running there. The kids were happy, looked healthy, and the teachers were all enthusiastic about what they were doing and proud of their class. Like all not-for-profits, there were budget concerns, but they didn’t seem to feel it was unmanageable.

I snapped this photo as we were leaving:

The second person we went to visit lived in a small cinder block house with bars on the windows and a cinder block fence around her lot, with a jumble of barbed wire around the top. She was sitting in a cheap plastic chair in her yard, smoking and watching through her gate as the people went by. I don’t have a photo because I couldn’t imagine asking her if she would mind a photo.

She and Christiana had a conversation about the upcoming election, issues about voting logistics, and how she was feeling these days. They talked for a while, and then we left. It was difficult driving because the road was so terrible – water ran over it in places and little gullies were forming. In one place, the water was forming a deep ditch across the road. Christiana made a note of the location so she could call the Public Works people to go out and fix it.

This informal settlement seemed to have makeshift businesses mixed in – tiny convenience stores, tiny grocers with questionable produce stacked in front, tiny stores with children’s clothing, and a tiny hair stylist. They were all tiny because the largest was in a small shipping container, and other structures had been built around it with sheet metal and cardboard. (Cardboard is manageable because it rains very little.)

It was a side of Cape Town that a tourist doesn’t usually see, although I have seen “township tours” on offer through some of the tour agencies. Christiana expressed concerns over people moving to the city with no marketable skills, and very little education, especially about “survival” basics, like household budgeting. It was the very next day that I was on a tour I will tell you about in a later post, but the point here is that I overheard the guide in charge (white) apparently lending money to the driver (black) and saying, “Well, I can, but you need to learn to manage your money better, eh?”

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