Going into a township was something I both did and did not want to do. On the ‘did’ side, it’s always fascinating to take a look into a world one knows nearly nothing about. And the remnants of apartheid, made real by large communities of small shacks that pop up sporadically around Cape Town, was certainly a world I wasn’t familiar with.
But then, on the ‘did not’ side, it’s weird and pretty exploitative to barge into someone’s home with your camera and your tour guide and start staring at them in disbelief. It’s uncomfortable and not cool. Just imagine how you’d feel if a hop-on-hop-off bus company stopped at your house and a bunch of tourists in over-sized sunglasses and salmon colored shorts began snapping endless photographs of your messy bedroom.
I had a talk with a friend from South Africa, and she assured me that taking a township tour was okay, because the people in the townships have turned these tours into a source of revenue and thus welcome strangers.
“They’ll try to sell you things,” she said. “Be nice and buy something. Then you can tell yourself that you’re there to help them, and not just there out of morbid curiosity.”
She had a point – morbid curiosity really was my main motivation, and a noble excuse was perhaps needed to put me somewhat at ease.
So, our decision to go made, two days ago my girlfriend and I signed up for a tour and about thirty minutes later, we were on a van heading into a township. I was uncomfortable doing the township tour to begin with, and was made even more uncomfortable when our tour group turned out to be just the two of us, nobody else. Me, my girlfriend, and the tour guide. It felt wrong and embarrassing, like we were two peeping toms. At least if there were more people there, our faces might get lost in the crowd and wouldn’t be so easy to identify, staring wide-eyed in through open doorways.
Anyways, the remainder of this post will basically be pictures from the township, with a few descriptions. Let’s start with a couple images to try and establish what a township looks like:
One thing I learned is that there are different degrees of quality in the townships. Some portions of the townships are actually not that bad. The houses have been renovated and at least seem stable. As in they’re not in danger of falling over at any second. There are businesses and shops all over the place. These areas don’t seem hopelessly desperate, and the people appear to be running their own insular city with apparent success.
But then there are the other portions of the townships, and they are awfully depressing. These are the portions where houses are literally pressed up against each other. I didn’t see any of the people living here, and I can only imagine how heartbreaking the conditions are.
A few interesting things: First, there were satellite dishes all over the township, and we were told that even the worst homes have TV. Secondly, we learned that water and electricity are free in the townships, provided by the government; our guide strongly suggested that people will not consider moving out of the townships until the government stops this. Thirdly, people don’t really want to leave the townships. This is where their homes are. Their friends and families. They have their jobs and their roles here. What is there for them outside of the townships? Just people they don’t know and jobs they wouldn’t be qualified to do.
I was not surprised to learn that there’s a lot of drinking and drug taking in the townships. Our tour guide brought us to one of the township pubs, and for 30 rand, we were able to enter and drink. They don’t serve beer in the township pub – they serve some kind of thick porridge elixir that’s made in a big garbage can. Below are pictures my girlfriend took of the, um, brewing process, and finally me drinking township booze out of a bucket.
Another thing that caught us by surprise were the sheep heads. Apparently sheep heads are something of a delicacy in the township. The sheep heads are cooked and then the meat is eaten directly off the sheep’s face. Heads littered the streets outside one particular house (or restaurant I suppose), bloody and horrible looking and covered in flies. We were offered the option of going inside to try a little sheep face ourselves, but we politely declined.
Finally we did come upon a shop where we were asked if we’d like to purchase something. My girlfriend decided to buy a little painting, which turned out to be 380 rand. Way, way more than we were expecting township art to cost. We paid it, though, and were subsequently laughed at by the tour guide.
There’s a thin line, my friends, between helping out and getting suckered.