Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Townships of Langa and Khaylesha

        The day started as a trek out of Cape Town proper heading east. The day ended in a four-star hotel in the wealthy wine-growing region of Sommerset West in the outskirts of the Cape Province. The experience in between has altered my perspective profoundly--and it is still processing in a very strange way within my mind.

    A short drive out of the city, somewhere in the range of 15 to 20 km, took us into the township of Langa. This township, and others like it, are a direct result of the apartheid policies enacted between the 1950’s and 1980’s to congregate the black racial groups into specific and segregated locations. Such townships have a dynamic caste system of their own that occurs as a result of a marginally defined lower, middle and upper class. We were led on a tour of the township, which essentially turned out to be a tour of poverty. My thoughts on this matter are still evolving, but initially, it occurred to me that such “poverty tourism” is fundamentally immoral and degrading to those people we are observing through the lens of a camera. I took only two pictures before I felt an overwhelming sense of irreverence and guilt. I put the camera down and tried to spend the rest of the day being a human and not a tourist.
    People in Langa live in old shipping crates that have been converted to 10 foot by 10 foot rooms for an entire family. Others occupy old hostels, originally constructed for black Cape Town workers, that now contain twelve families per unit, three families per room, one family per bed. The children sleep on the floor or under the stove. There is usually only one bathroom to be shared among all 12 families, but these are the lucky ones, the ones with running water, the ones with a concrete foundation. The rest live in shanty-towns, the tin houses built of scavenged materials from the garbage of the wealthy from Cape Town proper.
    We visited one woman in particular, living in a used shipping crate with her husband, three children and one bed. The tour guide, a local Langanian, encouraged us to look inside her house and offer her money for allowing us to do so.

This was immensely fucked up, on many levels.

    As I looked through the door, this woman sat on a tattered quilt, gesturing with a forced smile and looking nervously at her children being engaged by several other white American tourist. I gave her a handful of change, maybe 5 Rands in total, and told her that her home was beautiful. She knew I was lying. I didn’t know what else to say. This group, this tour was somehow designed to inadvertently commodify the poverty of others, turning their disposition into an item to be consumed, to be photographed, to be used as a talking point in far away lands. My heart is full of guilt, my head full of a sense of injustice, for that which I am responsible for and for that which I am not. Either way, I am sorry for this grievous moral transgression.
    Following our visit to Langa, we headed to Khaylesha, another township and one of the largest in the Cape Town district. This place was almost entirely shanty-town, tin roofs and awnings. Hair salons under shaky roofs. Pubs behind decrepit gates. Unemployed young men playing with home-made dominos. Barefoot children running through the streets filled with garbage. And among this entire mix, two vans of white American students driving through. Local Khayleshians waved and yelled in Xhosa, Zulu, Afrikaans and sometimes English at our passing group. Its hard for me to believe that they were entirely supportive of our being there, but if the harbored resentment, they hid it well, although I am fairly certain I felt in in my bones even if I didn’t see it overtly.
    The day was sobering. The children loved having their pictures taken, but I hid my camera and tried to talk about soccer instead, or their school, or their favorite music. If I took their picture, I deleted it later. I didn’t want to make a spectacle of their situation without giving anything in return. I handed out what Rand I had, gave away my bracelet and laughed at their persistent antics.

    Behind their excitement was honest happiness, kids being kids.

    There were many things that I felt that went unsaid. It didn’t need to be explained. The adults and especially the kids, were not ashamed of their lives or of their poverty. They were proud like you and proud like me. It is my own ethnocentric, egotistical materialism that led me to ever assume otherwise.

    These people are just people, in every possible normal and abnormal sense of the word. Just people living their lives.

    The people in South Africa call everyone brother. Somewhere in the mix of people, shanty houses, stray dogs and street trash, I saw several signs bearing the image of Che Guevara with captions written in Xhosa. I didn’t understand this but I would like to; it seemed somehow, more significant than just pop-culture iconography. Still its meaning is up for grabs.
    Below are the only two pictures I took today. The first is a sample of the brilliant graffiti in Langa. A friend once told me that, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the best place in the world to find art and theater was in the newly abandoned, downtrodden and impoverished states of Eastern Europe. Out of strife comes creation, artistic expression. I feel as if this story is somehow analogous to the situation in Langa, the artwork and the people as a co-evolving being born from a certain social situation in a politically and historically ravaged country. There is strength, resilience and pride in these people, in their eyes and in their words. A few may beg, but still others spill beautiful expression onto their urban canvas.
    The second is a picture of the house of the woman living in the used shipping crate with her family. I don’t think I can say much else about this except that I am sorry I took this picture. She has beautiful children. She smiles like my mother. What she may lack in a home, she makes up for tenfold in her social presence within this sprawling neighborhood. There are not only millions of people in this land, but millions of individuals, far removed from my narrow eyes, but living lives in spite of their situation. They struggle, they falter, they love, they hate, they anger, they cry, they smile and they laugh, just like you and me.

peace and love from the RSA,


  1. mario, i figured i'd be saying this. i'm impressed.

    i really hope you can keep this going, your thoughts and adventures are truly inspiring.

  2. Mario, you are absolutely incredible. I wish everyone in the world had a heart like yours. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences.

  3. I wish everyone in the world could read this. Thanks for blogging all this bro, we all miss ya back here.

  4. To my Dearest Son,

    When you were a little boy, Grade 5, I think. I gave you a "Dear America" book, wanting you to read something other than sports, about a young man who went to war. Do you remember that? I worried so about it being more than you could handle and whether as a mother, I was doing the right thing. After you read it, you had me sit on the steps and you told me about it and how you could empathize with the character and how you would live a better life after that. I thought "WOW". I was awestruck about your perception and watched you grow and learn from there.
    The next few weeks will be a profound growing experience for you. There will also be challenges but remember that the great Lord has great things planned for you to climb any mountain that you are persistent enough to climb. Please listen for the Lord to whisper in your ear what direction you should go in life. He will always be there for you. Love Mom:)