Jul 6th, 2008

The Townships

by Maria
Posted in South Africa

There is a lot of wealth in South Africa, there is also a lot of poverty. Like many places in the world there is a very big disparity between those with money and those without. You’ll see very expensive homes and huge estates and then within a few miles you will find an endless sprawl of tiny, dilapidated, tin shacks. These are the townships, a result of South Africa’s apartheid regime. This is the reality for most of South Africa’s population. They are scattered all through South Africa; the sight of one will leave you speechless.

While most people and many guide books advise against going into a township on your own, it is possible to go on a “Township Tour”. My initial reaction when hearing of these tours was “No, that is way too intrusive”. It just didn’t seem right to go into a township as a tourist. The more we travelled through South Africa though, the more townships we drove by, the more people we met, the more we felt that that it wouldn’t be right not to go. This is a huge part of South African history, to overlook it seems wrong. How can we claim to have seen South Africa without seeing how the majority of its population lives? So we went.

IMG_2962Our guide spoke to us about what it was like to live in South Africa during apartheid. She then took us through District 6. We then went to a beautiful church service; you really couldn’t help but be moved by the powerful singing. Next stop was the lively community center where we were shown the many programs being put into place to help the people in the community. Lastly, we went through different parts of the township, went into several homes and met many people. Some will literally only tin and wood shacks, no plumbing. Others were markedly better. New homes are being built, progress is slow but thankfully it is happening. We didn’t feel right about taking pictures so we only took a few of the community center and this picture. The man was so sweet we wanted to remember him. He greeted us with a huge smile, shook our hand, invited us into his home and told us how his current place is so much nicer then the one before. Would you believe he’s in his seventies? He attributes his youthful look to a clean life: “No booze, no smoking, and no spices”. :-) It took every lit bit of self restraint I had not to grab him, hug him and kiss him on both cheeks.

MuralSeveral times and by different people we were told “You are welcome here”. We felt welcome. This is an important experience, probably one of the most unforgettable things you can do in South Africa. There is an undeniable sense of dignity and strength here; you’ll be humbled and blown away by it…we were. Don’t go to the townships to see poverty and poor living conditions; go to the townships to experience the unbelievable strength, resiliency, pride, beauty and hope of the people there. You’ll be moved and inspired.

Every now and again you will see a home that stands out. It’ll be painted with bright colors, have a huge mural or be brightly decorated some other way; somehow the people living there found a way to make it shine. Very beautiful, as beautiful to me as the mountains and the oceans. Human spirit; even Mother Nature can be trumped sometimes.

If you want to see something truly incredible, check out a book called “Shack Chic: Art and Innovation In South African Shack-Lands”. It is a collection of photographs celebrating the creativity and inspiration in the townships. Some photos shown here. “It is about the dignity to be found in the dusty streets of South Africa’s shack-lands.” It’s really a beautiful book and most definitely accomplishes what it set out to do. I haven’t had a chance to read it all, but I did find this quote:


There are many ways to make music. Sometimes it is a deep blue against the wall, a bright yellow against fear, another red to tribute imagination, hopefully an orange to earth bad vibes, and my black voice saying “my life is beautiful”

– Sandile Dikeni

PS. Should you decide to go, be sure to choose a company which donates part of your fee to the community you visit.

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