Shacks in Gugulethu – photo credit to my friend Katie Brooks, instagram @katieebrookss
Last weekend, I traveled with my program to Gugulethu, a large township outside of Cape Town. Townships are the areas that the white nationalist government created during the Apartheid era in order to separate the races in residential areas. Thousands of blacks were forcedly torn from their land and homes to be moved into these impoverished, heavily overcrowded areas. Inside the townships, there were very little educational opportunities, resources, or healthcare.
The townships were designed to act as a reservoir of labor from which white employers could draw workers out when they were needed and then send them back when they were no longer necessary. Blacks had to carry passes on them at all times while outside the townships to prove to white authorities that they were working and not trying to escape the townships. Black Africans were not even considered to be citizens of South Africa during Apartheid, and therefore, were not afforded any of the same rights or protections as white South Africans. Today, although all races are promised political equality in the nation’s new constitution, there is still a huge racially based economic inequality that is illustrated today in the townships.
After arriving in Gugulethu, we went on a bus tour through the area. It was my first time actually being inside a township for an extended period of time, and it looked much different than how it appeared from the freeway while driving past it. People were walking around wearing normal clothes and carrying groceries and small children. It would look like any other town, except for the extremely small and often dilapidated houses that lined the streets. The homes were built so closely together that they appeared to share adjacent walls.
Something that particularly struck me was the apparent economic disparity that existed even within the township. Some houses were small but made of bricks or plaster and appeared to be clean and well kept. Other homes, sitting just across the street from these standard houses, were simply shacks built with sheets of tin, plywood, and other scraps of various materials. I remember trying to grasp the fact that entire families woke up every day to this reality.
These economic discrepancies could probably be attributed to unemployment rates: our tour guide stated that approximately 50 percent of Gugulethu residents were employed, which made Gugulethu “a nicer township than others”. I could not believe that an employment rate of 50 percent made Gugulethu a more successful township. Many residents established hair salons, food stands, and car repair shops along the streets in an attempt to support themselves and their families. Most residents who are employed, however, work outside the township in Cape Town and surrounding areas. This discourages many people from leaving the townships, because if they were to move into a “nicer” area further away from the city, then they would have to pay more every day for transportation to their place of work.
At one point of the tour, we got off the bus and walked around an area entirely made of dilapidated shacks. As a white middleclass woman, I felt somewhat like an intruder who was simply taking a break from my comfortable life to momentarily experience someone else’s impoverished reality. While I felt that I received some stares from local residents, I never experienced any outward hostility. People generally ignored us or even welcomed us with a smile. I suppose they might be used to white tourist groups visiting their township in an attempt to attain a more holistic view of South Africa, or at least, to satisfy their curiosity about life in a township.
After the tour and an amazing home-cooked lunch, we split into small groups and went with our respective host families to spend the evening and night with them. I stayed in the house of a kind mother named Toto with her two teenage nieces and three young grandchildren. The house was small but clean, organized, and well decorated. I could tell that Toto took pride in her home décor, as well as her cooking – we ate another delicious dinner with the family. Interestingly, the nieces packaged the leftover food and took it to their neighbor’s home to share. Toto explained that her home and her neighbors’ homes were like one giant family, because everyone looked after each other’s children and houses, as well as shared food. This kind of arrangement appeared to be common in Gugulethu: closely knit communities were formed and valued, which is another reason why many people do not want to leave the township, even if they can afford to live in a “nicer” area. Commonalities like poverty, crime, and historical oppression have created strong bonds between people in the area.
I asked Toto (who I called Mama, as a sign of respect in Xhosa), how she felt about the alarmingly high rates of crime in Gugulethu and other townships. She told me that rape and theft were major problems in the area. She said that she was afraid to walk alone at night, so she carried very little money and kept her phone in her bra in case someone tried to snatch her purse. When I asked her what she thought was the cause of crime, she blamed unemployment and rampant drug usage. She said that the government was unwilling and unable to control drug trafficking and selling, especially those that come from other African countries. She spoke about how dealers would even sell drugs to children at school. I then asked what she thought about the state police’s responses to crime, and she told me some police are corrupt, but not all of them were bad. She then talked about how much she trusted God to protect her and her family, and how she believed He would bring her community through their troubles.
The next morning, these beliefs of trusting God were reinforced when we attended a Sunday Presbyterian Church service with our host families. The first thing I noticed was how the congregation was overwhelmingly comprised of women. This would fit the general gendered stereotype of women being more religious than men. Once the service began, it was a very spiritually moving experience. This was especially true for the hymns, which were a blend of Gospel and traditional Xhosa music. It seemed like the congregation uses religion for both the empowering aspect of actively praying to conquer their struggles, as well as for the comforting concept of “laying one’s burdens” on God and trusting that He will provide. One prayer compared the people in the congregation, who have been historically oppressed and isolated, to the Israelites in the Bible. They feel as if they share the same struggle of surviving the “desert” of their lives, with God leading them to happiness and salvation.
In conclusion, my homestay experience was very inspiring and enlightening. From the stories of extreme crime and poverty that I had heard about, I was surprised to find happy people living their lives as joyfully and peacefully as possible. Obviously, the people in Gugulethu still continue to face major struggles in terms of relative deprivation, an ineffective criminal justice system, lacking educational opportunities, and a poorly designed infrastructure. The close family-like community that I found in the midst of these things, however, was a true testament to the strength of the human spirit and the desire for freedom, peace, and equality for all.