Drive in any direction from Cape Town airport and chances are you’ll be met by a glare emanating from the shining tin roofs of shacks spreading by the thousand to the horizon. Other than this brief cold dose of reality – often encountered in a dream-like state after a long flight – the average tourist does not often venture further to explore this more unsettling side of South Africa.
Yet a trip to a township with a local guide is an eye-opening experience that should not be missed. One of the smaller settlements is Imizamo Yethu (isiXhosa for ‘our effort’) in the pretty coastal curve of Hout Bay. Imizamo Yethu was established in the early 1990s and is home to about 25,000 people. Also known as Mandela Park, the township consists of informal shacks as well as government houses and homes built by the Niall Mellon Township Trust.
Our guide, a local woman known to everybody as Sylvia, gave us an insightful introduction into the history and people of Imizamo Yethu before leading us through the area, popping in at local shops and visiting the church that doubles as a community centre and the base for an ongoing craft project. The effort of residents to earn some money for their family in a country where unemployment is rife can be seen in the large numbers of small stores, barber shops and township taverns (known as shebeens). Having been introduced to township food culture through stalls selling sheep’s heads (known as smileys), goat innards and bags of tiny fish, a visit to a local shebeen gave us some time to exchange a few words with the very open and friendly locals.
A township tour is strongly recommended to anyone who recognizes the value of experiencing first hand the everyday struggles of people still living with the resonance of Apartheid. The stark contrast of the gadget-filled mansions on the one side of the valley, and the tin shacks with no running water on the other is one that stimulates a flood of emotion – including grief, guilt, shame, anger and frustration – that perhaps understandably many would rather avoid.
Yet allow yourself to experience these emotions. Allow yourself the opportunity to meet South Africans from all walks of life. Only then will you truly be able to understand the raw, troubled beauty of this country that is struggling to rebuild itself.
by Florian Suess
www.dinneratmandelas.co.za is an organization that offers traditional township dinners in a shebeen in Imizamo Yethu on Monday and Thursday evenings, during which visitors have an opportunity to party with locals.