The other side of Cape TownBy Daniela Cohen

The other side of Cape Town

By Daniela Cohen

Published on Fri, Apr 17 2009 by Daniela Cohen

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With a mix of excitement and trepidation, I approached the school, where a group of twenty students were waiting for the township tour. I really had no idea what to expect. The driver, Chris, greeted me with a wide smile. A large, bald colored guy with a thick moustache and deep laugh, he had organized the trip. We set off for Langa, a name that had provoked nervousness from people I had mentioned it to the day before: “That’s somewhere whites don’t go.”

Chris confirmed the rumor as we drove, but dismissed it as a myth. He expressed his desire to do something different, in contrast to the other drive-by tours of the townships. His goal was to get the community involved so they became part of the experience. His passion for the idea was palpable, as was his joy at us coming to experience it.

We picked up our guide on the way. A tall, slim black man with long, thick dreds, a narrow face and expressive eyes, thirty-year-old Thabo had grown up in Langa. He impressed me immediately with his articulateness, and earnest, humble demeanor. The first place we stopped was a centre where community artists were involved in various projects in order to express their creativity and also earn a living wage through their art.

We went inside to a pottery workshop where a slim, soft-spoken young man explained that he, along with half a dozen other artists, worked there, producing various pieces, including a cup symbolizing the upcoming 2010 World Cup. He explained that the artists were trained for twelve months, after which they received a certificate. They could then go on to find work or set up their own business. Afterwards, new artists were brought in for training in place of the graduates and the project continued. Next, we went outside to watch a performance by the Happy Feet dancers. Local children between the ages of five and twelve performed the gumboot dance for us. The expressions on their faces and the enthusiasm with which they executed their shouts and stomps was irresistible. At the end of the performance, the students clambered onto the stage to take photos with the kids, who posed with gusto.

We took a walk around the vicinity. Kids of various ages appeared and hung onto our hands. One started the game of using our arms as a swing to propel himself forward into the air and back. The others followed suit. We walked passed diverse housing, from small, brightly-painted houses to rows of standardized newly-built apartment blocks that Thabo confirmed was part of a government project to improve housing conditions in the townships. A few steps further on, as we passed notably dilapidated complexes, Thabo said, “The government isn’t finished. They’ve left this for now to do things for the World Cup, but they must come back here afterwards. They must.” I hoped he was right.

We left Langa for Guguletu, another township nearby. On the way, we stopped at the monument dedicated to the Guguletu Seven, a group of young unarmed men shot and killed during the apartheid era by the police for suspected collaboration against the state. Standing in front of the figures with their name plaques below, I felt a shiver run through me. The students milled around with their cameras. This history was interesting for them, but far removed, while I felt the pain of these men in a very real way. We then drove past another memorial, this time dedicated to Amy Biel, an American student who was stoned to death in the township in 1993 when she had entered one day to drop her classmates at home. Incredibly, her parents had visited the township, met with the young men responsible for her death, and forgiven them. They had even gone as far as to establish a foundation in Amy’s name in order to help young men from similar backgrounds to avoid a life of crime and violence.

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Our next destination provided a welcome diversion from the intensity of the historical sites. We crowded into a small hut to try umqombothi, traditional African beer made from sorghum. We sat on the wooden benches and passed around the vat of the sour-tasting substance. The students laughed when the man explained that you would really have to drink a lot of this to get drunk as it was only 2% alcohol. As we left the hut, I smiled at a young girl nearby dressed in a striped skirt with a pink beanie on her head. I greeted her in Xhosa and we went on to have a short “how are you” conversation.

“What?” I hadn’t heard her last words.

“Money,” she whispered again. I stepped back in shock.

“No, I don’t have any money for you.” I walked away.

I wondered how she had been conditioned to ask for cash and by whom. I heard her asking the same of the students behind me, but oblivious to her words, they only smiled at her innocent face.

We then visited the local sangoma, or traditional healer, a heavy set older man adorned with red and white beads and wearing a fur hat. All kinds of objects hung from the roof of his space. I saw the claw of some sort of animal, bones, skin, and flesh. I ducked to avoid being hit by one of them. He whispered how his grandfather, who had died before he had known him, had come to him in a dream, passing on the legacy of healing. He told us he could offer us a solution for any problem, if the girls wanted many boyfriends for example, he had the key.

It was then time for lunch at Mzoli’s, the local braai restaurant. A huge platter of boerewors and chicken was placed on our table, along with a plate of pap and another of salad, consisting of onions and tomatoes. I told Thabo I was vegetarian and was astounded to discover that so was he! As it turned out, there were two vegetarian students in our group as well. Thabo went to see what they could prepare for us, but from past experience, I didn’t hold out much hope. I took some salad and a tiny handful of pap, just enough to mop up the salad juice. But in a short while, Thabo returned with a vegetarian platter. They had cooked vegetarian schnitzels, soy sausages, some frozen veggies and special bread, which resembled flat Indian naan, but thicker and fluffier. It was delicious, and I felt incredibly grateful to have such an unexpected selection.

I chatted to the students sitting near me about their experience on the tour. Most said they were glad to have a chance to see something else, “the other side of Cape Town.” The tables around us were filled with a mixture of locals and visitors. Music and chatter filled the air, and I took a deep breath and smiled, enjoying the moment.

Photos by Daniela Cohen


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