By Michael Cavanagh
The pitter-patter of small feet trailed soft giggles as we made our way down the narrow road, following us with apparent giddiness. The scene was otherwise unremarkable.
Construction workers toiled under the midday sun to alleviate curbside drainage issues while passing vehicles cautiously navigated the buzzing neighborhood. Residents made their way to the local shops, greeting neighbors and chatting briefly about the day’s happenings before continuing to finish their errands. It could have been a normal day anywhere in the world. Yet the laughter behind us betrayed the normalcy, indicating something was amiss. That something was us.
Under a blue African sky dotted with fluffy white clouds, my wife and I walked alongside Nandi, our guide for the afternoon, as he described the community around us, explaining a foreign existence to foreign visitors. We were in the heart of Langa Township on the outskirts of Cape Town, South Africa, in the midst of a cultural experience that would prove to be as refreshing as a glass of Sauvignon Blanc from one of the many rolling hills under vine nearby.
The small spectators that trailed in our wake were having a cultural experience as well; our pale skin sparking their curiosity. Our guide turned and invited them to join. Apprehensively they inched forward, the youngest needing physical persuasion to get within arm’s reach of the strangers. A cultural exchange ensued in the form of demonstrating the customary American greeting of slapping hands, a bizarre ritual judging from the faces of our pint-sized acquaintances. After a few moments the youngsters were off on another exploration while we continued on our neighborhood tour.
Lying in the shadow of Table Mountain, Langa sits mere minutes away from the heart of cosmopolitan Cape Town. Yet at first glance, the two seem worlds apart. Adorned in luxury hotels and ocean-view high-rises perched on seaside cliffs, Cape Town is a beautiful city attracting visitors from around the world.
In contrast, Langa’s sprawl of ramshackle makeshift housing sits alongside the N2 (the highway that runs east from Cape Town) garnering fear, pity, or a bit of both from those same visitors. But as we found out, looks can be deceiving.
The oldest township in the Western Cape, Langa was built during the 1920s to house shipyard workers sent from the surrounding villages to provide the labor needed at the busy port. As the industrial capitalism of the time dictated, the accommodations were built with cost in mind, companies striving to protect their bottom line.
Buildings were constructed with a focus on maximum occupancy rather than functionality; workers packed four to a room to maximize sleeping space. For the men who left the agrarian existence of rural village life in search of a paycheck at the docks, it was an opportunity to provide for their families even though separation was included in the deal. Yet, in time, that separation would prove too big a hurdle and wives and children relocated to the township to attempt some normalcy of family life. It proved to be quite a challenge.
Even though Langa’s population grew, its accommodations lagged behind. Four to five families shared one-bedroom dwellings, sleeping arrangements taking up almost every square inch of floor space. As uncomfortable as it sounds, our guide explained the flipside of tight quarters.
“It teaches you a lot about living with others,” explained Nandi “and builds a sense of community.”
The atmosphere of community was fully apparent as we strolled along the streets of Langa, Nandi exchanging greetings and laughs with neighbors at nearly every turn. And it was this aspect of the township that explained its longevity.
Despite the outward appearance of desperation and languish, the community bonds that had been formed over nearly a century propel Langa forward. Residents choose to stay despite the opportunity for upward mobility and more scenic surroundings.
People that were born in Langa put down their roots and embrace the township as their own rather than relocating for fancier digs. Instead of fleeing for greener pastures, people put the work into their own yard, thereby building up the community from within.
Turning a corner, we suddenly found ourselves in the midst of neat upper-middle-class houses lined on level paved roads tucked back away from the N2. Intricate wrought iron fencing served the dual purpose of protection and decoration, while bright flowers blossomed on windowsills, hinting at a more leisurely existence betrayed by the highway view. This was the “ritzy” part of the neighborhood, home to the burgeoning middle class that the last 20 years (after the end of apartheid) has cultivated. It was also another example of the importance community held here.
But it wasn’t only the palpable sense of communal consciousness in Langa that was striking, but also the different forms it took and the way in which it was displayed. As tarmac met dirt, signaling the end of Langa’s coveted real estate, we passed a juxtaposition that illustrated the point. A freshly detailed black BMW, perhaps five-years-old, sat parked in front of a simple dwelling constructed out of timber and corrugated metal. The sight of a vehicle that costs more than the income of many of the residents of Langa parked in front of what can only be described as a shack was quizzical, to say the least. Yet, as Nandi explained, this further demonstrated Langa’s pull. The owner of the Beamer could certainly have moved out for nicer digs somewhere else around Cape Town, but chose to stay in familiar surrounds for the other luxuries Langa provided — one being the nominal cost of his humble abode.
Onward we walked, past a row of metal outhouses secured with individual locks (each household laying claim to their own commode) and a corner store selling daily necessities, such as candy and toilet paper. Nandi led us down a narrow dirt alleyway as a scrawny dog scurried past, undoubtedly on his way to the source of the aroma that filled his nostrils. With ducked heads we entered a dark room filled with the pungent smell of fermenting grain as patrons patiently sat on wooden benches that lined the walls.
Similar to many other cities and towns, the corner pub has long held importance here, serving as a meeting place to discuss everything from philosophy to soccer matches. But the corner bar or “shebeen” as it is referred to in South Africa, carries a deeper significance.
During the height of the resistance to the Apartheid regime, these neighborhood gathering places were centers of rebellion, oppressed citizens hatching plots to rectify injustice. In response, the government cracked down on these establishments, at one point irrevocably outlawing their existence. But repression only fueled the desire for justice and as history shows, tyranny has often been thwarted over a pint.
Our communal beverage that afternoon was served in a slightly larger format. The silver pail held around a gallon of millet beer and was offered to the guests first, not a triviality considering the long tradition of the eldest indulging at the outset. But our gracious hosts insisted and with two hands firmly clasped on the bucket I gulped a generous mouthful to show my appreciation for the gesture. The taste was”…uh, an acquired one. But at 20 Rand per pail (slightly more than $2) I easily understood the appeal.
After buying the round we departed, our hosts grateful for our generosity and us for their hospitality. Another few minutes of walking and talking brought us past several well-attended police vehicles, which brought us to another unique aspect of life in Langa (and townships in general). Policing the township was an interesting and challenging undertaking. The brutal rule of Apartheid government and their ruthless use of the police to force submission created an intense distrust of men in uniform. Vigilante and mob justice for offenses committed within Langa had become the norm as government law enforcement was seen as a foreign enemy incapable of fairly arbitrating transgressions. And anyone that drew the ire of the community through criminal activity would be dealt with swiftly and severely, the trial taking place the moment hands could be put on the accused.
And while those breaking the social code of Langa may still feel the wrath of self-appointed judges and juries of the street, attitudes towards police officers are slowly changing as the township’s own don the uniform.
There is also township pride here, displayed by a young entrepreneur selling apparel adorned with Langa’s postal code. Residents brush aside external pity and fear towards the perception of dilapidated housing and instead tout its communal spirit and culture. And part of that culture is entrepreneurship. In addition to the young man seizing on Langa’s hipness, we witnessed multiple businesses that were attempting to fill a void.
“If you don’t have work,” explained Nandi, “you have to find something to do. You cannot just sit around and wait for someone to give you something. You have to make it happen yourself.”
We then rounded yet another corner and headed into a middle-class home without preface from our guide about its significance to the tour. It seemed to be like any other home as we entered the foyer, the television playing a midday drama with pictures of children and families displayed on shelves and artwork hanging on walls. We wondered if he needed a pit stop before carrying on, but instead found a whirlwind of activity at the rear of the house. In the kitchen the matriarch of the household was elbow deep in a humongous pot, mixing the contents of what would be lunch for (hopefully) hundreds of neighbors. She was a former factory worker that left her job to take care of her grandchild now that her daughter-in-law was studying at university. But instead of consigning herself to playgrounds and kiddie movies, she turned her home into a business, making delectable meat pies that she sells out of her front door. The only problem now, she relayed, is that demand has exceeded supply and she needs to expand. A problem any entrepreneur would love to have.
We stepped back into the warmth of the afternoon sun amidst the liveliness of the street, a steady stream of bicycles, cars, and pedestrians getting on with life. It could have been anywhere in the world. But as we made our way back to the astutely placed cultural center (which also serves as a welcome center) near the entrance to the township, the distinctiveness of Langa revealed itself. As we passed newly established B&Bs and curio shops looking to take advantage of increasing tourism opportunities — something unimaginable years prior — the resiliency and spirit of the place was remarkable.
The township did not shy away from its past or attempt to scrub it clean and present an anesthetized version of itself. It embraced its evolution and the consequent strengths that followed. Of course, there are issues that exist that are not highlighted on tour, many resulting from the poverty and unemployment that still plagues the area and South Africa as a whole, but that is to be expected. After all, Mickey surely doesn’t point out the two-hour lines and $8 hot dogs when talking about the Magic Kingdom. Nevertheless, in a place with such an obvious stigma to the outside world, perceptions of misery ring hollow. The air-conditioned highway view from a luxury car could not be more distorted after walking Langa’s streets. And as we perused the creative artwork on display in the cultural center, clichés about the covers of books and the shallow depth of beauty bounced around my head. But more importantly, my courage to explore was buoyed, my desire to find connections to unknown places reinforced.
About Michael Cavanagh
Michael Cavanagh is a freelance writer in search of memorable locales, delectable cuisine, and delicious drink. An experienced world traveler, Michael views globetrotting as an adventure like no other. He hopes to share his discoveries with other oenophiles, foodies, nomads, and travel enthusiasts. Michael has been published in The Wine Enthusiast, PalatePress, Destinations Travel Magazine, Terroirist, and has a regular column at Examiner.
Feature photo by Maureen Sill