I knew a little about the slums or “townships” of South Africa. Remnants of the apartheid era, townships were the segregated, underdeveloped settlements created for non-whites to live in, usually on the periphery of the cities. Through movies and general apartheid knowledge, visions of tin shacks on dirty streets filled my mind and something I wanted to understand first-hand on my trip.
Since my shark-driven tour of Hermanus proved fruitless, I signed up for a tour of Zwelihle, a township within Hermanus of about 22,000 Xhosa people.
I did the tour with my new friend Sara I’d made at the hostel. Neither one of us was sure what to expect and wanted to be sensitive not to treat this community as a tourist attraction, but our guide Willie made us feel right at home. Short, round and jolly, Willie’s ebullience was infectious. With a bright smile on his face, he walked us through Zwelihle, proud to show us anything and everything.
To me, the township looked basically how I thought it would from what I’d seen in the movies. Away from the charming seaside of downtown Hermanus, Zwelihle lay flat in the middle of field, surrounded by an occasional hill in the distance. The roads, some paved, some dirt, were lined with tin shacks built within feet of one another. The houses stood on dry, dusty grounds on which lay sparse patches of grass and litter. Some of the homes had fences, even barbed wire. Others had brightly-colored laundry airing. Many had satellite dishes.
Most corners had a Spaza Shop, a Coke-themed tin shack which Willie explained meant “unregistered,” essentially a convenience store where people could buy food, drinks and general household items. Men gathered at these Spaza Shops to chat and laugh, women did chores outside the homes, kids played on the street. Willie smiled and greeted them all.
Willie explained there were different types of homes within the township. Many people, such as himself, rented the shacks for 200 rand a month (about $12.40). Those houses had running water and electricity, he said. Further within the township were flimsier shacks with no running water or electricity and public shared toilets. Willie told us these were free but available only to the disabled or elderly, or single mothers who qualified.
Though apartheid ended more than 20 years ago, the income discrepancy between white people and non-white people was clear, and the demographics of the township I saw appeared to be the same as it did when the township was formed.
Willie said finding work was difficult in the township, especially, he said, because of an influx of immigrants from poorer, surrounding African countries taking many of the jobs and keeping wages low. He also said the government was building better quality public housing on the land directly across from the township.
For me, I am grateful for the opportunity for the glimpse into a world so entirely different from mine and the warm hospitality in which it was experienced. I don’t know the future of South Africa, but I am curious to see the developments ahead.