Cape Town is amazing with all it has to offer from the best kite surfing in the world, to sweeping scenic views and vibrant social scene. However, it’s hard to ignore the hard life that surrounds the beautiful town, the less glamorous side of the city’s culture, specifically, the townships.
What are townships you may ask? In a nutshell, these are peripheral communities, designed by the local government, to segregate poor blacks from rich whites. The 1902 Bubonic plague became the catalyst of this effort. Forcing relocation of the African community into these restricted pockets of matchbox houses became known as the Aparthied. While this effort ended 20 years ago, there is no denying that it still feeds into the thick tension of the city.
When we first arrived in South Africa, we were warned repeatedly to avoid these townships especially alone after dark. But, we didn’t come here just to enjoy the fruits of this place. We came here to learn, understand, and embrace all its sides, pretty or not.
With two guides, fifteen of us packed ourselves into a van and headed out. We would see this for ourselves.
Experiencing some Sunday braai (BBQ) would be our plan. Our first destination was Mzoli’s, a popular butchery in the township of Gugulethu. It was known to be open to outsiders. Prepare as the streets would be flooded with vendors, drinkers and kids of hustle. Pick pocketing was a common activity.
Manenberg would be our second stop for their Sunday street affair. Like most townships, friends and families line up along their main drag to gather and sell with their grills, booze and tents. We were reprimanded if roamed anywhere alone.
The braai was incredible and gone in minutes as we hovered over the massive bucket it came in. We incorporated new dances we were taught from the people around us. Music and moving became our common language.
All in all, it was a full day of celebration but, most importantly, it was about being comfortable in an environment we’re not used to. We had to remind ourselves to relax, let loose to the music that surrounded us. Move the feet, move the shoulders – just move. If the local people around us can forget about life’s problems, we should be able to do the same. Not to mention, accepting the curious eyes around us whether we were welcomed or not, just as they do when they step out of their homes.
The sun was setting, it was time. We were ushered into the van. As fun as it was, we could no longer test our fate. We did what we could to make it work and we came out unscathed.
It was nerve-wrecking, exciting and uncomfortable. This was one of my most meaningful experiences here in Cape Town – real, organic and humbling. The realization – I don’t necessarily need bubbles, VIP, and perfectly manicured lounges to have a good time nor to meet people I like.
Change your environment once in while. You’d be surprised how a different experience will enhance your senses and challenge you in other ways.
‘Til Next, Elisa
Ps. If you would like to read more about the history of townships, check out these links: