Up until this point, we’ve experienced the many facades of South Africa that make it such a fascinating country to visit…the incredible wildlife, the hospitable people, the amazing food, and the spectacular landscapes. But one aspect we hadn’t yet experienced was its complicated history. So we chose to spend the morning with Laura, a private guide and resident of the South African townships, to better understand the narrative of black history in South Africa straight from someone who’d experienced it.
Laura’s story was one checkered with pain and tragedy, but also opportunity and hope. Having grown up in the townships, she was one of the rare ones who managed to get out through education and a scholarship, but not without losing her entire family along the way. Through the inequalities of township life, limited access to healthcare, and just plain bad luck, Laura lost her son to cystic fibrosis, while both her first husband and brother were murdered in separate incidents. And yet she managed to keep her hope alive, focusing on furthering the history, while building upon the future, of the people of her township.
Our tour began at District 6, site of where the Cape Malays were displaced following slavery, and lived with less educated blacks. They were then displaced again in the 1970’s to what is now known as townships, self-enclosed ghettos where both populations were banished to live during apartheid. Within these townships was a self-governing society, as locals did business with each other and even took upon themselves to create and uphold their own legal system. That’s why even after apartheid ended, many from the townships chose not to leave, as they built and became dependent on this sense of community.
We had a chance to not only visit several townships, but also to interact with the locals. Laura’s program gave locals a chance to work as tour guides to improve their public speaking and interpersonal skills, so we were set up with a local named Thami once we arrived at Langa, the first township. Thami was like the mayor, introducing us to people left and right and even taking us behind the scenes to visit a “bar” which was set up in someone’s home and consisted of a giant vat of beer that the local women brewed. It was a bit of a culture shock at first, going off the beaten path with a dozen locals, but it gave us a completely different and authentic sense of life in the townships.
Next up was Guguletu, the township that Laura grew up in, which seemed a little more like a poor neighborhood than a true ghetto. Across the street was another township, Sanga, which was known to be the most dangerous one. While townships are self-governing to a sense, we had the unfortunate opportunity of catching law enforcement in action. A group of kids were beating the crap – literally – out of a fellow kid for stealing and the brawl carried over out of Sanga into the middle of the street with nobody stopping the action. It was a difficult scene to watch but the unfortunate reality of how life is lived in the townships. Across the street, in Guguletu, we visited the heart and soul of the community, their church. There wasn’t enough money to build an actual church so the church was set up under a tent, with service going from 11am straight through 5pm. We stopped in to witness the action, a passionate and boisterous gospel service filled with joyous singing and clapping and they even welcomed Doug and me with a song!
Last on the stop was the hopeful future of Guguletu, a preschool that Laura established 2 years ago with the profits from her tour. As there is no public funding for children at the preschool level within the townships, Laura took it upon herself to open the first one, with the hopes of eventually getting it subsidized by the government. Laura now teaches the children, while her husband drives the bus, and they hire an international intern as the assistant (oh, and their dog, Dr. Dre, is the mascot!). So out of the hardship that we saw of the townships was an opportunity to reshape the future.
It was a bit surreal to be transported from the sobering environment we were just in, back to the center of Cape Town. By now, it was lunchtime, so we stumbled across a terrific spot called Kloof Street House. My prawns in garlic butter sauce were mouthwatering, but Doug’s butter chicken curry was phenomenal. And my drink, oddly named Pornstar Martini, with a mix of vanilla and passionfruit, was one of the best drinks I’ve had!
Even though the day was getting away from us, we had to take an opportunity to go see Table Mountain. It took about an hour to ascend up uneven, steep rocks with no guardrail. The very end of the hike up was super steep, but we were rewarded with amazing 360 degree views of the city and ocean. There were a ton of tourists at the top who presumably took the funicular up, though we couldn’t find the boarding area so we were forced to walk back down. If there was a singular hour that I didn’t enjoy on this trip, this was it! The sun was setting quickly, I stupidly wore my sneakers that had no traction, and it was quite the terrifying hike down slippery rocks, at a steep downgrade. Most of the way down was spent on all fours, crabwalking like an idiot, essentially sliding down the mountain as quickly as I could. It took us so long to get down that the last 20 or so minutes were spent going down in complete darkness – pretty stupid of us. Not only was it unsafe to hike downhill in the dark, but Table Mountain was also known to be a popular spot for muggings. Coupled with the fact that we just got back from 6 days’ safari, my imagination was also running wild about what might be lurking in the mountains! Thankfully, we made it down safely but would definitely recommend approaching the hike differently – and earlier – next time.
By the time we finally got back to our room to get over the trauma and clean up, it was getting pretty late so most restaurants were closed since it was a Sunday. Having very few other choices, we ended up at the touristy area of the V&A Harbour and ate dinner at a place called Belthezer which was like a glorified Outback – definitely not the highlight of our day!