William and Mary Law School

Return to Masiphumelele

On Saturday, I returned to Masiphumelele to help with the election of new community leaders.  Although flyers were sent out and the community was informed, both of the would-be candidates did not show up and only a hand full of residents attended.  Not wanting to waste a visit, Anthony, the community outreach officer at PASSOP, answered questions and conducted a workshop on the asylum seeking process.

After the workshop, Anthony took another intern and me around Masiphumelele to see the township.  We walked through the streets, which were more like footpaths than actual roads, and spoke with locals, whom Anthony knew.  Anthony explained the patchwork of shacks and house, stating that South Africans own the freestanding houses but immediately build shacks on their property to rent out to foreign nationals.  After seeing the informal residences, as they are properly known, a few locals were gracious enough to invite us into their homes.  The simple shacks are made of corrugated steel supported by wood frames and enclosed by drywall and cardboard.  Some are quite large but most seemed to be the size of an attic crawlspace.  Despite the modest components, the informal residences had electricity and some had indoor plumbing while most had shared an outhouse.

The residents were very friendly and were always smiling.  They were eager to talk to us.  One man came up to me and asked whether I had a good life.  I told him yes and he asked me what was the secret to a good life.  Before I could answer, he held up a Bible in one hand and a beer in the other and stated theses are the keys to a good life.  Children roamed the streets freely but under the watchful eye of the entire community.  Everyone seemed to watch after everyone else’s children.  The little ones were especially eager to see us and ran up giving us hugs.

Informal businesses were abundant with everything from braais (South African barbeques) to barbershops.  Few businesses were in freestanding structures.  Most were in large shipping containers that had been modified, several of which had sliding glass doors.  Despite many businesses and eateries, people seemed to grow their own food and raise their own chickens, which freely roamed the township.  Feral dogs were also abundant.

Soon, Anthony led us to the house of three young Zimbabwean men, who had their own band, Orchestral Vibe.  Speaking in Shona (a Bantu language, native to the Shona people of Zimbabwe and southern Zambia), Anthony convinced them to play for us.  In a house no larger than 12 feet by 12 feet, the three men put on an impromptu concert, which was incredible.  Later, Anthony explained that one of the songs Orchestral Vibe sang translated loosely to “When I fall in love, it does not matter if they are Zimbabwean, South African, and my family must accept them,” a wonderful sentiment.  As the sun was setting, we left Masiphumelele after about four hours in the township and after an eye-opening and moving experience.