Out on the Townships

           Not a pair to stay cooped up in the hostel, Meghan and I embarked on a weekend tour of the Western Cape. Our two day journey took us around a scenic tour of the peninsula beginning at Hout Bay, famous for its seals, and returning to Capetown along a often-flooded coastal road. On the second day of the trip, the group was in Stellenbosch, South African wine country. The posh wine farms were filled with decadent cheeses, vintage wines, and tipsy tourists. Just on the outskirts of the city lay Kayamandi, the second oldest in the Western Cape.

             A majority of the township dwellers are Xhosa speakers. In Xhosa, the name of the township translates to ‘sweet/nice home.’ Kayamandi is home to 30,000 residents, and grows about 10% per year in population. The first settlers were migrant workers brought to the area to work on the wine farms of Stellenbosch. They were housed in dormitory-style male only barracks. The workers were not permitted to bring wives or families into the dorms.

             Over time, the number of workers began to swell and more often, one would stealthily bring in his wife. A majority of today’s population consists of immigrants from the Eastern Cape who have come west in search of jobs. Despite the migrations, the unemployment rate in the township is estimated to be 40%. Our guide told us of the other major issues in Kayamandi besides housing and unemployment: HIV/AIDS, teen pregnancy, and alcoholism, spurred by the Dionysian flow of wine from the farms. 

            Much of Kayamandi is an informal settlement, typical to most South African cities. The homes are constructed of scrap metal and other discards found by the residents in junkyards. Shacks constructed with such materials can house families averaging seven members. The shacks lack modern plumbing, electricity, and running water. Rainy days often lead to leaks and floods; cold days to a flu-laden draft. And yet millions of South Africans call these one-room piles of scrap metal home. This legacy of the apartheid era continues to be a contentious issue.

            The South African constitution guarantees a right to housing, and the government has gradually begun to provide for such a right. A section of the township is made up of formal homes with water and electricity. The homes were built by the government and given to Kayamandi families. Those who live in the houses do not have to pay for the house itself. Some utilities are also covered by the government. Such projects empower the people living in such deplorable conditions, and embolden them to pursue the highest goals.

            When we toured Kayamandi, it was harrowing  to see the abject poverty of hundreds of people just outside the farms where thousands of tourists spend millions of dollars on fine wines. On one hand, I felt like an intruder, clicking photos and making a tourist attraction out of people’s homes and lives. On the other hand, if I did not have the chance to see a township and assess the conditions for myself, I could never advocate for those who live in places like Soweto, Kayamandi, and Khaylitsha. I would never have known about forced evictions from townships that continue in the aftermath of foreign investment, government concessions, or other government projects planned for areas overrun by shack settlements. Without people taking these stories in their hearts and to their homes, those in the townships remain voiceless. Despite their struggles, the residents of Kayamandi remain hopeful for a better future, starting with educating their students and encouraging them to visit the well-stocked Kayamandi library.