At 1:30, we were picked up by Juma and his driver Ismael who took us to Khayelitsha, the second largest township in South Africa after Soweto. Established in 1984 during apartheid as a place for black people to live, it has grown to 3 million people. We expected slum conditions, abject poverty, probably the same thing you’d expect visiting a South African township. We were pleasantly surprised by what we saw.
Juma is a serial entrepreneur. In addition to his tour company, he has two bicycle shops, a sandwich shop and several other small businesses in Khayelitsha. He starts the business, gets it going, hires local people to run it, and does it again. He empowers the people to take risks and try things out. He is developing entrepreneurs. But his most visible enterprise is street art and gardens. He handed us off to our guide, Nomonde, a 23 year old young woman who is an energetic dynamo, enthusiastic and passionate.
We started at Juma’s sandwich shop with a great sandwich of bacon, lettuce, egg and a mayo based dressing on crusty sourdough bread. Sitting out front, we watched the hustle and bustle of numerous street vendors in front of the now-defunct Khayelitsha train station. Nomonde told us that the pandemic had forced many to start small businesses when they lost their jobs in town, and now they like their new lifestyle better. After lunch, we walked through the market, people with their wares spread on blankets: little electronics, plastic dishes, hardware items, herbs, vegetables, you could get everything you need here. A troupe of dancers was performing, Nomonde said, “they are using their talent to make money”, and sure enough, their tip box had plenty of bills.
Nomonde took us through the streets and little alleys and showed us her neighborhood. It is all little houses made of corrugated steel, mostly tidy and neat, covered with spray painted artwork. Juma’s vision was to decorate the streets showing young people that they can use art to enrich their lives, with the side benefit of protecting the corrugated steel from rust (although on some works, rust is used in the composition to enhance the image). He has attracted well-known artists from as far away as Johannesburg to contribute to the effort. Nomonde has been painting since she was 13 years old.
Khayelitsha is divided into neighborhoods or districts. Several have sprung up in recent years and were named after aspects of the pandemic, like “Sanitizer”. We saw Level 1, which was all new buildings. You can buy a house kit with wooden framing and sheets of new corrugated steel, US$250 for a two room house. Some families set up several little houses around a shared outdoor space. Electricity is available, there is water, but sewage is a problem. A big field, not near residences, appeared to be the public toilet, we saw guys peeing and a woman squatting there. Some of the alleys were stinky and in some places, there was trash strewn about, though not as pervasive as the trash on the roads in Senegal.
Nomonde took us to her home where we meet her older sister and several friends. They had a little art gallery set up and a small studio space. They also have a little garden. We saw several gardens in the place, some struggling as the sandy soil lacks nutrients. It IS the end of winter, so maybe as the temperatures rise and the days lengthen, things will look better. There were 4 little cannabis plants in the medical herb section of the garden, and we could smell weed throughout the day. South Africa legalized a year or two ago, and it has been in the culture for centuries.
We had gathered a little entourage, all friends of Nomonde, which accompanied us to a nightclub in a shack by the main road. Loud pounding house music, people smoking hookahs (this is a stupid trend we have noticed in other places, it has caught on here, too) and guys buying bottles of liquor for the table. No single drinks, we tried to get a gin and tonic, but couldn’t, we’d need to buy the whole bottle. It was early on a Saturday night and the place was already hopping.
They told us that on weekends, the cops would sometimes block both ends of the street and catch drunk drivers. Some guys just stay in the bar, drinking until morning to avoid this.
We bailed and went out on the street. There we meet Juma who was at a food stall where the guy was cooking a chicken for our group on a home made charcoal grill. He cut it into chunks with a pair of scissors, painted it with barbecue sauce and served it with pap, a thickened cornmeal porridge. It was all delicious and it was nice to be sharing a meal with these smart, observant, articulate township residents, along with a little kid, about 4 years old.
Ismael drove us back and we had a nice conversation with him. He told us that Cape Town was more racist than Johannesburg, saying that you rarely saw interracial couples here, but you would frequently see them in Joburg. Proportionately, there are more whites here, I speculate that, as in the U.S., some are bent out of shape as the non-whites start to achieve some of the privileges previously reserved for whites only.
When we got back to the house, we were ready for a shower, having traipsed through the township, with hookah smoke and charcoal grill smoker permeating. But the hot water heater was on the blink, the water never got warmer than maybe 70 degrees (it felt a little warm, because the air in the house is in the low 60s). We told the landlord who will try to get it fixed tomorrow, then boiled a big pot of water on the stove, then used a small mixing bowl to blend the hot water with the cool from the shower head and washed that way. Pain in the butt but we’re clean. Still an easier life than in Khayelitsha.