Brangelina We Are Not

The three of us lingered around the dining room table after we could eat no more; it had been the best home-cooked meal KC and I had eaten in months.  Hours after the dishes were cleared away, we were still nursing a final beer and hashing over some fine details in Mzu’s business plan when he got up to change the CD.  Suddenly, KC spoke up: “Hey, isn’t this the group that played with Paul Simon on the Rhythm Quest album?”  Mzu shrugged; the name of the American singer didn’t seem to ring a bell (give him a break; he’s barely 30).  Instead he replied with his characteristic enthusiasm, “This is the best band in all of South Africa: Ladysmith Black Mambazo!” I laughed, and he looked over at me. I explained: “We saw them on tour back home!”

It was one of those surreal “this-planet-is-small” moments.  In the heart of Khayelitsha, South Africa’s largest black township, we find this bit of common ground.Khayelitsha (23)

Khayelitsha (12)I knew I wanted to take a township tour the moment I saw the brochure in Cape Town’s touristy Waterfront area.  I researched and discovered several organizations offering tours, but opted for the tour run by a young resident of the township, Mzukisi “Mzu” Lembeni, who has converted his mother’s home into “South Africa’s Smallest Hotel” (which, we discovered, meant we were to sleep in Mom’s bedroom).

KC was skeptical, and with good reason.  Slum tourism, at its best, raises awareness and brings sorely needed revenue.  At its worst, it’s been called voyeuristic, patronizing, or exploitative.  Nonetheless, the industry, begun in poor areas of London and New York in the 1800’s, has grown significantly around the world in the past 20 years: the movie Slumdog Millionaire kicked off an interest in Mumbai’s slums, hordes of tourists pass through Brazil’s favelas each year, and Nelson Mandela’s release from prison initiated township tours in South Africa. In 2010 there was even an international conference on the topic, hosting activists from around the world who are trying to bring tourism to deprived areas.  BBC published an article outlining the issues which is worth a read.

Housing ranges from new brick homes to shacks like thee

Housing ranges from new brick homes to shacks

Our love of gardening is universal

Our love of gardening is universal

Everyone who takes a township tour does so for their own reasons, and no doubt we all come away with different reactions, memories, and experiences.  For me, it’s about my belief that if we don’t talk, the walls remain.  Media makes townships out to be terrifying, dangerous places (Forrest Whitaker’s new movie, Zulu, comes to mind), yet it stands to reason that if 2 million people live there, they must be going about their lives as I go about mine.  The fall of apartheid in 1994 was one of the defining historical events of my lifetime, and townships are a part of that history. I want to meet the people who live there today and even if I un-learn just one pre-conceived idea about the townships, it’s worth it to me.

KC shooting pool at the neighborhood shebeen (bar)

KC shooting pool at the neighborhood shebeen (bar)

But also, for me, it must be two-sided. We selected Mzu’s tour because his website promised that we wouldn’t be staring at the township from inside a vehicle; he promised that we’d be out on the streets interacting with residents, his neighbors. It’s important to me that at least one or two South Africans go home and say, “I met some nice Americans today and they aren’t at all like those people on the Bold and the Beautiful [the one show I can find without fail on South African television, 7 days a week].”  (Indeed, when Mzu introduced us as Americans, a common reaction was “Ehhhhh! OBAMA!”)

Townships were created under apartheid when “blacks were evicted from properties that were in areas designated as ‘white only’ and forced to move into segregated townships.” (Thank you, Wikipedia)  Today, the segregation is no longer a legal requirement and the government is slowly updating the infrastructure, but the segregation is still very real, due to a combination of economic reasons (unemployment is SEVENTY-FIVE PERCENT) and family ties (extended families live in the neighborhoods and many people own homes here).  Khayelitsha , the township we visited, has 2M people (including the illegal informal settlements on the outskirts), and it’s only one of hundreds of townships around the country.  To visit a township is to learn firsthand about one of the largest populations impacting and being shaped by South Africa’s policies and society.

For some excellent photos of Khayelitsha, see this BBC photo collection chronicling some of the infrastructure improvements in the township.  You’ll note from our limited photos that, unless someone requested a photo with us or we were in the car, we mostly opted to leave the camera out of sight to respect residents’ privacy.

Security guard with Mzu on Overlook Hill with Khayelitsha stretching as far as you can see behind them

Security guard with Mzu on Overlook Hill with Khayelitsha stretching as far as you can see behind them

We enjoyed Mzu’s enthusiastic tour, and we enjoyed the night spent in his lovely B&B.  During the tour, we met a man who repairs and rents out bicycles and teaches local kids to maintain them.  We met a busy 10-woman co-op that makes cotton totes for trade shows and conventions around South Africa.  We looked out over Khayelitsha from the top of the visitor center at Lookout Hill (“our Table Mountain”) and discussed Zimbabwe’s influence on South Africa’s politics, past and present, with a friendly security guard. KC shot pool at the shebeen (bar) near Mzu’s house after the tour, and I helped his cousin with her geometry homework.  I enjoyed making small talk with women in Mzu’s neighborhood while I waited for KC to retrieve the car from a nearby gated yard the next morning.  Except for the fact that we had a guide, it felt like most of our forays into new neighborhoods anywhere.

False Bay College, Khayelitsha Campus

False Bay College, Khayelitsha Campus

While there is much positive to report, townships are complicated, and I do not mean to intimate that they don’t have unimaginable problems.  Zulu – according to Forrest Whitaker in an interview at Cannes Film Festival last week – is actually fairly representative of life in certain neighborhoods within Khayelitsha.  While safety in some neighborhoods is on par with any other large city outside the township, others suffer from poverty, crime and gang control so extreme that police are afraid to respond to emergency calls.  Vigilante justice is commonplace because the police don’t respond to calls and people have lost faith in the government’s promises (click here for a news article reporting the year’s 80th instance of “necklacing” shortly before we visited Khayelitsha). Unemployment is high, and wage disparity between whites and blacks is shocking.  Khayelitsha has a college, but even for those who can afford the tuition, a college degree might provide all but the highest-ranking graduates a job as a cashier or something similar in Cape Town.  As Mzu stated at the opening of our tour:

“It’s a struggle to live in the township.

Living here is about one thing.


Braii stand near Mzu's house

Braii stand near Mzu’s house

On a lighter note, let’s get to the part I know you’ve been waiting for: why we’ve realized we will never be compared to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.  I know you’ll be shocked… you may want to sit down…  We visited an AIDS orphanage and managed to avoid adopting 6 children.  It was one of the few times in my life that I wish I were one of those people who love kids.  To be honest, it was the part of the tour I’d looked forward to the least, and indeed, when we arrived, we were instantly engulfed by a herd of toddlers tugging at us, jumping on us, throwing themselves around our legs and trying to climb into our arms. It got worse after we passed out the obligatory lollipops and chips: now they were getting their sticky fingers and runny noses all over my jacket… But I put on a big smile and gave them all hugs.

It wasn’t until later in the evening when KC mentioned that it had broken his heart to see kids needing attention so badly that it really hit me. While the women running this orphanage (3 adults per shift to about 35 children from around the neighborhood) obviously make the best home possible, the simple fact is that these little kids need more one-on-one love and human touch.  Then I felt like a real jerk and was relieved when we took a walk back to the orphanage the next morning.  This time I managed to play catch and run around the tiny playground with a little more enthusiasm.  (It helped that we hadn’t brought more lollipops with us.)

Playing in the school yard at the orphanage

Playing in the school yard at the orphanage

Here’s Mzu’s website for his tour company called Imizamo Yethu (or Google Mzukisi Lembeni, as that business plan we were reviewing over dinner calls for re-branding and re-designing his company); if you’re in Cape Town, I highly recommend one of Mzu’s guided tours.  It’s his passion in life and you won’t soon forget your experience.

If you are considering a township tour and want more details and an entertaining description of Mzu’s tours, check out this traveler’s post.


  1. Ah, so wonderful to log on to grade papers and instead see you guys have a new post! I always leave your posts enlightened, educated and moved. They may be far and few between lately, but well worth the wait! Was thinking about you this morning on my run as I listened to a podcast talking about the protests in Istanbul. Always one step ahead…mostly. Be well, keep safe and continue sharing your amazing adventure!!!

    1. Thank you, Hope. I emailed you last night so won’t repeat myself, but the Turkey protests are very interesting to me. We lived very near “ground zero” and also my Turkish friends on Facebook and other blogs tell some very personal stories from the protests; it’s a big deal and they feel like they’re fighting for their democracy. I’m rooting for them.

  2. Your blog was truly amazing, not only entertaining but so educational and so well-written, with touching moments, not easy to forget. It was an up close and personal look at the culture, your experiences and a nice way for Mzu to get some good publicity. Great blog!!

    1. Thank you, Sally. This country is so complex I really wanted to get a small slice of it across. I’ve just read some details about Soweto, Johannesburg’s huge township, and the center of the anti-apartheid struggle. Similar stories, but it also sounds as if Soweto has become quite a creative center and received a lot of positive attention during the 2010 World Cup. It’s got a growing black middle class population, as do many suburbs in Johannesburg. Lonely Planet even states that some neighborhoods in Soweto are safer than the high-security wealthy white suburbs! Love it…

  3. Mary Covington · · Reply

    What an experience. Thank you for this write-up. These townships do sound a bit like American Indian reservations. AM

    1. Thanks, Mary. Yes, it seems to be that countries don’t learn from each other’s mistakes, eh? we’ve thought a lot about Native Americans, especially in Botswana where the indigenous San people are being forcibly (and with some violence) relocated to towns outside their traditional hunting lands (and, coincidentally (ha!), away from the diamond exploration areas…). The government’s positions is “we’re doing it for their own good…” Sounds familiar, eh? South Africa at least gets a lot of credit for incorporating into their constitution that all cultures get to choose their way of life and their language. As a result, the San people in South Africa won back some areas of their native land about 10 years ago… we drove through it on the way to Cape Town in April and bought some crafts. So a nice success story there.

  4. I got kind of teary, reading how you went back tot he orphanage for more. Maybe there is a bit of Brangelina in there after all!

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