Langa Township

We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Langa, Capetown’s oldest township.  Our guide and Langa resident was Nathie, a young college grad with entrepreneurial spirit and a quick sense of humor about South African politicians. He picked us up in the morning and we took a short drive toward the airport.  Along the way, he explained various Xhosa rituals and rites of passage and how Langa got started back in 1923.  Today the community supports the tours as a way to create opportunity where little exists and to combat negative press townships often receive.  We were impressed when he told us the popularity of his company’s tours rank them the #3 thing to do in Capetown.

Township tours could appear rather gauche to the American tourist. The voyeurism is unsavory – a bunch of well-heeled foreigners placing a community’s poverty on display.  But I suspect American discomfort with poverty in general makes it difficult to see the larger picture. Today’s township is not a lot unlike the larger city environs. On its own terms, it has its elite, its middle and its lower bars.  It has cultural features residents wish to showcase and share, and unlike other tours, they offer a socio-political discussion tourists can’t get in gift shops, wineries or art galleries.  The township community is just as interested in taking advantage of tourist dollars as their more mainstream kin.

When we stepped out of the van, I could just as easily have landed in my own southeast Seattle neighborhood, except the Langa homes were brick and the streets cleaner (at least in this part). We began our walk through the neighborhood at the community’s visitor center, where else? Inside we met artists eager to sell (but not at all pushy), potters working on their designs and children who dangled from Nathie’s legs. Residents can participate in pottery classes or use the space to sell hand-made crafts and jewelry.

From the center we began our walk through the neighborhood with Nathie explaining how residents set up their own businesses with whatever resources they could find.  We saw barbershops and fruit stands run out of shipping containers, hair salons on the front porch and sheep barbecues in what appeared to be burn rubble.  We visited the home of one family whose matriarch ran a roosterbrood (small grill roasted bread, served plain or filled with meat or cheese) bakery out the back side of the house.  She rose every morning at 2 a.m. and closed some 400 breads later, usually around 3:00 or 4:00 in the afternoon.  Her son designed a popular T-shirt sporting the Langa name across the chest.  Yes, I bought one.

Throughout our walk, Nathie pointed out the differences between the upper, middle and lower sections of the township, and he even took us through the Beverly Hills of Langa, as they like to call it.  To the American eye, the homes are all quite modest and tidily kept.  But as Nathie explained, even when a Langa resident “makes it big,” like many soccer and cricket players, they often choose to stay in the township because of the tight knit community.  (Plus, he joked that non-township neighbors wouldn’t take kindly to ritual slaughters of sheep.) Other families remain in cramped quarters because they can save more money to afford better schools for their children.

The entire tour start to finish took just under three hours and we ended with a quick peek at a youth group project that Nathie leads – Happy Feet. Happy Feet is a troupe of neighbourhood kids who learn gumboot dancing, a tradition begun and made popular by South African miners.  Unfortunately, I don’t have a way to insert pictures of the great time we had.  Hope to get those up as soon as possible.  Again, contrary to what we had read in the guide books, we felt completely safe.  Children ran freely in the streets and played in their yards and playgrounds.  Clearly their parents weren’t worried.  But we took a day tour, which is what most would do.  At one point we had considered one of the B&B  opportunities, but even Nathie explained that his company deliberately chooses not to offer night tours because of security worries.  Well, maybe on our next visit.

3 thoughts on “Langa Township

  1. Really enjoying reading about your adventures — even without the photos. Thanks for providing context (as always) to your experiences and thoughts. Such a pleasure!

  2. Really enjoyed your description of the tour. One thing that struck out in my mind was the point about tight-knit communities, as a contrast to the poorer communities in the US. It strikes me that maybe if our communities were not so fractured, if families really knew each others’ neighbors, we might not see such an attendant grinding of the spirit in our ghettos. I think it comes with our country having such a mobile populace, that people can easily, and do, pack up and move, making the building of community that much harder.

    And, as for me, I know that I feel uncomfortable opportunities to gawk at poverty because I am embarrassed by my completely lucky chance of having being born a white male in a middle-class family, complete with all the accompanying privileges.

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