a plan B that should have been plan A
no, i wasn’t originally going to do a township tour. as interested as i am about other cultures and ways of life, i was never comfortable with what i perceived to be the zoo-like ways of these excursions, and i’ve always been a bit hesitant/scared/chickenshit about being “forced” to interact with locals (township or ritzy resort, all the same). i made a reservation to do a Cape Point tour and see the cute penguins instead. unfortunately, after waiting 40 minutes for my tour pickup at a local hotel, i discovered the agency i booked it through didn’t actually confirm the booking with the tour provider. it was an honest mistake (she sent their email to me instead), so i don’t hold any grudges.
i quickly tried to think of what to do and remembered that a new tour started up last month in association with the red double-decker CitySightseeing company, the LaGuGu Township Tour. i took the bus downtown to the pickup point, bought a ticket, and off i went.
best decision of the week.
So no Cape Point and penguins for me. Going to do a township tour; forcing myself to step out of comfort zone. pic.twitter.com/vMEPrBfBY3
— Jonathan Khoo (@jonk) November 13, 2014
it’s advertised as a tour of the Langa and Gugulethu townships, but it’s more like a tour of Langa and a short visit to Gugulethu, mostly for a meal at local institution Mzoli’s (more on that later). while it says “hop on hop off” — and i suppose you could do it like that — it really ended up being a three hour guided tour, which was great. we had knowledgeable guides who grew up in the townships and the group was small (four of us) and i never felt in danger.
note i heard the tour name pronounced as “la-zhu-zhu”, not “la-goo-goo”, despite the fact that the first two syllables of Gugulethu are pronounced “goo-goo”.
the guide explained as we were driving to Langa (in new vans, very nice, btw) that it’s not like a zoo, but rather the tours are meant to bring awareness and understanding (which the locals are all for), as well as increase publicity and commercialism to help drive the local economy (which they are even more for). the local residents that we met were really friendly and i think didn’t mind the interaction with us outsiders — at least if they did, they didn’t show it. PHEW. i never felt uncomfortable at all, nor was there any reason to. now i feel kind of ridiculous about being so apprehensive.
i really appreciated the fact that the guides are from the townships themselves so know residents and can speak to life as it is (and was for them growing up).
there is the option of biking or walking; we walked, which i think was a better option because the pace is slow enough that you can actually learn something instead of breezing right by.
Langa TAG is a series of houses forming a Township Art Gallery.
there are various types of dwellings in the township: standalone houses, hostels (very cramped multi-family dwellings), repurposed shipping containers (“temporary” housing), and shacks.
shipping containers are also used to house businesses, from tailors like this one to beauty salons to eateries to retail storefronts.
one of the stops in Langa is a township museum which used to be a dompas office and houses many artifacts from the apartheid era. it was simultaneously scary and bewildering to learn about the various apartheid-era laws that not only imposed physical segregation but set up and reinforced a very clearly classed society — sadly something that without introspection didn’t hit home as much as it should, given our own (American) history.
shipping containers are one of the more basic forms of housing, but offer little more than shelter — baking hot in the summer and cold in the winter. people stay in these while on the waiting list for better housing; some in them for over five years.
hostels used to be dormitories for migrant laborers (men only) but now house many families in cramped quarters. the one we toured had six small rooms surrounding a common area. sixteen families live in these six rooms. SIXTEEN FAMILIES. each room has three beds, which the parents sleep on. children sleep on the floor and in the common area (used as a dining room during the daytime). there is only one bathroom for all of the families. rent is charged on a per-bed basis (and thus per-family, since it’s one family per bed), 50 rand (less than $5) per month.
i was standing against the wall when i took this picture (and yes, i got her permission; she had the flu and was resting, watching tv, but was quite nice and welcoming us to have a look around) — there’s another bed against the wall she was facing, with the third perpendicular to those to my right. you can move up to larger apartments, which go for 250 rand per month for a one-bedroom, or 350 for a two-bedroom.
electricity is prepaid (you buy it like you buy minutes for a prepaid cell — punch the PIN code into the box on the wall), but water is free.
there is also what amounts to a shantytown part of the township where five or six people live in one shack, with no running water. toilets are to the left for a large number of shacks to the right, which anyone can just build and live in. many of the people who live in these shacks steal power from the streetlights, which is dangerous and causes fires which can ravage an entire neighborhood.
meat at mzoli’s
one of the stops in Gugulethu township is Mzoli’s, a local institution that’s a local gathering place as well as a tourist destination. i was told that Jamie Oliver visited last year to learn how to braai! it’s also somewhat (in?)famous because it played a minor role in the events of the night of a famous murder (a husband allegedly hired people to kidnap and murder his new wife during their South African honeymoon).
notoriety aside, the meat is delish! and yes, that’s pretty much all you can get there. MEAT, MEAT, and MORE MEAT.
here’s how it works:
pick out your meat from the butcher case and let them know if you want sauce to go with it. they’ll season the meat and get a cup of barbecue sauce (if requested) and put everything on a platter. i got lamb.
after you pay Mr. Mzoli, take the meat down the hallway to the kitchen where someone will cook it for you.
yep, you eat it with your fingers, so be sure to grab a lot of napkins (or “serviettes” as they call them here in South Africa) to wipe off all that barbecue sauce! it’s a tad on the spicy side, but nothing a spice wuss like me couldn’t handle. super lekker!
it’s odd how things work out
i really had nothing to be afraid of, and i’m actually glad my Cape Point tour fell through. while i’m sure there’s lovely scenery and those penguins are adorbs (when they’re not biting you and otherwise being a nuisance, i hear), doing a township tour really opened my eyes to a side of South Africa i have previously ever only driven or taken a train by — and certainly nothing like the parts of Cape Town i spent the rest of this week in. one of my tourmates has been to other townships and she agreed that it was a great tour. i asked her if this was typical and she said yes, although she’s seen worse (but doesn’t care to relive — sick children dying of AIDS in shacks). oh! on a more light-hearted note, another thing i missed out on, smileys 😉 though i had enough of an experience with that sort of thing in Iceland earlier this year…