Published: September 24th 2006September 15th 2006
(These pictures are best viewed in full size) ZWELIHLE TOWNSHIP:
Beauty and kindness in a world of despair
I had a very eye-opening day today and one of the best so far on this trip. I was taken on a tour of the Zwelihle Township by an elder of the community. His name was Willy, a very enigmatic and charismatic soul. He has lived in the township for many many years and takes people through for a number of reasons. One is that it is his only source of income. Two, he believes that knowledge is power and informing white people can help send a message out to the world. Three, I believe, comes from an intense pride of his people and their culture. Everybody needs to be heard and the people of the township really have no voice - I think this helps the world to hear them.
The townships' name itself, Zwelihle, means "beautiful land". When Willy told me this I almost cried. I was standing amongst shacks made of either corrugated metal or scrap wood no bigger than many of our bathrooms. The people of Zwelihle were segregated here during
apartheid. Townships like this were where the black people were sent all around South Africa as apartheid took over. The poverty is extreme. The streets were dirt, the air was dirty and dusty, and unemployment was rife - about 90%. You could feel the boredom and lack of hope and opportunity in the air. As you drive into the township, your view of life changes. Things you thought were true and guaranteed were not true anymore. You have trouble wrapping your mind around the fact that human beings actually live like this and I could not understand how it was still possible in today's day and age with such affluent communities right next door. I was all of a sudden very aware of how immune we have become to those images on tv. I realized that although I felt bad for "those people" when I saw the tv segments, I could never really know or feel what was going on until I entered their world myself.
As I drove down the dirt road, so aware of the desparity, we finally came upon Willy and Unice's home. Willy and Unice have a higher standard of living than most
in the community. Their home is made of cement, which is a luxury, the floor was not dirt, and Unice even has a small tv in her kitchen. It is a one bedroom home and must be about 400 square feet. Willy and Unice are both unemployed but Willy has built up an immense amount of respect as an elder in his community and this enables him to bring white people through some parts of the township without being mugged or raped. During the tourist season, Willy is able to feed his family quite regularly.
When we arrived at Willy's home, his wife Unice was there to greet us and invite us in. She was the loveliest woman I have ever met and she emanates love from the second you see her. She was a big bundle of hope and joy. Her grandson Lindokuhle (his name means "waiting for good news") was there with her and you could tell she was a strict woman with a lot of love in her heart. You would be lucky to have her as a mother or grandmother in this community. Your chances of survival probably double if you are lucky
enough to have a woman like Unice in your life to keep you out of harms way and teach you right from wrong. Her and Willy both command respect instantly.
After visiting for a while, it was time to take a walk through the township. We have been told by Braam at the backpackers hostel that Willy is a very open man and he will answer all questions about apartheid or anything you want to talk about. The conversation is light as the walk starts and we get comfortable with each other, but then the realities hit you so hard in the face that you can't help but to ask the hard questions. As you walk by and start to connect with the people, you see untold stories in their eyes. Some are sad, some are horrific. Some haunt you and you wonder how you will ever forget the faces of these beautiful children and how you will ever stop them from entering your thoughts and dreams.
Through conversation I learn that AIDS is rampant, about 50% rate of infection in the township. The people are so terrified of the disease that they chose
to remain ingnorant and not make use of what little help there is available. Rape is epidemic. It is a heavily male dominated society and a lot of the males feel free to take whatever they want, including women and childrens' bodies. There is a 40% pregnancy rate amongst the teenage population. There is a strong belief that raping a virgin cures AIDS so the incidents of rape in children is very very high. People in South Africa are immune to stories of 6 month old babies being raped in townships, it has become commonplace. Alcohol and cocaine are also rampant and run at epidemic levels in the townships. When you have this much poverty and despair, then add a hard drug like cocaine on to the problem, the levels of violence increase dramatically. There is no medical attention for these people, no dentists, no social safety nets, nothing to do and nowhere to go. You have a chaotic concoction of poverty, despair, violence, addiction and illness with most of the white population in the neighboring affluent communities turning a blind eye. This is how the racial war is fuelled. Apartheid may have ended, but the resentment is as strong
as ever - and growing.
As we continue along, we stop at a restaurant. It is an old trailer-like structure and there is a woman cooking weiners and some sort of meat out front on a home-made barbeque. Her name is Nosipho and she invites us in to see what it is like to run a restaurant in Zwelihle. The first thing I notice when I get inside is that there are about 75 flies swarming the entire trailer and the trailer is very old and filthy. It smells, it is dark, dreary and by Western standards would probably be deemed uninhabitable. In the township, however, this is luxury and an opportunity to rise above. She tells us of how hard it is to manage in the township. Willy asked her what she needed - what was the one thing that would make life easier? Her response was simple, it was a table. She needed a table so people could sit and eat the food she sold them - this would bring in more customers. We stayed for a while, met her family, listened to her story, bought a couple of small items to support her and
Nosipho the restaurant owner
She was kind enough to invite us in and tell us about life and hardships in the township. We exchanged addresses and Jordan and I are going to buy her a table so people can come and buy food and sit and eat it.
We walked for a while and then stopped at another restaurant, this one a little more sophisticated than the last trailer but just as dirty and bleak. The fellow, I regrettably did not remember his name, was the most driven person I had ever met. He was 25 years old and had lived in the township all his life. He was an artist and had sold his paintings to a foreign man who shipped them overseas - I am sure he got much less than he should have. He made enough money from these paintings to rent out this trailer/restaurant and take his shot at rising above. He was very passionate about working and had so much enthusiasm as he told me his story. He was really "stoked" about his business because he had the perfect way to cook chicken feet and they were "selling like hotcakes" was the term he used. Quite endearing to hear such a western term in the middle of a township - the sly smile on his face as he said it made it that much more endearing. I was very impressed. I was sure that this guy must have
He was so ambitious but the odds were against him. I aksed him if he made a comfortable living and he said he would if he didn't keep being robbed.
it made. It was the best business going in the township and if anyone had a chance of earning a decent living, it must be him. So I asked him if he made a comfortable living and the answer was discouraging. He said that he would make a decent living if he could stop being robbed. Everytime he starts getting ahead, getting a few more supplies in stock, the ability to purchase a microwave, etc, someone robs him blind. Imagine. Working so hard, rising above only to be robbed every time. I could empathize with him - I knew what it was like to be robbed when you were down and out. There really is no one to turn to when you are robbed in a township so this fellow (it kills me I don't know his name) tracked the culprits down himself. He said that he had enough and he did not want the children to see and learn that crime pays. So he said he became his own detective and found two of the three men that robbed him. One was in jail and the other has been beaten by people of the community that are sick of
These things "sell like hotcakes" in the township. They are R.50 each which is the equivalent of about 7 cents.
all the bullshit. In his eyes it is enough to send the proper message out and it hopefully will be people like him that help to shape the future of the townships. If I thought I had seen anyone beat the odds and keep a smile on their face before, it paled in comparison to this guy.
As we walked we heard some more stories of life in the township but mostly saw it through our own eyes. Even though I was able to speak to Willy in a straight forward manner, it felt too disrespectful to ask the people we encountered why the horror and sadness were in their eyes. I wanted to know their stories so badly. We visited a library and I learned that children only start learning to read in grade 3 in the township. I went to the rack where the books for return sit and was surprised (or maybe not) to find that almost every title was politically based. I would imagine that being educated about apartheid would make you even more resentful to the whites. I really couldn't blame these people for being so angry, I would be too. The
entire time walking through the township I wondered what these people did all day. I couldn't imagine being that poor, that isolated, that bored, that hopeless....... what do you do with your life when it's like that? What do you do each day when you wake up? Where do you go? What do you think about? How much time is devoted to just survival and protection? As a woman, how do you live in constant fear? Or do you just get used to rape and violence? Was there any quality of life at all? Sadly Willy told me that there was very little happiness in the township, that people could be happy in moments such as at the barbeque of a neighbor, or a child skipping down a street for that moment, but it was always fleeting and never a deep down joy. I was amazed at the level of pride in the people with all these factors being true. The children were clean, the adults impeccably dressed and clean. I had enough of a problem keeping my child clean in Canada with washers and dryers and a Sears down the street. I must say, the people of the township
really touched me. They were beautiful and kind and intensely proud. Doing the best they could with what they were dealt. Of course there were what seemed to be insurmountable problems in these townships with all the disease, violence, crime, hatred, lack of education, etc, but when you take into account what they have all been through you can only applaud them for having any spirit left at all. The racial war is alive and kicking.
I wasn't shocked by the townships' ability to survive and remain proud, however, I was shocked at the white people's attituteds towards it. Not just white people, but also some black and colored people that did not end up there. There was a real indifference. As I sat in my comfortable hostle in Cape Town chatting with a black woman, she told me that she didn't feel sorry for "them", "they" could get a job. "They" were lazy and it just made her mad when "they" begged in front of the supermarket. The same supermarket where she was able to buy food for her family and bring it to her home where the floor wasn't made of dirt and wasn't contaminated
in any way. Home where she could go to the doctor if she was sick, phone a friend when she was blue, lock her door at night so she wasn't raped and neither was her six year old daughter. Home where she had hope and opportunity and what seems to be the luxury of judging those that weren't as fortunate as her.
It's like so many problems in this world: judgement and lack of compassion. If it isn't happening to you, it doesn't matter. This seems to be the attitude of a lot of the South Africans I have talked to - not all, but a high majority. Deny the problem and it doesn't affect you. Maybe they are too overwhelmed and, in all fairness, I don't know what my attitude would be had I been submersed in it for the past 25 - 50 years. Maybe it is my fresh eyes that make it so appauling, but maybe it is just my humaness. Why does the color of their skin determine what kind of a life they will have? How could they be so blind as to see everything in black and white?
Stopping along the way to help many and give advice and encouragement to everyone.
When the children cry - White Lion
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