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Mon Jan 08 2018: Langa Township Tour

If you ask most people what they know about South Africa, they would probably answer, "Apartheid".

I've been wanting to write about the race situation ever since touching down in Cape Town, but I thought I'd try to see the city through a different lens than what everyone else focuses on.

I tried to see the city through its food - a wonderful smorgasbord of spiced meat. I tried to see it through geography: the beaches, the imposing forms of Table Mountain and Lions Head constantly looking over our shoulders.

But there are other things I can't ignore. The electrified barb wire topping the high walls around expensive real estate in the city. And then the expanse of tin-roofed shanty towns surrounding the outskirts. How when we go to a restaurant or bar downtown, there are either only white people inside, or only black people. And how rare it is to see any kind of racial intermingling.

But most of all, being neither white nor black, I feel very isolated. In a shopping mall, the black girl behind the smoothie counter does a karate chop and yells out, "Hi-YAH! Jackie Chan!"

When we walk into a bottle store (beer store), a white Afrikaans person greets Neda warmly and starts a conversation with her, while making a very visible and pointed effort to ignore me and avoid eye contact even though we walked in together. All the while, Neda keeps looking back at me uncomfortably. And then immediately after, she exclaims, "Holy shit, did that just happen?!?"

Apartheid may have officially ended in 1994, but the city still feels deeply segregated.

Just about the only place I do feel accepted is with our small group of ex-pat friends.

A few weeks ago, we visited the District Six Museum in Cape Town

We learned about the systematic categorization and segregation by race during apartheid, and how the South African government evicted over 60,000 blacks and coloured people from an area in downtown Cape Town known as District Six. They were going to re-purpose it for "white use" only.

My mom was born in South Africa, seven years before apartheid began in 1948. Under the new laws at the time, she was classified as "coloured" and her rights and freedom of movement were heavily restricted. There were public places like parks and beaches that she wasn't permitted to enter, benches she could not sit on, public buses she was not allowed to take, washrooms she could not use.

The rules for Asians in South Africa were not only racist, but hypocritical as well. In the 1960s, the South African government wanted to attract foreign investment from the Far East, so people emigrating from certain countries were exempt from being labelled as "coloured" and given the same privileges as whites. Koreans and Japanese were dubbed "honorary whites". By the 70s, Taiwanese Chinese (and their money) joined the ranks of "honorary whites".

But my folks weren't the right kind of Chinese, so they remained "coloured".

My blood boils at the sheer injustice of it all.

Langa Township

Brian is helping to develop a website for a company that organizes cultural tours of the neighbouring townships in Cape Town and he asked if we would be interested. We jumped at the opportunity of seeing something other than the packaged tourist attractions in town.

Langa Township

We met up with Mike, our tour guide, and he took us on a walking tour of Langa, which is the oldest and largest township in Cape Town. Langa is in the Cape Flats area, where most of the displaced residents of District Six were relocated to. It's often referred to as "apartheid's dumping grounds".

Mike gave us a bit of a history of the township, and we visited the old Pass Office, where non-white residents were issued "pass books" that they were forced to carry at all times. Police could fine or jail anyone not carrying it.

Pass books also allowed non-whites to travel outside the township provided they were signed by their white employers. This served a dual purpose, caging in non-European South Africans, and allowing whites access to cheap labour for domestic employment.

What happened inside the Pass Office was dehumanizing and humiliating. Everyone was catalogued: photographed, fingerprinted and their inoculations were administered and recorded on-site. They were treated like cattle.

Old Langa Pass Office, now converted to the Langa Museum

There was a jail attached to the Pass Office. Anyone caught without a Pass Book or traveling in places where they were prohibited was tried, convicted and incarcerated in the same place they were catalogued.

My mom's family lived in the Port Elizabeth area, in the Eastern Cape. My aunt defied the Pass Laws, risking prison to visit my uncle in Johannesburg. What a story! Sounds like the plot of a movie!

One of the residents of the shanty town allowed us inside to see how he lived

In the alleyway, Mike shows us a blue drum full of maize and malt

This concoction is the beginnings of Umqombothi, a homemade beer that is popular in the townships. Water boils inside several large canisters in an open fire nearby. It'll be poured into the blue buckets, which will sit fermenting overnight.

It's drunk communally , everyone taking turns gulping the warm brew.

We are welcomed into a drinking circle inside one of the shacks. Each of us take turns taking a sip of Umqombothi - it's a bit sour!

Not like the dark ales we normally prefer...

Clothes drying in the summer sun in Langa township

We continued walking through the townships, surveying different kinds of buildings and homes. Mike pointed out some of the graffiti on the walls. We noticed a lot of elephants.

Kids playing in front of an elephant mural

An elephant finds a cactus to drink from

More street art around Langa township

Window becomes a stereo system

The elephant murals are done by a South African artist called Falko One. The elephant is an unmistakable African icon and Falko says he tries to blend in the elephants so they are interacting with their environment in some way.

Mike took us to visit the local witch doctor

Candles burned amongst a backdrop of snake skins, chicken claws and other unidentified animal parts. It was the stuff of every voodoo movie and TV programme I've ever seen. But tribal beliefs persist to the modern day and this is the neighbourhood doctor and pharmacist for many.

As we are getting ready for our big African motorcycle ride, I wondered if he had any potions to ward off the rain, but judging from the severe months-long drought we were experiencing, I'd guess it was already working...

Murals decorate the walls outside Langa Swimming Pool

Calisthenics in the field outside the swimming pool

The Langa swimming pool is empty - a stark reminder that Cape Town is still suffering from its worst drought in over 100 years

We are still rationing water at home. Day Zero - the day when Cape Town shuts off the water supply - is two and a half months away. I checked the drought maps, and although most of the Western Cape is afflicted, Cape Town has been struck the worst by far. We should be far out of the city by Day Zero.

The sad part is that there are a lot of residents who are ignoring the calls to save water. Here in the townships, there is a broken water main spewing hundreds of gallons of water an hour. Either nobody has called to report it, or nobody has come to fix it.

There are still car washes operating in the township. It's not even a rich vs poor attitude. When we went to pick up my motorcycle in Constantia Heights, all the rich people had their sprinklers on 24/7 watering their pristine lawns behind the high gated walls and electrified barbed fence.

Seems like the only people taking the water rationing seriously are the small group of ex-pats that we are hanging around with.

Some of the businesses around Langa township

By far, the most popular businesses were hair salons. South African women take their hair pretty seriously!

It's not all poverty and shanties in the townships. Some black South Africans have found economic success after the yoke of apartheid was lifted in 1994. Education and opportunities under the new African National Congress government meant that professional occupations that were exclusively held by whites were now open for all. Even still, South Africa's economy is suffering from a crippling 28% unemployment.

Mike showed us some of the affluent areas of Langa, expensive German sedans parked out front

Black South Africans who have bucked the odds and become successful are called "black diamonds" by other blacks who have not fared as well. It's a pejorative term, no one likes to be called that.

Some of the more affluent black South Africans tried to move away from the townships, into the more expensive, predominantly white neighbourhoods. But they faced a cultural clash when they arrived.

Animal sacrifice is a normal part of tribal culture. To bring good luck when moving into a new house, the owner will typically slaughter a goat on their front step.

This didn't go over very well with their new neighbours. So they found themselves moving back into the townships, back to a culture and people that they are more familiar with.

This is not the first time African culture has clashed with modern European sensibilities. In 2010, an organization called the Makhonya Royal Trust asked permission for World Cup organizers to slaughter a cow in every South African stadium that the football games were to be played in, to bring good luck and to bless the venue. The argument was to show the world what "true African values" were. The matter went to the courts and eventually, an ox was permitted to be slaughtered in Johannesburg Soccer City Stadium in May 2010.

One Langa business that has flourished is Mzansi Restaurant

This is where our tour started and it ends here with a big buffet dinner. Mzansi is run by a woman called Nomonde Siyaka. She is from the Xhosa tribe and she speaks the "clicking" African language.

She is an economic powerhouse in Langa, commanding much respect in the neighbourhood. When we first arrived earlier in the day, she greeted us and arranged for parking for our huge motorcycles. A garage was quickly emptied and our motorcycles moved inside. We were told our bikes would be secure. Of that I had absolutely no doubt.

The restaurant doubles as a cultural centre as well, showcasing art and music from the locals

This brother and sister act serenaded us after dinner, they were phenomenal!

This capped off a very eye-opening and informative tour of the township. We left with a mixture of sadness that poverty and unemployment still exists in such extreme forms in such an affluent city, but it was also very educational seeing how African tribal culture has survived in modern times.

It feels very strange and unfamiliar for me being a Canadian to be talking about race relations, and describing people by the colour of their skin: blacks, whites, coloureds. I come from a culture where referring to someone by the color of their skin is construed as racist. In post-apartheid South Africa, it is an every-day fact of life.

On the motorcycle front, the stuff we ordered from abroad over a month ago still hasn't arrived yet. Our South Africa visa is almost two-thirds expired and we haven't even left Cape Town.

I asked Neda, "We're running out of time. Should we just go?"

"Yes. Let's go", came the emphatic reply.

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