Written by Team MUSA. Photos by Tristen Rouse.
One of the oldest townships in South Africa, Langa is home to more than 50,000 people—many of whom are living in severe poverty. Dating back to the early 1900s, Langa is just as rich in history as community life.
Nathi Gigaba, native-resident and tour guide of Langa, shared his experience of living in the historic township while also offering some of its history. Prior to the emergence of townships and the birth of the apartheid, white supremacy and segregation swept throughout the country following South Africa’s 1910 unionization.
As segregation laws became more strict, the emergence of the 1913 Land Act forcibly removed Africans from their homes to live in reserves—rural areas where it was legal for Africans to own or lease land. The pushout of Africans spanned into the workplace, politics, housing and land ownership in order to limit contact between races.
Following the Land Act, the 1923 Urban Areas Act called for the clearance of the slums, giving municipal authorities powers to establish separate locations for Africans throughout the country, typically at the edges of towns. As a result, in 1927, Langa was established.
Although they were originally built for working men, according to Gigaba, townships were a result of the law demonstrating methods of urban segregation. Urban segregation was one of many aspects of social and political control in early South African history just before the apartheid era.
As white supremacy progressed, the National Party, primarily made up of the Afrikaners, gained power in 1948. During that time, the government enforced existing policies of racial segregation spanning from land ownership to marriage, which eventually led to the Population Registration Act of 1950. The act “provided the basic framework for apartheid by classifying all South Africans by race, including Bantu (black Africans), Coloured (mixed race) and white.”
The government limited the activity of non-white labor unions and denied non-white participation in national government, this essentially met with opposition by the South African National Native Congress, known today as the African National Congress.
Apartheid may have ended 20 years ago, but the permanent sense of separation established by 50 years of government-sanctioned segregation still remains.
Travel just a few miles east of the bustling and commercialized waterfront of Cape Town, and you’ll find yourself in the township of Langa. Langa is made up of makeshift homes constructed from shipping containers and sheet metal. Children run through the streets barefoot and without supervision. Stray dogs wander aimlessly through the streets. The aromas and sounds of local businesses fills the air. The overwhelming sense of poverty is evident.
But the one thing that is apparent is the sense of community. The children run in large packs of ranging ages with wide smiles on their faces. Laughter and the sounds of the local language radiate through the streets. The sweeping feeling of belonging and closeness is impossible to miss.
According to Statistics South Africa, over half of South Africa’s residents are currently living in poverty. Nevertheless, the township people have an unwavering pride for their hometown and the community they have fostered.
Gigaba understands this sense of community better than anyone.
“When you read about townships, you will read about violence, crime, HIV, sick people, everything is negative,” Gigaba said. “But, generally, people living in townships are very happy. What makes people to be happy is community.
“Community starts very young—children sitting and talking, and they grow that community sense as young as they are. You can see four-, five-year-olds running around and playing with eight-, nine-year-olds. And that’s what makes people to be happy here, is other people.”
These connections make Langa a place like no other. The sense of love and respect is one that cannot be missed. Gigaba told stories of Langa residents who leave to become professionals who now could afford to live anywhere in Cape Town but choose to return to the township. These residents live in gated homes outside the town’s center in an area known as “The Beverly Hills of Langa.” They decide to live in Langa because of the community connections established during their childhood, and they give to the same community by renting rooms out to those in need.
The professionals inspire the young people of Langa that they can also live a more stable life one day. This relationship between opposing economic lines within Langa exemplifies the true connection between the people.
“That’s why people choose to stay in one township—the close connections with other people, Gigaba said. “You could easily build that in another community, but people choose to stay in the community where they already have those social connections.”
Tradition flows through the streets of Langa, affecting its people, its businesses and its overall lifestyle. The tradition of the Xhosa people is particularly strong. The word “langa” itself means “sun” in the Xhosa language.
According to the 2011 census, 92% of Langa’s population speaks Xhosa as their first language. This large concentration of the Xhosa people and the respect for their tradition motivates the work of some of Langa’s businesses.
Food is one type of business affected by the Xhosa culture. The sheep head is considered a delicacy for the Xhosa people, Gigaba said, eaten during various ceremonies. One common example is the celebration of a child’s birth, where the family must sacrifice a goat or a sheep to introduce the child to the ancestors. The practice of slaughtering a sheep was an interest passed down over time, as Gigaba explained.
“When the family slaughters a sheep for cultural reasons, the head is always there for older generations,” Gigaba said. “Watching older generations eating the head made all of us want to try—it created an interest.”
Beyond community celebrations, Xhosa traditions can take on a singular meaning, having an individual role in the growth of community members.
The Xhosa rite of passage known as “ulwaluko” sends young Xhosa boys on a journey into bushes and mountains. They spend their time away from home “receiving sacred teachings from their elders and emerging as men,” according to South Africa Online.
“Culturally, to us as Xhosa-speaking people, for a boy to become a man he has to be circumcised,” Gigaba said. “So boys go spend a month in the bush learning about life, learning about manhood, and most importantly respecting other people.”
Despite the intent to impart key life lessons on the males of the community, complications from the procedure can prove fatal. According to research conducted by forensic physician Dr. Dingeman J. Rijken, 1,118 recorded deaths have occurred due to complications from the ritual since 1995. The secrecy of the procedure, restrictive physical ordeal and the rejection of modern medicine leads to issues with infection and dehydration. Africa Geographic writer Richard Bullock spent time with Xhosa initiates during “ulwaluko,” learning why they underwent the hardships of the ritual.
“The seclusion, suffering and pain represent the trials of life,” Bullock wrote in an Africa Geographic article. “It is the process that matters, not what is said. It is a test of personal character and fortitude.”
For six months to a year after the ritual, Xhosa men dress in what Gigaba calls “smart casual,” a suit jacket with a nice shirt and hat, to show off that they have just become a man. A man is now considered ready to marry and can begin preparing a dowry for his future wife.
The dowry’s purpose in Xhosa culture, according to South Africa’s official tourism site, is to provide a gift to the woman’s family in exchange for her hand.
“Before they marry, a dowry is given to the bride’s family way of thanking them for bringing up this young woman who will soon leave her home and become part of her fiancé’s family for life,” the site explains.
Certain factors will adjust the amount of dowry paid to a woman’s family, as Gigaba explained. If the woman is more educated, for example, more cows are expected. If she has children from previous relationships, fewer cows are expected. To adjust to modernity, money can be substituted for cows.
Whether it is with regard to marriages or coming-of-age ceremonies, the presence of Xhosa culture in Langa affects the way the township operates. The tradition can provide a sense of history and precedence, sustaining the community in Langa with courtesy to its people and their sense of self.
In the past decade, police have detected the highest rates of nationwide crime in Cape Town, according to the 2018 State of Urban Safety in South Africa Report. Since 2014, there has been a spike seen in the murder rate of the city.
According to the South African Police Service Crime Report, the 2017/18 murder rate for Cape Town reported 69 per 100,000 people, a jump from the countries rate of 52 per 100,000 reported in 2014/15. Much of the crime reported is within the townships of Cape Town, among which the people are increasingly vulnerable due to the lack of security.
Langa, one of the oldest townships in South Africa, faces frequent acts of crime and violence within their community. Langa, an area of only 2 square miles, reported 422 robberies “with aggravating circumstances” last year according to the Crime Stats of South Africa. This includes carjacking, truck hijacking and robbery at both residential and non-residential premises.
For many residents in these townships, they take safety measures into their own hands. Nathi Gigaba, a Langa resident and tour guide, shares the unique way that crime is handled within his community.
“[We] create our own safety in a way,” Gigaba said. “When someone does a crime and people
see you, you’ll be beaten by everyone. So, we have social control. And, I would say it works very well in our community here, because our township, Langa, is actually one of the smaller townships.”
In 2018, the Western Cape, the province of South Africa where Langa is located, reported the highest number of common assaults, which refers to either intentional or non-intentional violent assault or battery, according to the South African Police Crime Report.
Gigaba equates this rise in crime to the increase of wealth within the township. As the township’s socioeconomic gap widens, people with more money become more susceptible to crime.
“People drive nice cars that you can take, cell phones, all of these things are there,” Gigaba said. “So that’s why you can do crime in the townships. But when you choose to do it in the township, you have to be very sure that you can run faster than Usain Bolt.”
While walking around Florence and Timothy Ngesi’s middle-income house in Langa, the juxtaposing signs of financial stability and suffering are clear. Their pillowy living room furniture faces a television that plays CBS, but some tiles outside their house crumbled into choppy, uneven ground. Floral and cultural paintings brighten up their home, but across the street, a fenced-in pavement playground absorbs the sun’s smoky heat. People in Langa, and townships all throughout South Africa, faced disenfranchisement during apartheid and had to be flexible to financially support their family.
The World Bank classifies South Africa as an upper-middle income country that can afford to support its people, but apartheid created a chasm of inequality that still persists today. Forbes Africa says South Africa’s unemployment rate was 27.5% last year, and townships compose a significant amount of that percentage. Langa is one of the poorest communities in the Western Cape, according to the region’s government website.
Timothy said people in townships always have to find new ways to earn money. According to Matoyana, an African business firm, people in townships combated disenfranchisement with entrepreneurialism to earn money. Florence sells pans of homemade carrot cake for 85 rand, which equates to under $6. Another Langa resident, Moses Wainaina Hgara, sells diverse art from his outdoor stand, Sizwe Art.
“With all aspirations, the economic factor becomes the determinant,” Hgara said. “If the resources were there, I think all my pipe dreams would be true.”
Township residents who work for companies or corporations located in the city often have to change jobs when better opportunities arise. Timothy has held many jobs throughout his life; he sold newspapers on the street, worked for a steel company and drove taxis before he retired.
“If I found out there’s another job with a better salary, then I leave that one, and I go for a better one,” he said. “That’s how it goes. I couldn’t stay. I was forced to go find work, so I could help my father with supporting us.”
An article from the Mises Institute, an Austrian economic nonprofit, says that the country’s demand for low-cost, low-skill and non-white labor facilitated the racial segregation during apartheid. During the 1960s and 1970s, certain careers were reserved only for whites, which forced educated non-whites out of the country and solidified the unemployment rate for non-whites living in poverty.
Today, in a post-apartheid era, workplace racism has begun to erode as South Africa attempts to create equal economic opportunities. Qualified non-whites can work the jobs that were once held exclusively by whites. However, this progress is overshadowed by stubborn, high levels of poverty and unemployment within townships. Stephan Sivada, a van driver in Cape Town and resident since 1991, said that the government has made lots of unkept promises to the people of townships. Notably, he said, the government has made a lot of unethical promises about housing.
“If you build a shack, they don’t worry you,” Sivada said. “The minute you put down a brick or anything that’s fixed in Cape Town, you must have a permit or you must actually tell the council. That’s one of the things you’ll notice that hinders development.”
Florence and Timothy’s house is salmon-colored and separated into two buildings. It used to be her grandmother’s house, and at that time, it was only the kitchen and the living room. All the other rooms were added on separately. If you want a large house in a township, she says, you install each additional room when you have the money for it.
“I’m going to extend it more maybe later on,” she said. “But now my husband is sick; I must look after him.”
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