by Tim Dawe
It’s not township, it is informal settlement,” my friend Peter Hugo firmly advises. In post-apartheid South Africa the subtle nuances of terminology are sometimes lost on the innocuous utterances of well-meaning visitors. It is lost on meMy introduction to the informal settlement Khayelitsha (new home in the Xhosa language) starts many hours before I step foot on its flat sandy ground. It begins with a visit to the District 6 Museum, just one of many in a packed program of visits organised by my hosts. I enter the hollowed-out city building in Buitkenkant St, ironically within spitting distance of the seventeenth century Castle of Good Hope, fortified home of the first Dutch settlers, the slave lodge and national parliament, home to now-repealed oppressive segregationist laws.
I’m welcomed to the museum by our ebullient guide, Ebrahim Ndzabela, a former a resident of District 6, for a very personal history and a memorable tour. Cape Town’s sixth district was established in 1867 as a hodgepodge of crooked streets and alleys, ramshackle houses that attracted freed slaves, Afrikaans-speaking coloureds, port workers, artisans and immigrants. Ebrahim recalled his childhood in the 1950s as “exciting” where the ethnically diverse population, united in its lack of material comforts, lived cooperatively in relative harmony, although he admitted, “it could be a bit rough”.
In 1966, under the infamous Group Areas Act, this desirable property was declared “whites only” and many residents were moved on. In 1985 the entire community of 60,000 was forcibly ejected and their houses bulldozed. Quite literally these people were dumped 30 km away on wasteland at False Bay’s Cape Flats, now known as Khayelitsha. And to this day inner city District 6 is a flattened wasteland, officially designated “area to be redeveloped” – and still untouched by developers.
Without resentment and with admirable restraint, Ebrahim says this annihilation is a pity because today District 6 could have been a vibrant (“colourful”) entertainment and nightlife precinct with bars and restaurants making the most of its eclectic space and architecture. And contributing to the economy and community.
The museum is dedicated to telling the stories of ordinary residents, their home-life and their struggles. Using photographs, artefacts and text – even a hand-stitched namecloth – it maintains the collective memory. It tells the story of community, of laughter, creativity, sharing and life lived on streets; together the spirit they call kanala (Malay word for do a favour). The entire ground floor is one giant hand-painted street map.
The next day, informed, inspired and a little incensed, I head for part two of this migratory story: Khayelitsha. It’s crowded into a space between the roaring national highway, N2 and busy Baden Powell Drive, near Mitchell’s Plain. The term informal settlement is now appropriate as, driving a considerable distance by road, there are alongside hundreds of what look like packing crates wrapped in black plastic trailing the black spaghetti of “informal” power siphoned from transmission lines. Between half a million (officially) and 1.2 million (unofficially) inhabitants, nearly all black and mostly aged less than 20 years, call these packing cases home. Mitchell’s Plain next door is of similar size but consists of modest houses mainly for South Africa’s coloured population.
Peter drives me to Khayelitsha, himself already driven with the desire to make a difference in humanitarian projects: “On our doorstep”, he says. He visits here every week.
On arrival Peter is a blur of activity, meeting people here, checking on activities, arranging meetings and delivering meat, and everywhere being greeted with cheer and warmth. His constant movements mean some explanation trails off unfinished and I’m left a little to wonder, a welcome relief to “information overload”. However I spend learning time inspecting two projects; a respite health centre and a row of neat-as-a-pin houses charitably donated by Rotary International and the Elton John Foundation.
I meet the redoubtable, larger-than-life Rosie Mashale, a former primary school teacher and institution in Khayelitsha since 1989. She runs her Baphumelele children’s home providing a safe place for abandoned, neglected or orphaned children – many affected by that great scourge of South Africa: HIV/AIDS. In the shadow of her expansive image on a giant billboard, we meet Rosie at a two-storey house dedicated to respite for parents ailing with HIV/AIDS and unable to look after their children.
Here I meet Ursula, a volunteer nurse from the Netherlands, who explains that what is most often needed is rest and proper nutrition to enable the parents to take up again. Demand is so high, she says, that respite care of only two or three days are common when another uses the bed.
I inspect only the outside of three donated houses and are told the Elton John AIDS Foundation is very supportive. The fourth house we visit is very open; it is used as a crèche. On entering we are overwhelmed by the number of loud, boisterous of children being cared for – so many. There is no attempt at structured communication. The blaring TV does that. We are greeted with snotty hugs of our legs by little ones so cute and happy to see strange intruding visitors. A small army of infants wrapped up like pupae are laid out end-to-end asleep in one part of the floor. The chaos is slightly confronting yet I leave these kids with a lump in my throat.There are thousands of unheralded humanitarian projects going on in Cape Town and hundreds of (black) “Rosies” and (white) “Peters” that gives this jaded visitor considerable hope.
Khayelitsha is vast. To comprehend its size one needs a helicopter view, surprisingly not offered to us. There’s not the slightest hint of elevation and we are limited to a tiny fraction of this city-size community. Naturally to function effectively, Khayelitsha needs organisation and infrastructure. It is divided into many sections, some poor containing informal shacks and constant danger, some like Mandela Park, with modest public housing and even wealthy suburbs such as Harare, home to doctors and teachers. It has many primary and high schools, public buses and trains and the inevitable “informal” taxi vans. Grossly overworked health clinics try to keep up with multitudes of waiting, patient patients.
And as part of the 2010 World Cup, Khayelitsha has the first of 20 Football for Hope Centres in Harare, visited by Sir Elton. The centre is FIFA-fever induced “social infrastructure” designed to give kids activities, skills and discipline – and hope – through football. And Australia’s presence is here too. The AFL has a development program; Bayanda Sobetwa has the first South African SportsReady traineeship offered by Western Sydney.
It’s a safe bet not many from Khayelitsha will travel to Green Point, the western gateway to Cape Town’s upmarket beach suburbs, to witness the miracle of a World Cup in the brand new stadium. But it’s odds on there will be flickering TV light coming from those wrapped packing crates and noisy vuvuzela jubilation around outdoor TVs at bars and those the little fold-down wooden shops that sell everything.