Townships awash with potential
At noon on Wednesday, Cape Town's city centre and tourist hotspots were hostage to the vuvuzela-blowing fans who came out in droves to show their support for Bafana Bafana. A few miles away, Victoria went about her business as usual, charring goat's heads that she would later split into two and sell for R 17 (approx $2). She needs to sell a dozen a day to help feed her family of eight; she's barely touched double figures over the past two days. The World Cup, which has taken away a lot of her custom, is a sore point with her.
Victoria plies her trade in Langa, one of the townships that surround Cape Town and serve as stark contrasts to its picture-postcard scenery. The townships were urban slums where non-whites were resettled from areas closer to the city centre, usually in appalling conditions and always in segregation - blacks, Cape coloured, Indian.
Though the segregation has ended, Langa and the larger township of Kayelitsha are still largely black-populated, and conditions in and around the tin shacks are still far from ideal. As our driver put it drolly when we set out: "My name is Thangis and my biggest hope is that you are all on the right bus. Because I don't want you to get there and ask about the wine-tasting."
There was no wine-tasting but there was a visit to the local shebeen (pub), a shack where groups of men gather and pass around a bucket of the local brew. It's called Umqombothi and it's made from fermented sorghum and maize; the look and smell are best not described (the taste is sweetish) but it is illustrative that the Frenchman in our group passed on it while the two Irishmen tried it with relish. You pay seven rand for the day and you get to drink all you can. And that can be a pretty hefty amount - a good swig can take in a quarter of a bucket. It's here that the air of hopelessness is at its most palpable; it's clear the men drink because there is precious little else to do, they drink to forget.
And yet, maybe coming from India, where most of us have daily contact with slums - we either pass by, or through, or live next door to them if we don't live in ones, far worse than Langa and Kayelitsha - helped me look past the poverty and see the spirit of the township. It reminded me of Dharavi, the slum in Mumbai that became famous in Slumdog Millionaire. Sure there's a lot of poverty, abysmal living standards and very likely a lot of crime too, but there's a restlessness in the townships that shows a people working to better their lives. Thangis, for example, is a product of Langa. He showed us his local barber's shop and he has, by sheer dint of hard work and a break or two, moved out of Langa, metaphorically if not physically. He's proud of his roots - his father spent more than 40 years in this township - but equally proud of having moved on.
Thangis' will to succeed is mirrored in the dank, dark interiors of one of the few surviving "hostels", set up during the apartheid years with a one-man-one-bed rule that was extended to one family per bed. That policy holds; the room we saw had three beds, one for each family; the adults slept on the beds, the children outside in the common eating/cooking area. We met Pamela, who's lived here for 15 of her 23 years; she came to the city from the countryside because she wanted to complete her schooling. She did that and is now looking at a career in marketing or tourism. She's not looking back but squarely ahead.
She could take a leaf out of Vicky Ntozini's book. Vicky runs "South Africa's smallest B&B" right in the heart of Khayelitsha, the township that's home to more than a million people. From the outside the building looks like any other, save the giveaway board; it's only when you climb up the narrow flight of stairs to the first floor that you realize that in this age of idea and innovation, a township or slum can be as conducive to enterprise as any chrome-and-glass office block.
When she set up a dozen-odd years ago, Vicky had to hawk her idea to every bank and financial institution for funding; today, her idea has led to more than a dozen other B&Bs opening up in Khayelitsha. Their clientele is mainly from western Europe, though there are now Capetonians who want to see how the other half lives. Like most other establishments in the city, Vicky is full up for the World Cup.
This tournament, along with Vicky's success and Pamela's aspirations, gives us one lesson amid the squalor and decay of the townships - South Africa's wealth lies not in its mines or forests or beaches but in the potential of its human resources.