Township Life: An Eye-opening Look Into Traditional South African Culture

By Brooke Axness*

Since I have been living and working in the city it has been easy to overlook the fact that I’m living in a nation that is still very much developing. I can see implications of poverty by the amount of homeless around the city but still not enough to make me really understand the destitution many face living here today. It wasn’t until this past weekend when I visited a township called Langa that I really got it.

Township with clothes hanging
Langa township

A township by definition usually refers to the underdeveloped urban living areas that, from the late 19th century until the end of Apartheid, were reserved for non-whites. Because of the economic situation most are in around that area, moving out of the township now is very difficult. During my visit we checked out five main things that help summarize what life in a township really is: a traditional African beerhouse, a craft market, the “smiley” station, a hostel, and a traditional healer.

We first started off at the craft center named Guga S’Thebe. This is a rather new building, completely thought up and run by the people of Langa. Over half the people in townships are unemployed, creating major issues concerning the social and economic dynamics of these areas. A large factor adding into why unemployment is so staggering in these areas is simply because the people are nearly unemployable. They just do not have skills to compete in the job market for reasons such as lack of education, no English training, etc.

Tiled sign

table of pottery
Some of the wares sold at the Guga S'Thebe market

For Langa at least, however, there has been a long history of creativity and arts so when the apartheid ended people of the township constructed the idea to build this center to help move their people forward and pull them out of poverty. In this building people of the township receive training on how to make crafts, such as pottery, paintings, etc, in order to someday earn money for themselves. It is a place where their work can be sold to people and tourists such as myself. By the end of their training, the hope is that they can go out and become entrepreneurs by selling their products to people and companies.

Second, we headed into the middle of the township and walked into a traditional African beerhouse. On our walk there old boxcars were everywhere, and the local man explained to us how it makes for good homes for some families. Once we got to a small shack-like house that looked like every other he explained that a huge jug of their “beer” is made by the women and costs 20 rand (which is less than 2 US dollars). The jug can be shared amongst a lot of people, and is simply just passed around and drunk right out of the can. I had the opportunity to try it, and lets just say one sip was plenty for me!

house
entering traditional beerhouse

man showing drink to students
Our guide shows us how to drink from the beer jug

Next we went to the “smiley station” which seemed like a pretty vague description so I had no idea what I was getting into. We came up to a campsite-looking area where there were sheep heads everywhere. They were on shelves, they were on the ground, they were everywhere! It was a weird sight, one you would never see in a residential area in the States. The women cooking the heads explained that she gets up early every morning to collect the heads from the butcher (typically they just throw them out anyways) and brings them back to cook them all day for the township to eat. She praised the taste of the sheep head and urged us to try it sometime, but I think that is one thing I am just going to take her word for!

severed goat heads
severed goat heads on display

woman with painted face selling goats
Goat head seller

We wandered on to a hostel next. These buildings are all over in the townships. They are large and have many small rooms that house people. They were initially set up for migrant workers in the days of the apartheid. At that time only men could stay in the houses while they worked in the city. Today, however, entire families can live in them. We are talking three families per room and the rooms are smaller than the dorm rooms at Iowa. Not to mention the fact that there were 4-6 rooms on each floor in one of these buildings so ALL the families shared the bathroom and main area.

We entered one of the oldest (and most poor) hostels and got to see the main area. It consisted of a sink, concrete floors, and a table. A man came and talked to us about it because he had actually grown up in that hostel himself. He explained that since there is not room for the kids in the bedrooms they were required to sleep on the floor and table. They would have to get up extremely early in the morning so the fathers of the families could eat at the table before work.  Next we saw a bedroom where three families lived. The room was about half the size of mine at home and had three twin sized beds on the sides. A woman that lived there explained that in her family alone there are five children, and they share that tiny room with two other families. It was absolutely heartbreaking to see that. I cannot even fathom what kind of life that would be like. The only thing that made me feel a little better was how happy she seemed in spite of it all. Even though to me her way of life seems tragic, it was almost as if she knew no other way and was completely contented.

boy in street with soccer ball
A local boy plays in the street with his soccer ball

Our final stop was at a traditional African healer. This type of healer does not go to school and receive training in the conventional way, but uses herbal, animal, and spiritual devices to fix any problems the people that come in are having. This type of healing is especially popular in spiritual and emotional situations when western medicine cannot help. According to their culture, a healer can only become one if his grandfather passes it on to him. The only way one knows if he is getting it passed on to him is if his grandfather appears to him in a dream and tells him so. Along with that his grandfather will tell him how to do the healing. When we entered this small structure it was very dark. Animal skins and bones were everywhere (a bit freaky I’ll admit) and the healer told us more about his job. It was very interesting to say the least!

The entire trip to Langa was an amazing experience. I finally felt as if I got some of the traditional culture I was missing. Though it was sad at times, it was very inspiring. It made me want to be a better person, and work harder for those that haven’t been dealt as good of a hand as me. Numerous people came and told us how they grew up in dire poverty and are now making something of themselves. Change is happening and hopefully someday, with the help of training programs and education, much of the poverty in these areas will be swept away. I am so happy I decided to see what township life was all about. 

*Brooke Axness, a native of Fort Dodge, IA, is a sophomore majoring in biology and global health studies at the University of Iowa. This summer she is interning abroad at a hospital in Cape Town, South Africa on the Connect-123 program.

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