35. Ashes to ashes

(from the Chapter 'African Drama')

So this was Langa, a township of anything between 30,000 and 80,000 people – no one knows exactly how many. Tens of thousands could disappear and no one would notice, for here even in death people are unequal. Langa has a hospital – I saw it – the size of a Surrey village clinic. Imagine a Langa grandfather having a heart attack in the middle of the night; what are his chances compared to the wealthy pensioner of Belville, a few miles north?

‘Langa means "sun" in Xhosa,’ said Mohammed as he drove past. ‘This is the original Sun City! Welcome to a township, my friends. How do I know it’s a township? There, see? One way in, one way out and the rest carefully enclosed between railway lines and large motorways so that every movement can be easily controlled.’

Like Canary Wharf, I thought. It’s funny that urban planners use the same design to keep people out as to keep people in.

‘Look around you. This is how the majority of the people live. This is a legal settlement; wait until we go to the illegal ones,’ said Mohammed and pointed at miles upon miles of disorienting shacks; puddles of brown water; corrugated iron and plasterboard dwellings with roofs out of every imaginable substance; grim, jail-like four-storey blocks of flats with grubby skylight windows criss-crossed by electricity wires hanging as low as wash lines; rows of terraced bungalows with makeshift rickety fences in peeling reds, blues and yellows; huts made out of planks unsure of the horizontal and the vertical and plastic lilos instead of doors. Housewives were bent over buckets struggling to clean dirty clothes with dirty water, for hundreds of thousands live without sanitation, water, power – you name it, they haven’t got it.

I had seen my share of shanty towns, but three had stuck in my mind because of the proximity of the poverty to immense wealth: in Bombay, the centre of the Bollywood industry and provider of thirty per cent of India’s tax income, where a line of wretches with palms open line up along the waterfront to a saint’s mausoleum and where entrepreneurs give you change for one rupee so that you can give one worthless cent each to a hundred people to minimise your discomfort; São Paulo, the economic powerhouse of the world’s fastest growing economy with favelas lining the motorway from the airport to the town – they seem temporary until you see the ‘For Sale’ signs and realise that that structure, which most of us wouldn’t use to defecate in, is precious property to others; and the Cape Flats, because the combined forces of capitalism, colonialism and apartheid condemned people to a continuous struggle without hope. Take away the prospect of advancement or betterment in this life and what have you got? If not hell, then the desperation of purgatory.

‘Are we in any danger?’ asked the Turkish woman.

‘Do you feel any danger, my friends?’ Mohammed asked back. ‘People here know Legend Tours and they know that we contribute part of your tickets towards community projects.’

No, we didn’t feel any danger. But there were certainly strange looks from Xhosa teenagers along the route. I crossed eyes with a barefoot guy in his twenties. That stare. Was it hostility or shame?

The air stank. We closed the windows.

‘One of the places we support,’ continued Mohammed, ‘is the Chris Hani school we will visit. It’s run by a woman, Mrs Maureen Jacobs, whom I truly believe to be a saint. She has single-handedly created this school. The school choir will sing for us at eleven o’clock.’

Marc winced. I felt embarrassed. What is this, the Kruger Park? Why am I taking pictures of the squalour? Why am I here – on a tour?

‘I don’t like this "sing for us at eleven",’ I said to Mohammed, searching for the right word. ‘They don’t have to… perform.’

‘My friend, in order not to hurt the sensitivities of the schoolchildren the tours arrive at eleven during choir practice. The children are proud that you are here. They have been told that their choir is world famous and that people all over the world visit them to hear them sing. And, of course, we think of your sensitivities as well.’

Our sensitivities?

‘Well, yes. We don’t want you to make you feel like a voyeur.’

I had never expected the citizens of Langa to care about my feelings.

Mohammed gave me one of his piercing looks.

‘Don’t feel bad. You have come and seen it, and in this you have done more than most residents of Cape Town,’ he said, as he stopped in front of a long, L-shaped bungalow.

‘It’s a big school,’ commented the Turkish woman.

Mohammed laughed.

‘Your conditioning,’ he laughed. ‘The school is not this building. The school is that room. The rest are living quarters of the residents.’

We got off the bus, as these very residents eyed us with curiosity. They knew and we knew where we all stood in the pyramid of life and that none of us could make an iota of difference in theirs.

We were received by Maureen Jacobs. For a saint she was very plain-looking: middle-aged and bulky with a brown-orange Xhosa complexion, she could have been one of those housewives struggling with the washing in the township alleys. But when she started describing her school’s aims with an unpretentious air of noble dignity, she seemed to grow in authority and fill the room with her presence.

‘This is a school for Xhosa children who are so poor they have not even been registered,’ she said.

What did she mean, registered?

‘At birth. It costs one hundred rand to register your child and many people in the rural areas cannot afford to. Without a birth certificate you cannot go to school. Those you see here are from the Transkei or the Ciskei and have such low language and maths skills that they cannot even be admitted to a school. We register them and give them enough schooling so that they can be admitted back into state education.’

Inside there was a blackboard with subtractions:

7 – 1 = 6

6 – 1 = 5

5 – 1 = 4

4 – 1 = 3

3 – 1 = 2

2 – 1 = 1

Next to it hung another board with joined-up writing in Xhosa and some in English: 

I eat with my mouth.

I see with my eyes.

I hear with my ears.

The children were looking at us questioningly. They were mostly girls dressed in pressed clean uniforms: white blouses and brown skirts. (Their parents must have found the money to register their brothers.) I smiled at a tiny girl and was rewarded with one of the pearly white smiles only African kids can muster. I heard the choir sing a beautiful song in that uniquely South African antiphonal accapella style. I didn’t know the Xhosa words, but it didn’t matter, because music can take you to any world you want to imagine – yet, whichever image came to mind, it was imbued with infinite sadness. As if to clear our heads, a more upbeat song followed with two boys performing a little merry dance, kneeling on the floor with one leg and alternating the position. Finally, we were treated to a hymn written in 1897 by a Xhosa choirmaster, Enoch Sontonga. The original version contained only one verse; the poet Samuel Mqhayi added seven more in 1927. It was banned from being sung, performed or played in public during the apartheid era. It is one of the few national anthems the whole world can hum, one of the most stirring choral pieces ever: ‘Nkosi sikelel’ iAfricaGod Bless Africa, indeed, for it needs some serious blessing.

I think Marc lost it then. He felt compelled to say something and, in a broken voice, he thanked the children for us – but he was babbling. I kept my eyes pinned on the floor. This was my fifteen minutes of contact with a destitute way of life I couldn’t help feeling personally responsible for, because of the colour of my skin.

Maureen gave me a small, pitiful, photocopied brochure containing the school’s founding principles. I couldn’t read it; I was gritting my teeth trying not to shed a tear.

‘We need more funds,’ she was saying. ‘There are four teachers. All volunteers. We do not draw any salary ourselves. All money goes into registering those children. Else they do not exist.’ I realised she was talking to me alone in the yard and that I was nodding mutely because it was clear that the land imbued with infinite sadness was not miles away but here and now.

‘We have met some very nice people from Europe,’ she was saying now. ‘Last year three girls from Denmark came with Liberty Tours. They were only eighteen, but after they visited our school, they stayed and taught English for six months. We did not pay them. We only cooked for them. We cried so much when they left.’

I wanted a picture of her. She obliged. She wrote her address on the back of my crumpled photocopied brochure. She was struggling; her writing was disjointed – I thought she was dyslexic. When I leaned closer I saw that it wasn’t her, it was the pencil she was using, if that could be described as a pencil: it had been ground to a small blunt tip, impossible to grasp and control. ‘No money for school equipment,’ she explained with a resigned smile.

‘Are things better now?’ I dared ask.

She didn’t answer the question directly.

‘We have suffered a lot,’ she said unhurriedly, ‘but like our president, we forgive and forget.’

I swear to you, she did say that.


From that point on, the trip was a blur. I remember barefoot kids in corners chewing on the laces of their tracksuits; bent-over women beating the dirt off clothes in buckets; kids kicking cans out of rubbish bins; huts only distinguished as shops by their signs: Stuyvesant cigarettes, Chamberlain’s syrup, Njoy Coca Cola. Amongst all this, the waste, the human waste of talent: look, there is Langa Athletic Club with no money and few facilities. A town this size had only two athletic fields and they were being shared between the cricket club, the rugby club, the hockey club – in fact, every Langa sports club.

There was also physical waste: rotting vegetables, discarded broken seats, cannibalised shells of cars, white plastic bags, hollowed-out radios and carcasses of TV sets. Garbage seemed to grow like weed out of the ground. This was Guguletu, a shanty town of – how many? – 200,000? 250,000? 300,000? No one knows. These people don’t really exist. Guguletu means ‘our pride’. Was this a joke?

‘Street signs,’ said Marc.

We looked up at the wondrous sight. There were two signs at an intersection: ‘NY1’ and ‘NY2’.

Mohammed laughed. ‘Yes, my friends,’ he said. ‘Street signs. Do you know what they mean? No, it’s not New York One and New York Two. Guguletu was a place built by the apartheid government to house forcibly removed black people. The signs mean Native Yard One and Native Yard Two.’

I crossed eyes with the Colombian professor. He was shaking his head vigorously. I knew he’d lost it then. ‘Native Yard One,’ he whispered. ‘Just like pigs…’

This is the Cape Flats,’ said Mohammed. ‘A useless piece of sandy soil which was used as a rubbish dump and was put to better use by the apartheid government by dumping its own people. Tourists come here and they see the rubbish and say: "Aren’t black people dirty and ignorant? Why don’t they pick up their rubbish?" But this whole place used to be the Cape Town rubbish dump. Look at this field opposite. Can you see the bottles buried underneath? Can you see the thick layers of compressed waste exposed by the blowing wind?’

We could.

‘Look closer,’ Mohammed said to me. ‘What do you see?’

‘People,’ I said. There were people walking amid the litter.

‘And?’

‘They’re carrying flowers. They’re crying.’

I swallowed audibly. We all did. Among the rubbish, there were tombstones. This was the township cemetery.

This is where I lost it.

I closed my eyes unable to reopen them dry. I saw my father in his coffin, the lid open for that last, harrowing glimpse. Whenever I visit him with fresh flowers, I feel compelled to take a bucket of water and wash the gravestone clean. Oh, to have to bury him in a rubbish dump!

No, India, Brazil, you are forgiven. This was no Bombay or São Paulo; this was a conscious, authoritarian decision by an ethnically exclusivist government brandishing a philosophy which became a self-fulfilling doctrine. From the cradle to the grave, black people were condemned to live with rubbish, be treated as rubbish and die in rubbish, regulated within the great creationist pyramid of apartheid with white man at its peak. If, as the Afrikaners fear, the white man disappears in Africa – well, he may have had his chance and blown it.

‘I know what you’re thinking,’ Mohammed said. ‘How could they? How can they? The answer is simple. They’ve all been brainwashed. Black and white.’

‘And Coloured,’ added Marc.

Mohammed chuckled.

‘You’re learning, my friend,’ he said. ‘Yes, and Coloured. Your church, the Dutch Reformed Church, preached to us that the white man is superior. Our families saw the white man’s technology and told us that they were superior. Our schools, our history, everything told us that white man was superior. And we believed them – even the Zulu believed them. That was our problem; that’s where we went wrong.’

He was angry now.

‘I’ve been doing these township tours for some time now and do you know what I want most?’

This was supposed to be a rhetorical question, but I butted in.

‘I think so,’ I said.

He waited.

‘You want to show the white South Africans around, not just tourists.’

He didn’t answer.

‘Isn’t it so?’

He nodded.

‘How could they? How can they?’ I repeated his words now coming out of my mouth torrentially, like a Swazi downpour. ‘Simple. They don’t know, and they don’t bother challenging so-called truths and half-baked lies. It takes a lot of effort to think independently, to detach yourself from your blinkers and look objectively at something from a different angle. Most people don’t believe in themselves enough to make that leap. Who am I to question centuries’ old wisdom? Prejudice is based on arrogance, ignorance and fear and, believe me, I know a bit about prejudice myself.’

This plunged the car in total silence. It didn't occur to me then, but reading my diary later, I saw that I was just describing the process for breaking self-denial which is exactly the process for coming out as a homosexual. In South Africa, a whole nation needs to come out and confront itself.


We next drove through an endless landscape of identical and equidistant matchstick boxes, made out of the same materials, every one in the same shape and structure, like replanted trees, the individuality of the residents only revealed by differently coloured window curtains.

‘These,’ Mohammed informed us, ‘are the Mandela dwellings.’

Explain please.

‘These are the houses Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki promised to the township residents.’

These?

‘Yes, these, my friend. Don’t you like them?’

Erm… no.

‘You make me laugh, my friend. Yes, they look bad, but there are differences. They have electricity and water, and they are not made out of wood. They are solid. The people in them have not been displaced. They moved here willingly. And the houses have room to expand.’

I wasn’t convinced. Were these the houses the ANC promised their voters?

‘The government are not providing them with houses. They can’t. They provide them with a solid start and they invite them to expand. They give them one room and challenge them to build a second, through their own efforts. And a third.’

I pointed at a house with a second room shabbily made out of cardboard in that characteristic shanty town manner.

‘Unfortunately for the expansion they use several materials,’ Mohammed admitted.

‘How many of them are there?’ asked Marc.

‘The government promised one million. They built 750,000.’

‘All like this?’

‘All like this.’

‘Are you in the ANC, Mohammed?’ I asked to squeeze out the propaganda.

He shook his head. ‘I was. Not any more.’

‘Why?’

‘I’ve realised that governments don’t run a country. Money runs a country.’

Mohammed stopped. We had reached Bonteheuwel, a Coloured township.

‘The Coloured people call this a Cape Town suburb,’ he said. ‘Look at the houses. Any difference from Langa or Guguletu?’

The houses were better constructed. There were front gardens, a petrol station, a supermarket. This was more recognisably a town, as I would picture it: fences professionally erected, houses with bricks and fresh paint, tended gardens, asphalt in the streets.

‘But don’t be deceived,’ continued Mohammed. ‘One way in, one way out, surrounded by motorways and railway lines: a township. The Coloureds have been conned.’

‘But you are Coloured,’ I said.

‘Yes.’

‘So?’

Mohammed’s features darkened and his eyes flashed.

‘So I’m aware that the apartheid system used us as a wedge between the black community and themselves. The abused became abusers as some ineffectual privileges came their way. By making us hate each other the apartheid regime could perpetuate its rule. What the Coloured people hate the most is to be considered black. Coloured people don’t have any guilt complex using black women as maids – only whites do. Do you know who ran the province of the Western Cape after the first elections? Not the ANC but the National Party. The Coloured people voted the old oppressors in.’

The prejudice and mutual hatred between the two communities is legendary. During the 1950s debates raged whether just the Africans or all racial groups, including the Cape Coloured, should participate against the overthrow of apartheid. At the time, a young Nelson Mandela spoke against an integrated fight. The ANC adopted the policy of cooperation with all racial groups in spite of his directives.

‘Do you think the blacks like other blacks?’ Mohammed continued. ‘There are seven million black illegal immigrants. They are chased away from the townships. They are the ones who live under the motorway by the Waterfront. But they are the ones who will hawk you matches or try to sell you something. They won’t beg! Our blacks have a victim mentality. "Give me money ’cos I’m poor. Give me money ’cos I’ve suffered. Give me money ’cos with Mandela it’s my turn now. Give me money or I’ll kill you."’

Stop it!

Mohammed drove on.

‘Do you know something else, my friend? Unemployment in Bonteheuwel is forty to sixty per cent. How do they counteract it? The Coloureds deal in drugs, dagga and Mandrax. Crime here is more rife than in Langa. This is where people have time and money and indulge in drugs. Here you get the drug addicts and the burglaries and organised crime.’

‘Like PAGAD?’ I asked.

PAGAD – People Against Gangsterism And Drugs – is a militant Muslim association which has been originally responsible for the vigilante murder of several high profile gangsters. Yet, several bombings on the Waterfront and other tourist areas later, the original anti-crime movement turned into an Islamic terrorist group. Thankfully it has been quiet recently and some point the finger at the rehabilitation of Colonel Qaddafi who stopped sponsoring the organisation.

‘We all supported PAGAD in the beginning,’ said Mohammed. ‘Everyone knows who the top guys are, including the police. Its headquarters are in a mosque in Charlesville. They say that the police helped them by providing PAGAD with information about the gangsters’ movements. But after that they became a destabilising factor. No one supports them any more, but apartheid created a dangerous fundamentalism amongst the Muslim community. Every racial group retreated to its traditions and rejected Western values.’

Indeed. If European civilisation and the Age of Reason led to colonialism, racism and apartheid, why is Western culture superior to our ancestors’, who lived in relative peace and freedom?

Answer that.


Mohammed left us by common consent at the Waterfront. I was heavy-hearted and heavy-footed and slid out of the van with all the grace of a sleepy walrus. Mohammed thanked us all individually for attempting to see the other South Africa.

‘Goodbye, my friend,’ Mohammed said and shook my hand. ‘The day was nice with you.’

I thought of Maureen. I thought of the Danish girls. I couldn’t leave like that.

‘I have to do something about it,’ I told Mohammed.

He smiled.

‘Many people say that,’ he said. ‘What the people of Langa need is jobs and education. What can you do?’

What could I do?

‘I don’t know,’ I said.

‘What was your occupation again?’ said Mohammed.

‘I’m a computer programmer,’ I said, feeling useless.

‘Well,’ said Mohammed, ‘if you think of something, this is my cellphone number.’

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