Most Cape Town guidebooks will lead you to the conclusion that the Cape Flats are dangerous townships (slums) and should be avoided. But when we asked around Cape Town about worthwhile things to do, we repeatedly heard that a guided walking tour through the townships was not to be missed — it was the best way to understand how a huge percentage of the black population still lives.
Our hostel arranged a tour with Mamnkeli, who lives in the Langa township and now gives professional walking tours there. As a tourist, especially a white one, Langa and the other townships are not places you’d want to go unescorted — and it did feel a bit voyeuristic — but it was incredibly moving to see and probably the most memorable thing we did in Cape Town. Without that tour, we would have had a very sheltered impression of the city.
Langa covers about 1,200 acres near the Cape Town airport and is one of several townships in the area. Langa was created in 1927 and is the only township set up prior to apartheid (1948). Designed for 5,000 people, it is now home to over 70,000. It’s the oldest but also the smallest. The official unemployment rate hovers around 40 percent, but it’s tough to gauge.
Many of the homes are converted shipping containers, which are actually some of the more expensive shelters there, and they are typically shared by two families (maybe 7-12 people). There are also the “hostels,” which are effectively dorms that had originally been built for migrant workers but are now overcrowded multifamily homes. Mamnkeli says he’d much rather live in the shipping container homes.
Mamnkeli also took us to a local pub, which is just a dark shed with a large beer barrel in the back and a few benches along the walls. You pay seven rand (less than a US dollar) for an “all you can drink” day pass. The owner needs at least five people at a time, since they fill up a bucket that you pass around the room. We thought we were just going to see it and have Mamnkeli explain how it worked, and were definitely surprised when we learned we were expected to try it. After Mamnkeli gave the overtures and took his share, I gave it a whirl. I was then totally shocked when Jill took the bucket from me and drank a bit. Way to go, babe. The beer is pretty light in alcohol, and some of the locals just sit around the pub all day. It was a little sad, but super interesting, the most out-there thing we’ve tried, and I wonder how long it takes for our ghiardia to set in.
[Preface to this next section: this is how we understood the distinction, so if anyone knows better, please correct me in the comments]. You hear South Africans talk about “Blacks” and “Coloureds” as distinct ethnic groups. At first it struck me as just a politically incorrect way of saying the same thing, but it was actually an official distinction in the apartheid era. Blacks were natives such as Zulu or Khosa. Coloureds were half white and half black, which typically meant an Afrikaner/Dutch father had an affair with or raped a Black woman. The government would physically separate Blacks from Coloureds — meaning if a Black woman had a Coloured child, the child would often be separated from the mother and placed in a different township. As a result, Langa is still basically 100% Black. Mamnkeli later drove us through one of the neighboring Coloured townships, where virtually 100% of the residents are of mixed race. Understandably, there is still a great deal of resentment among Coloureds of both whites and blacks. Mamnkeli said it wasn’t safe for us as white tourists or him as a black South African to walk through that township, so we had to drive (which was a bit unsettling to do, to be honest). It’s a sad reality in the aftermath of apartheid.
Mamnkeli assured us we were totally safe the whole time and that he’s never had an issue on his tours. I honestly felt more safe walking around the Langa township than I did at certain times in the City Bowl. While many of the residents live a tough life with just the most basic wants and needs met (and sometimes unmet), we still saw a lot more smiling and laughter than I might have expected. The people generally seemed friendly, hospitable and just doing what they could to get by. It was definitely an experience we’ll never forget.