Africa Guide
Guide to Africa

South Africa's Townships

Written by Erin Michelson

South Africa Township
South Africa Township

I've been to Cape Town before - exactly 10 years ago. In 2001, South Africa's apartheid government had been gone less than 10 years, and I took the opportunity to visit Robben Island, the District Six Museum, and Langa Township.

Now it's 2011, nearly 20 years since apartheid ended, and I was interested to visit the townships again. Unfortunately, not much has changed.

South Africa's economic disparity is one of the worst in the world. Just drive in from the airport and you're confronted with shanties build on the highway shoulder. These are the same shanties that comprise most of the townships today.

As part of my overland Desert Tracker - Cape Town to Victoria Falls trip, I visited the townships of Langa and Guglethu. And while life in the township wasn't pleasant to see, I think it is important to see. In my view, you can't really understand the struggles of South Africa (during apartheid and now) from the sky-high vantage of Table Mountain.

Langa was Cape town's first township, established in 1927 after the apartheid-era government passed laws to segregate living areas for blacks, coloreds and whites. While the name Langa means "sun" in Xhosa, the suburb was actually named after Langalibalele, a famous chief who was imprisoned in Robben Island.

The tour operator had arranged for us to be given a tour of Langa by a local, our guide Abongile, who lives in the township. He told us about life for the 250,000+ Langa residents. After showing us a dormitory that houses as many as 20 families, Abongile walked us around to meet his fellow Langa inhabitants. We checked out the small shops and bought a few curios (more beaded bracelets!).

South Africa Township Tour
South Africa Township Tour

Then he introduced us to sorghum beer (xhurry), Langa's version of moonshine. Although it was only 10:00 in the morning (it's Happy Hour somewhere!), we were all game, taking a swig out of the frothy bucket that was passed around.

After our morning imbibing, we headed to another township called Gugulethu, meaning "Our Pride" in Xhosa. Gugulethu is known for Mzoli's - a popular BBQ joint that is supposedly standing-room only on the weekends. Luckily we snuck in before the crowds and feasted on wings and pork ribs. We also tried our first mieliepap (corn porridge), which tasted surprisingly similar to grits.

Our Township Tour:
In all, I think our township tour provided some important insight into today's South Africa. To me, the townships are a part of the fabric of South Africa's past and present, and it's our job as engaged tourists to understand fully the communities and cultures we're visiting. I'm glad that we were given this opportunity.

This activity was part of my overland safari Desert Tracker - from Cape Town to Victoria Falls, Zambia. It was an unforgettable experience that I highly recommend if you're planning a Southern African adventure!

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