The Slums of Cape Town: Part 1

I travel the world looking at garbage. Plastic garbage. This is my job. Our NGO quantifies plastic density in the oceanic gyres, but because all would-be plastic patches are land born, we study garbage wherever we can. When I arrive in a new country, I’m keen to investigate waste management infrastructure because I believe, as does our organization, that pollution is a symptom of poverty and poverty is a symptom of pollution. Environmental catastrophes are created by humans and require solutions that have a positive effect on human quality of life. This is my mantra.

Cape Town is an extremely diverse and complex city. Eleven different languages are spoken in South Africa, and the population is composed of African blacks, whites and “colored.” Colored has a different meaning here – it denotes being of non African descent and of mixed race. It’s not derogatory. Coloreds speak Afrikaans and English as do Whites – for the most part. Blacks speak several languages including Xhosa, the language of Nelson Mandela and this the language we hear in the slum villages. But language can change from block to block at times. Many of the the coloreds are of Malaysian slave descent and comprise the Muslim community and some of their communities are within a stones throw of the shanty towns, though the two cultures rarely, if ever, mix in the townships. Affluent blacks, whites and coloreds do mix in the higher income parts of the city, as well as in the workplace and in politics.

What characterizes any metropolis in South Africa is this shantytown slum situation on the outskirts of the city. It’s quite possible to go from Dolce and Gabbana to abject dirt floor subsistence squatting in tin shacks within a five minute drive. America is very good at making poverty invisible, but here, squatter villages line the highways and are the first thing a traveler is confronted with driving from the airport into the city.

Cape Town in general has security issues – mainly theft rather than violent crime (but confrontational robberies are not uncommon) which is to be expected when have nots live close to haves. As a white person, it is unwise to go into the shanties without a guide. But I was not content to see these places from locked car doors at fifty miles an hour.

Laura the Amazing.

We met Laura outside of a ritzy shopping center in the money part of Cape Town. She grew up in the townships (slums) and was lucky enough to get a scholarship for a university education. Laura has been guiding for over a decade. Her presence commands respect and she has an exceptional power and charm that exudes from her being. For 350 rand, about $50 US, she agreed to show us around the townships. This is how she makes a living. And some of the money goes to support a breakfast program she runs out of her house to feed children before school. No school means no free breakfast and the incentive is enough get kids motivated. As she sees it, the only way to break the cycle of AIDS and poverty is through education – 60 percent of blacks are unemployed and there are 9 million people that have HIV (that have been tested) in South Africa – that’s about 1 in 5.

At first, Laura was trying to figure out what we could handle. We explained that we worked for an NGO on pollution issues and said that we didn’t want the sanitized tour. As I sat in the front seat of her white Mercedes driving north, she started explaining all that we would see. Her knowledge of her country, it’s complexities, issues and histories were out of this world. School was in session as I feverishly took notes on my iPhone as we drove.

Langa was our first township. We entered a typical apartment shared by three families. Three twin beds in a single room, windows without glass, exposed wires and heaps of garbage outside. Residents here pay 20 rand a month (about three dollars) to rent these places. Everything is dirty but the tap water is clean. Though meager, an exceptional amount of care is taken in the dwellings. Beds are made and the floor is swept. But the close quarters make for hard relations – sex for example – sex is something that often occurs in front of children, or as Laura describes it, “they are witness to deeds that exceed their tender years.” Typical motherhood occurs at 14-16. HIV is a major problem and as Laura says, “We bury 100 people every Saturday.” But she’s quick to say it’s not all doom and gloom. Twenty years ago the beating of women and child molestation were common practices. But now, there are legal consequences for such actions, an improvement made from having women in political power. Still, the poverty is pervasive and most here subsist on 500 rands a month ($70) or less. In order to be considered a “worker” by a bank, a family must make ten times that a month. Then, credit and things such as a mortgage becomes possible. For most families here, this not an achievable goal any time soon. But what’s dominant here, beyond the plastic garbage and dirt, are the smiles of children – something that is beautiful anywhere in the world.

Part Two – Christmas in a squatter’s camp.

Editor’s Note: This is part 8 in a special series. Voyage with Stiv and catch the exclusive each week here at EcoSalon during his months-long journey into the heart of the South Atlantic Gyre and beyond.

Images: Stiv Wilson