The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- A visit to South Africa’s famous, and notorious, townships

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Perhaps 300 million people watched the India-Pakistan World Cup encounter, this comfortably constituting the largest television audience in the history of the game. Although I am a cricket-writer, and even happened to be in South Africa at the time, I wasn’t one of them. In both the 1996 and 1999 World Cups, I had watched India play Pakistan at the ground itself. I thus knew what a contest between these two teams meant; namely, that the happenings on the field would be eclipsed by the raucous jingoism outside it. In the circumstances, I thought it wise to pass up the match for a social experience I hadn’t previously enjoyed; a visit to South Africa’s famous, and notorious, townships.

In the early Fifties, the then brand-new apartheid regime in South Africa passed a law known as the Group Areas Act. Under the act, coloured and black communities living in and around the city-centre were evicted and moved to distant locations. The areas thus freed up were assigned for offices and businesses run and owned by the ruling whites.

In the city of Cape Town, one of the casualties of the Group Areas Act was the St Augustine Cricket Club. This catered for the coloured people who then lived right under Table Mountain. A prominent member of St Augustine’s was Basil D’Olivera. In the late Fifties, as “Dolly” was taking his first steps in English cricket, his compatriots were being resettled in the township of Langa, some 12 miles from the heart of the city. It was from here that they took buses to work in factories in Cape Town, and it was to here that they returned, to spend the night safely away from the eyes and noses of their white rulers.

By the standards of an Indian slum, Langa is rather habitable. The roads are tarred, the homes made of solid wood. Many have cars parked outside. Somewhat down the social scale is Kyelitchaa, another township that we visited, and which caters to black migrant workers from the countryside. Here the houses are less sturdy, and more closely packed together. In this township, we met a woman entrepreneur named Vicky who has started what she calls “the world’s smallest hotel”. This has all of two rooms, which can be rented out to those foreigners interested in the “authentic township experience”, to be had before or after the beaches and game-parks that lie on the more conventional tourist route.

Vicky is a woman of much charm and dynamism. She gave us a lecture on social life in the locality, stressing the links that the inhabitants had to their ancestral villages — they invariably went back to be buried there — as well as their readiness to share and cooperate. “If I have two bananas,” she said dramatically, “one belongs to my neighbour.” She refused to take any money for her talk, but passed around a box for donations, these to be handed over to the children of her street.

Village and slum elders in India also like to tell outsiders of how harmonious and collaborative their lives are. The truth is sometimes otherwise — there are caste and ethnic rivalries in places like Dharavi in Mumbai, as there must be tribal and religious rivalries in Kyelitchaa. But one should not be too dismissive of these idealized pictures of life among the poor. For the rich are also known to fight among themselves.

Like Indian slums, South African townships reflect a deeply divided society. After the first democratic elections in 1994, the African National Congress came to power riding a wave of hope and high expectation. In the long years of struggle, the ANC had defined itself as a socialist party, committed to radical land reform, state control of the economy, and socialized housing. However, by the time apartheid ended, that vision had been discredited around the world. The Soviet Union had fallen. There was now a growing consensus that the market was a more efficient allocator of economic resources. If South Africa wanted international aid and foreign technology, it had to embrace market-led development.

This, at any rate, was the conclusion reached by the younger and more outward-looking intellectuals of the ANC. But it was rejected by some of the older radicals, as well as by the South African Communist Party, an ally of the ANC. A particularly vigorous member of the new cabinet was Joe Slovo, a communist of Jewish extraction, who was appointed minister of housing. Before he died tragically of cancer, Slovo gave a major impetus to the building and upgradation of homes for the poor.

Housing, like education, is a “social” sector where private capital is not usually forthcoming. These areas of development are best left to the state and to voluntary organizations. However, for the production and distribution of goods and services, post-apartheid South Africa has chosen the route of market-led growth. Local business is encouraged, and foreign capital and technology not discouraged. As in India, a decade of economic liberalization has led to real prosperity — for some.

Who have been the main beneficiaries of a decade of freedom in South Africa' It is easier to point to those who have not lost. The whites, for instance, have by and large managed to maintain their privileged lifestyles. It is striking how high the percentage of whites is in an average South African airplane (in one flight we took, my wife and I were the only passengers with coloured skins). However, members of other communities have also benefited from economic growth. Some ANC comrades have become hugely successful entrepreneurs, including Cyril Ramaphosa, who once seemed likely to succeed Nelson Mandela as head of both party and government. South Africans of Indian extraction have also made gains, particularly in the services sector. Indeed, in the province of Gauteng, the fastest rise in per capita income has been registered among Indians.

Like our own country, South Africa is a land marked by both cultural diversity and social disparity. Diversity and disparity often overlap — thus Dalits and tribals are among the most disadvantage here, and blacks among the most disadvantaged there. In the years to come, access to quality education will prove crucial to a wider sharing of the benefits of economic growth. It was heartening to see that the biggest and best maintained buildings in Cape Town’s townships were the schools. If the quality of teaching matches the schools’ exteriors, then one must not fear unduly for the future of black South Africa.

Like human beings everywhere, South Africans disagree among themselves on matters both mundane and profound — on which cricket team to support, for instance, or which god to believe (or disbelieve). But in my conversations in Cape Town, I found a rare unanimity on one matter: the impending war against Iraq. Whether black or white, man or woman, all opposed it. Kyelitchaa was ablaze with posters inviting residents to join a march to the American and British embassies.

The guide who escorted us around the townships went so far as to compare George Bush to Robert Mugabe. Like Mugabe, said he, Bush is not a democrat — he came to power by stealing the Florida election. Like Mugabe, Bush is a rogue politician who defies the United Nations. And like Mugabe, Bush cloaks vulgar materialist aims in high-sounding language. The Zimbabwean president seizes other people’s land in the name of “social justice”, while his American counterpart plans to seize someone else’s oil in the name of “world peace”.

The comparison was novel, but convincing none the less. To sum up then, while most South Africans seem to have come around to the American view that, in matters of domestic policy, the market is a better economic agent than the state, they refuse to subscribe to the American view that, in matters of international relations, brute military force is preferable to reason and dialogue.

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