An afternoon in Imizamo Yethu

A small convenience store in Imizamo Yethu.

A small convenience store in Imizamo Yethu.

Cape Town is a city of contradictions. My goal is to use this blog to give my perspectives on these contradictions and one of the starkest examples is right here in my own backyard.

I’ve written about the charms of living in Hout Bay; it’s a lovely beach town with a laid-back vibe, good restaurants and nice people. The homes here sit in a valley with the ocean on one side and the mountains of the Cape Peninsula above.

Looking up from the beach you see nice houses and apartment buildings dotting the hillside. You’ll also notice two areas that stand out from the affluent neighborhoods: Imizamo Yethu and Hangberg.

These areas are both low to middle-low income areas inhabited largely by people who work in Hout Bay’s fishing industry or as service and domestic workers.

South African neighborhoods are generally divided by race and these townships are no different. Hangberg mostly has a coloured population, while Imizamo Yethu is largely made up of black residents.

On Tuesday I visited Imizamo Yethu as part of a walking tour organized by a local community activist named Kenny Tokwe.

The main street through Imizamo Yethu.

The main street through Imizamo Yethu.

Imizamo Yethu, which means “through struggle we achieve” in Xhosa, is home to about 25,000 people living in about 4,500 homes. The living conditions range from rudimentary corrugated metal shacks built on stilts over an old landfill to small brick homes with indoor plumping.

Only about 250 of the homes are made of brick and were built by an Irish charity. There are plans to build more permanent brick homes in the township and the government administers a long waiting open to residents who make less than 3,500 rand a month (about $325).

The brick homes, one of which I visited, are relatively nice by township standards. The one I saw had two bedrooms, a living room, kitchen and a bathroom with toilet and shower. Two families lived there.

Those families are well off by Imizamo Yethu standards. Most people live in the metal shacks.

It was around 85 degrees when I visited. Inside one of the metal homes the temperature easily exceeded 100.

Informal settlements in the township. These are built on stilts that sit on an old landfill.

Informal settlements in the township. These are built on stilts that sit on an old landfill.

These shacks are designed to be temporary, but long waits for brick homes and the difficult nature of improving your economic situation in South Africa mean that people end up living in them for long periods if not forever.

Many of the shacks in Imizamo Yethu have electricity and at least one faucet in the kitchen, but they do not have showers or private toilets. The family gracious enough to let me visit their home bathed with two small plastic tubs and shared an outhouse about 100 meters up the road with four other families.

The houses may not be much, but every house I saw was well decorated and clean. I’m told the bathrooms are also kept very clean. Just because you are poor doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t be proud of your living space.

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In the Cape Flats, which is home to the largest township Khayelitsha, many homes are built in low-lying areas. When it rains in the winter the water table rises and floods homes. In Imizamo Yethu, many structures are built on the old landfill, which also leads to problems with unstable ground in the rainy months.

This is why access to permanent structures is so important. How are you supposed to find or keep a job when you have to worry about your house flooding or deal with the disease that comes along with it?

All over Imizamo Yethu there were people working to help residents find good employment. For example, the American tech research firm Gartner built a computer lab where one of the residents teaches others basic computer skills.

There are also services that help people write resumes, a public library branch and I even saw a sign advertising a local business school and start-up incubator.

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Imizamo Yethu has a 30% unemployment rate, which is better than some other townships but still far too high. Nevertheless, some people in the township make enough money to send some remittances back to their families, many of whom live in the Eastern Cape.

Imizamo Yethu (also known locally as Mandela Park) also has a large number of international residents. There are people from 15 different African countries in the community, including migrants from Zimbabwe, Malawi and Somalia. The Somalis run most of the township stores and it’s common to see Zimbabweans or Malawians throughout Hout Bay looking for domestic work.

Tensions between poor South Africans and migrant workers have boiled over at times in recent years. The New York Times wrote about an incident last July where some Malawian and Somali residents were briefly forced to flee Imizamo Yethu after local residents attacked them. The violence was sparked by a rumor that one of the Malawians was responsible for raping a local girl.

Taking a township tour can be a strange experience. On one hand, it’s important to see that there is more to Cape Town than scenic vistas and trendy restaurants. But on the other hand you’re essentially gawking at poverty all the while knowing you get to leave at the end of the tour and find air conditioning or enjoy a cold beer at some beachside café.

I asked Kenny if residents in Imizamo Yethu resent the fact that busloads of white people regularly stroll through their neighborhood to observe the poverty from a safe distance and take a few pictures of the cute kids.

He said there isn’t much resentment because people know that tourists and visitors bring in money. I’m sure there must be some resentment, although it is true that the tours are a vital part of the township economy.

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Some of the brick houses and apartments in the township.

I’ve generally avoided buying souvenirs from the touristy markets but happily bought items from the township store. The people who open their houses also get a fee for their trouble and maybe a tip from the tourists.

More importantly, the tours raise awareness of their plight. The residents of Imizamo Yethu aren’t yet at a point where they can’t cut the umbilical cord of foreign aid.

The Irish charity that built the houses, for example, started when the Dublin pub magnate who funds it visited Imizamo Yethu and was moved by the people there. Next thing you know, he and Bob Geldof were touring and building houses and Kenny was in Dublin meeting with the Irish president to tell her what his people back in South Africa needed (he said access to better housing).

That money, the computer lab and other advances in the community wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for outsiders being welcomed in.

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It’s important to be self-aware when visiting Imizamo Yethu, Hangberg or other townships. Even in dire situations people can be friendly and want to show off when they are proud of something2.

One of the first things you see when walking up the main road into Imizamo Yethu isn’t a pile of trash or a rundown shack. It’s a giant piece of art. The life-size, multi-colored paper mache elephant was made by a group of local schoolchildren.

In what seems like a fitting metaphor, the tusks of the elephant are broken off. The harsh winds that scream down the peninsula blew the giant piece over and the tusks didn’t stand a chance. Unfazed, the residents lifted up the colorful creature and put him back on his feet.

Imizamo Yethu

1 It’s very common in South Africa to have a maid, gardener, dog walker, etc. My housemates, for example, employs a maid named Sasa who comes three times a week. Other people I know who are my age have a maid who comes daily. Not quite a luxury my friends and I back home can afford.

2 Bonus tip: Before you visit a township learn some basic Xhosa (or whatever the predominant language is). Most of the tourists who visit are straight off one of the double-decker buses that ferry people around and haven’t taken the time or aren’t comfortable speaking a little Xhosa. Learning to say “molo!” when you meet someone or “enkosi” when they let you in their house will go a long way and you’ll see a lot more smiles. The kids also think it’s hilarious.

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