- By Isabella Richter de Medeiros
"Langa: what amazed me the most was the sense of community in this town."
We toured a section of Cape Town called Langa. It is a very low-income area of Cape Town owned by chiefs of native tribes and clans. The township was originally a designated space for Black Africans during the apartheid era, and still today, it is made up of 99% Black Africans belonging to native tribes and clans. Langa is the oldest of many governmentally designated areas for Black Africans in South Africa, during the apartheid era.
We started our tou in the Langa Community Center, where there are crafts and skills taught, such as mosaics, pottery, painting, and building, as well as a place for people to just hang out and occupy themselves. When adults are unemployed, they often go to the community center to learn a trade or skill for several months, to then make a living off of that trade or skill.
In the community center, there was also a theater being built out of recycled materials and shipping containers, both by resident students of Langa and by European architecture students.
We then headed towards the residential area of Langa. Our guide explained the hierarchy and society of the tribes; Langa is inhabited by a few different tribes/clans, and each one has a chief. All the tribes are very adamant about respecting elders and sticking to tradition, and there is a ritual that a boy must always go through to become a man and be recognized as one.
We began in the poorest residential area; shacks stacked right next to each other, dirt floors and roads, buildings that were recycled shipping containers, no indoor plumbing, the works. We stopped at a little run-down bakery where a bunch of pre-school-aged children were playing and eating, having just gotten out of school for the day. They were so cute, and really really excited about us taking their picture. They’d insist and make funny faces and poses, then grab our phones or cameras to take a look at how the picture turned out, all while talking excitedly in Xhosa. There was one boy who was about ten, named MJ, who was super funny and absolutely amazing. He followed us during the whole tour and spoke in excellent English, telling us that he wanted to be a guide when he grew up, teaching us hand-clapping games, and cracking jokes. We seemed to collect small children as we walked around the town. They’d see us and follow us around for a bit, holding our hands and asking us to take pictures of them, then wander off and maybe catch up with us again later. MJ loved my phone and played around on it, taking pictures and asking if I had any games (I did not). He totally jammed to the High School Musical soundtrack that I shamelessly have on my phone, and we talked about our favorite characters in the movie (his favorite was Troy, I like Sharpay).
What amazed me the most was the sense of community in this town. It was previously a place of great tension during the apartheid era, but is now a community. Everyone knew everyone and everyone took care of everyone. All the children were everyone’s responsibility; the kids as young as two, one and a half maybe, would be playing with their friends in the street and in and out of peoples’ homes, and everyone trusted that they would be taken care of. The older kids watched the younger kids and all the children would play together, running around all over the town. It was truly a community.
There were a few different levels of poverty in this town; we started in the shacks, then moved near the hostels (concrete buildings with several small bedrooms, each usually inhabited by one family), and then to the government housing. The housing was the last part of the tour; we were invited into the home of a woman named Nina, and she told us her story. She had grown up with shacks with her family; dirt floors, no plumbing, one bed for the family. Children slept on the floor. She said that one time she had been baking bread and she took a nap with the dough still on her hands, and she woke up to find that rats had bitten her fingers. As a teenager, she said that she had messed around a lot, and wound up getting pregnant at the age of fifteen. The father of her child died when she was seventeen and the baby was two. She said that even in the shacks, she and her family never gave up hope. They recently moved in to the government housing in December of 2014. She’s attending university and her daughter is in first grade. Her parents work full time and her sister is also in school.
This experience was truly humbling. My family and I were talking about it some time later, and I mentioned that I felt very uncomfortable during the tour. Reason being, I felt like I was invading peoples’ space and privacy, I felt like I was turning their everyday lives into a spectacle.
There are “informal settlements” like this all over South Africa. We kept seeing towns made up of shacks stacked upon shacks stacked upon shacks on the side of the highway during our road trip. There are similar “informal settlements” like this in Brazil as well. They’re called favelas, and are generally on the hills beside the city. One of the largest favelas is in between Ipanema and Copacabana, called Cantagalo-Pavão-Pavãozinho. It’s a city within itself; it used to be run by drug dealers and corrupt police officers, making it extremely unsafe. Nowadays it’s cleaner and taken over by the police and the army; the pacifying units are installed all over the favelas in Zona Sul (South Zone), and the government is working on taking over the favelas in Zona Norte (North Zone). There are HUGE favelas not only all over Rio, but all over every urban area in Brazil. Many are being cleaned up and the reign of the drug-lords is ending, but in many favelas that is still the truth.
Technically the favelas are informal settlements, and the favela technically does not own that land. But, as my dad said, “what government is going to be able to take that over”? There is strength in numbers, and the favelas are not going away anytime soon. Not to mention the fact that, while the informal settlements in South Africa are flat, the favelas in Brazil are stacked up on hills, making it pretty much impossible to try to invade or control. This raised another question; with the amount of poverty in the US, why do we not see “informal settlements” like these? Why do we not see giant communities of people living in shacks?
The reason: the laws, and the numbers. There is strength in numbers, and in the United States, the sheer number of people living in abject poverty is not as big as it is in South Africa and Brazil. Not to mention the fact that the US is very controlled and the authorities actually do their jobs and are less corrupt, usually (not always; see Ferguson 2014). There are also so many laws regarding owning land and owning homes, etc etc. When people are evicted, they generally wind up on the street. When homeless people set up tent cities, they get shut down within days.
This does not mean there is not poverty in the United States; it’s just a different kind of poverty and a different way that the poverty manifests itself as opposed to South Africa and Brazil.