VOICES Voices Icon Ideas and Insight From Explorers

Menu

Township Swing: Tony Elvin’s campaign to move the heart of Cape Town

Photo: When Peace Boat docked in Cape Town, Londoner Tony Elvin shared his plans for the Langa Quarter, a 13-street precinct in Cape Town’s oldest township.
When Peace Boat docked in Cape Town, Londoner Tony Elvin shared his plans for the Langa Quarter, a 13-street precinct in Cape Town’s oldest township.

In a repurposed primary school in Langa, the Western Cape’s oldest township, Tony Elvin asked 27 Japanese Peace Boat passengers what they thought was the opposite of love.

Elvin’s visitors, most of whom had attended lectures on the legacy of apartheid before disembarking in Cape Town on December 23, conferred. Hate, one offered.

Twenty years after Mandela became South Africa’s first democratically elected president, the divisions imposed by apartheid planning are still entrenched. In Cape Town’s Cape Flats district, a security wall separates Pinelands, a white residential area, from the adjacent black township Langa, whose entrance and exit are still occasionally blockaded by police.

But not all barriers are physical. “The opposite of love is fear. And the only thing that conquers fear is desire,” Elvin told the group. Behind him, slogans and annotated maps were tacked to the wall underneath a picture of Chief Langalibalele, a renowned rainmaker for whom the township is named. “We want to make this area so new, so exciting, so desirable, that the people [in Pinelands] will complain they have to walk all the way around the wall to get here,” he said.

For Elvin, a social development expert from London, removing the wall that divides communities in the Cape Flats is only one part of a larger plan. The end game is a complete overhaul of Cape Town’s psycho-geography, whereby Langa – originally conceived as work camp on the city’s periphery but now smack in the middle of Cape Town’s three largest financial hubs – becomes its new heart. “We haven’t asked permission yet. We just say, everyday, ‘welcome to the new center of Cape Town,’” Elvin told the group.

Photo: Cape Town is the most visited city by tourists on the African continent, but few outsiders enter its townships.
Cape Town is the most visited city by tourists on the African continent, but few outsiders enter its townships.

Peace Boat’s visit to Elvin’s social enterprise iKhaya le Langa formed part of a one-day excursion to learn about the culture of South Africa when the ship docked in Cape Town recently.

Before visiting Langa, the group took in the natural splendor of the Western Cape, home to the Khoisan tribes for 180,000 years: they watched clouds slide across Table Mountain, drove through the wild Fynbos, breathed cormorant stink on Good Hope’s Antarctic breeze, and saw penguins squabble on barnacled rocks.

Cape Town is the most popular tourist destination city in Africa, and consistently ranks as one of the most desirable places to live in the world: it has an array of Michelin starred restaurants, premium wines from the Stellenbosch region, and world-class healthcare for those who can afford it.

However, South Africa also has some of the highest income, education, and health disparities in the world; a 2011 UN Habitat report found the country to be the most unequal of the 109 it surveyed. Despite the ANC’s Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Policies, a 2012 survey by Statistics South Africa found that black households’ annual earnings are around one sixth of that of white households.

Photo: Around 1.7million South Africans live in informal settlements like the Joe Slovo settlement outside Langa, according to guide Colleen Knipe-Solomon, a number that has barely changed since the end of apartheid.
Around 1.7 million South Africans live in informal settlements like the Joe Slovo settlement outside Langa, according to guide Colleen Knipe-Solomon, a number that has barely changed since the end of apartheid.

The Western Cape’s black townships illustrate such disparities, and some of contemporary South Africa’s most pressing challenges. But they are also vibrant mixtures of myriad cultures, birthplaces of art, music and social movements, and living archives.

The Cape’s first black township, N’Dabeni, was created by colonists in 1901 to house a maximum of 12,000 Bantu-speaking people. But post war, industrialisation and unemployment witnessed many rural people coming into the city and straining conditions in the N’Dabeni settlement.  By the 1920’s there was a desperate need to rehouse the community and Langa was finally completed in 1927 – however with its two-meter high barbed wire fences and armed guards, the township was more like a labor camp than the garden village its inhabitants had been promised.

In the years after apartheid immigration and urbanization further pushed the population to around 52,500 people, straining infrastructure and service delivery.

Photo: Peace Boat passengers jam with a local jazz band on the terrace at Mzansi Restaurant, in the Langa Township.
Peace Boat passengers jam with a local jazz band on the terrace at Mzansi Restaurant, in the Langa Township.

Besides being the oldest township in the Cape, Langa is renowned for its jazz and has been home to artists such as Abdullah Ibrahim and the late Basil Coetzee and Brenda Fassie.

However, independent tour guide Colleen Knipe-Solomon, who was leading the Peace Boat group, said that the few commercial agencies that visit townships cater mainly to voyeuristic impulses.

“They take a beer, and they meet a Sangoma (medicine man), because he’s so different to what they know. To them, that is the culture of the township. They’ve no idea why the groups are there, why the townships exist, or why the security is a problem,” she said.

Photo: Tourism can bring revenue to economically impoverished areas, however according to independent guide Colleen Knipe-Solomon commercial township tours are often reductive or culturally insensitive.
Tourism can bring revenue to economically impoverished areas, however according to independent guide Colleen Knipe-Solomon commercial township tours are often reductive or culturally insensitive.

As the Peace Boat bus drove through Langa’s narrow streets, one or two passengers shot videos through its windows, filming people pushing supermarket carts along the sidewalk, shirts billowing on washing lines, and a group of children playing with a polystyrene box. Among the group was 91-year-old Niina Akira. “I’ve done the typical sightseeing tours, so I wanted to try something different. I knew nothing about townships so this was new to me and very interesting,” he said.

But does tourism in townships serve a purpose beyond sating the curiosity of affluent visitors?

“It’s a sensitive issue, particularly when people come in and just take pictures of kids and there isn’t necessarily supervision,” said Sabelo Mnukwa from Soweto, who was traveling on Peace Boat as part of the African Youth Leaders Disaster Risk Reduction programme organized in collaboration with the UNISDR. “But I think there is an important place for tourism, particularly in townships that have a very rich history,” he added.

Knipe-Solomon – who lived in Cape Town’s District 6 before being forcibly evicted to Mitchell’s Plain, a township for those classified as colored under the apartheid regime – said that when tourism focused on social issues and history rather than voyeurism, it brought vital revenues to the township. “All of those NGOs, how do they survive? They all have a component of tourism and craft. These little projects so desperately need to generate funds, so they do need the tourists,” she said.

Photo: iKhaya le Langa is attempting to start some form of enterprise in each of the 350 houses within The Langa Quarter, a designated social enterprise precinct within the township.
iKhaya le Langa is attempting to start some form of enterprise in each of the 350 houses within The Langa Quarter, a designated social enterprise precinct within the township.

Knipe-Solomon stressed the contribution crafts could make to township-based NGOs, however Tony Elvin’s language was more grandiose as he showed the Peace Boat group around iKhaya le Langa’s social enterprise precinct, The Langa Quarter. Outside a repurposed school building that had become Langa’s Center for Enterprise and Entrepreneurship, Elvin pointed over a concrete wall at a row of painted houses he had dubbed the Langa Art Galleries.

Partnering with the community, NGOs, government and the private sector, iKhaya le Langa aims to build at least one form of enterprise in each of the 350 houses within the Langa Quarter, and draw some of the tourist dollars usually spent in Cape Town’s CBD into the townships. The developments, Elvin said, would capitalize on what was already great about Langa – its history, its culture, and its jazz – to build a hip neighborhood replete with street cafes, music venues and art galleries.

Elvin said that the government had invested in important remedial and service delivery improvements in the Cape Flats, but that all the bold, exciting development happened over the mountain in Cape Town’s CBD. iKhaya le Langa planned to change this. “What we are doing here is aspirational development,” Elvin said. “This is not poverty alleviation, but business development.”

Although relatively new, iKhaya le Langa has already garnered support from the private sector. Its center for enterprise and entrepreneurship is sponsored by Microsoft, and is one of the few places in Cape Town to offer free public Wi-Fi. Elvin said that other partners included the Table Bay Hotel, Three Cities Hotel Group, and an array of academic institutions in South Africa.

Photo: The NGO Brothers For All teaches coding and other skills to ex-offenders and at-risk youth from an office in the Langa Quarter.
The NGO Brothers For All teaches coding and other skills to ex-offenders and at-risk youth from an office in the Langa Quarter.

After hearing from Elvin, Peace Boat passengers visited Brothers For All, one of the first NGOs to open inside The Langa Quarter.

Originally a prison education programme, Brothers For All takes advantage of iKhaya le Langa’s free Wi Fi to teach IT skills such as coding and web-design to at risk youth and vulnerable children. Although the NGO had been operating in Langa for only 13 weeks, national coordinator Sihle Tshabalala said that students with no prior knowledge of computers had already learned to build websites.

Limited work opportunities and a heavily criticized education system have contributed to an unemployment rate of more than 25% in South Africa, and an estimated recidivism rate of over 80%. “Coding is the only innovation that can compete with poverty and crime, because there are never enough developers in the world,” said Tshabalala.

Brothers For All and its programmes inside prisons receive support from corporates such as the US-based cosmetics manufacturer MAC, but no domestic funding. “The saddest thing is that even though we are addressing internal issues, we don’t get any support here in South Africa,” Tshabalala said.

Photo: Peace Boat participants inspected architectural mockups for prospective builds in Langa, a collaborative project between iKhaya Le Langa and the University of Cape Town.
Peace Boat participants inspected architectural mockups for prospective builds in Langa, a collaborative project between iKhaya Le Langa and the University of Cape Town.

In another of iKhaya Le Langa’s social development precinct buildings, the Peace Boat group inspected the end of year assignments of freshmen architecture students at the University of Cape Town (UCT). Some models featured fibreglass pavilions, in others fuzzy trees rose above toothpick fences; all of them included an L-shaped building already present in Langa.

In collaboration with a professor at UCT, Elvin had set the students an architectural brief to design a restaurant, call-center training academy, archive heritage center, enterprise school, and event space for Langa. “The tutor afterwards said that this was one of the better years, because the students had to design for a world-class city in a city-center, which happened to be in a black township. So, they were forced to design for people, not poor people,” he said.

Elvin added that the project demonstrated the power of aspirational development. “You build in limitation if you keep categorizing. That got the country in trouble before,” he said. “An area like Langa doesn’t need sympathy; it’s a gem. It’s one of the easiest sells possible if you approach it right.”

On the back of the success of the project with UCT, iKhaya le Langa has been officially recognized as a World Design Capital Cape Town 2014 (WDC2014) project. 

Photo: Langa-based artist Lutela showed work to Peace Boat passengers at his gallery in the Langa Quarter.
Langa-based artist Lutela showed work to Peace Boat passengers at his gallery in the Langa Quarter.

Not all of Elvin’s projects have run as smoothly. Langa residents blocked a hop-on-hop-off bus designed to facilitate safer and greener tourism, which they saw as a threat to local taxi-drivers’ livelihoods. “Taxis are the bread and butter that brings in income for these people, so they don’t want an alternative rail system, or an alternative road system to be implemented,” said Knipe-Solomon.

Knipe-Solomon added that the objection to the hop-on-hop-off bus illustrated the complexity of importing ‘western’ ideas to the township, and said that various projects, including one supported by Stanford University, had failed because not enough time had been invested into understanding the culture of the township.

“I know their heart is to assist and help in the communities, but does it work for that community?” she said. “People in the townships will only accept you once they think you are sincere, and you have to learn and understand the dynamics that are happening.” 

Photo: Peace Boat passengers posed with Tony Elvin and other staff from iKhaya le Langa.
Peace Boat passengers posed with Tony Elvin and other staff from iKhaya le Langa.

Before they returned to the ship, the Peace Boat group posed for a final photograph in the Langa Quarter. For many passengers, the trip had been the highlight of their time in Cape Town, illuminating a side of South Africa seen by few tourists.

Visiting Langa – and Soweto on a separate Peace Boat tour – had provoked 23-year old Tohda Kazuma to consider Japanese citizens’ position as ‘honorary whites’ during apartheid – a status accorded because the Japanese government did not join international trade embargoes against South Africa.

“I remembered learning this in high school history, and when I first heard it I thought that Japanese people must have done something good to be called honorary,” Tohda said. “It struck me how simplistic my thinking had been – that it is because of people like me that history repeats itself.”

Tohda, who is considering becoming a teacher when he returns to Japan, said that he would take the lessons of South Africa home with him.

But would an increase in tourism also benefit Nombulelo Msizi and the many other Langa Quarter residents that welcomed the Peace Boat group into their homes? According to Elvin, it depends on what kind. “I don’t do township tourism, I do tourism in a township – it’s completely different,” he said. “Township tourism is capturing as-is and it’s a bit of a safari; it doesn’t develop anything. We have to develop opportunities and that is what I am here to do.”

Officially launched in September 2013, these are early days for iKhaya le Langa, and time will tell whether Elvin can break down walls in the Cape Flats or transplant Cape Town’s heart. But on the evidence of the Peace Boat visit, he has already begun to quicken the Langa beat.