DAVID LARSEN worked for some years among the migrant peoples of the Cape Flats. Gugulethu, KTC, Nyanga East, Khayelitsha, Langa… all were familiar to him for the eight years he dwelt in Cape Town prior to relocating to Pietermaritzburg in KwaZulu Natal. Recently, however, he returned to document over a few days life in another of the Cape Flats townships, Lwandle, outside the upmarket town of Somerset West.
Sindiswa Blouw pinched the piece of deep fried intestine and ran her fingers down its length. Charcoal-green remnants of the sheep’s last meal squeezed out the end and oil dripped from her fingers as she eagerly devoured the morsel.
They say familiarity breeds contempt. We can become used to the extraordinary in such a way that it no longer stands in stark relief as it once did. It becomes normal, an accepted part of the givenness of a place. It is only when we leave for some time, getting accustomed to an alternative arrangement of things, that the ordinary can return to the extraordinary.
Although I had never visited Lwandle during my sojourn in Cape Town, so much was familiar. Familiar yet extraordinary – from the “pens” (tripe) and “binnegoed” (intestines) deep fried or braaied on the street corners, to the tinned food labelling used to wallpaper the inside of a shack.
As I reviewed the work one aspect of township life in the Western Cape that stood to my attention again was the children. It is the numbers of children, tearing across the playgrounds, filling each school twice or three times over every day, overflowing onto the streets, pressed into every room, overwhelming every creche, that arrests me again. For those raised in suburbia, there seems a disproportionate ratio between the numbers of children and adults.
So many of these pictures speak of the lives of children, a generation who have really come to stay in these windswept areas of the Cape Flats. Most of their parent’s generation grew up elsewhere “emaXhoseni” and regarded those regions beyond Port Elizabeth or East London as home. Most have spent many weekends crushed into a taxi tripping the many miles through the night to Umtata and beyond, and then back again, for a funeral or a wedding. They never could belong.
Lwandle was designed to make its inhabitants feel that they didn’t belong. The concrete barracks for migrant workers with its first intake in 1960 was situated strategically between the upmarket towns of Somerset West, Strand and Gordon’s Bay. Only 19 morgen near the centre of the 109 morgen farm was used for buildings. The rest was a “buffer zone.” There was only one access road into the area, and police raids were frequent.
Very soon the hostels became overcrowded. Men who could not get a place often took to living under a brother’s or uncle’s bed. Wives and children were not allowed to stay for more than 48 hours. Police would burst into hostel rooms in the early hours of the morning, and search under beds and in cupboards for illegal residents. If any were found they were arrested and hauled off to prison.
Only in 1986, when the government relaxed the draconian pass laws did women with children began to arrive in great numbers to live with their men. At first they crowded into the hostels making living conditions almost intolerable. Two families shared one room. A curtain divided the room in two. We were always fighting each other for sweeping the floor. Your child cannot touch the other one’s bed or the other one’s spoon. We were all in a bad mood all the time,says Lwandle resident Zenzile Elf. In a room of three by four metres, five people lived on one side of the curtain and three on the other. We cooked in the passage and ate in the room, Zenzile says. The toilets were so messy most did not use them but preferred to go in the bush. The hostels were also incubators for disease. With thousands of people living in such close quarters, tuberculosis, in particular, spread rapidly.
By 1990, with the release from prison of Nelson Mandela and the related mass action of the Defiance Campaign, families began to move out of the hostels and erect shacks on open land around. Within a few years this land became densely populated with an increasing number of rural poor who were making their way to the Cape from around the country. Although families had significantly more space in shacks, and they perceived this to be more healthy than the close quarters of the hostels, shacks had their own problems, some of them deadly. The wind and rain, crime and worst of all, fire, made life in the squatter settlements, at best, harsh.
In the past half decade a lot has changed in Lwandle. Roads and services have been upgraded and the government housing subsidy has made its mark on what is now a sprawling township, granting people access to solid homes. One of the most remarkable of these is Fatyela Square, a project which has built 35 houses on an island of land sandwiched between hostels and squatter settlements. The project was so well executed, and the houses of such quality, that it has redefined the standard of low cost housing in the area. A low wooden fence surrounds the entire island, keeping the goats off the green grass. In the centre between the homes, a jungle gym attracts the neighbour’s children.
The young who swing from the platforms are growing up in Lwandle. These sandy streets are theirs. At least they should be theirs. Yet even this generation at times travel the long weary miles to emaXhoseni to visit grandparents or attend family events. In spite of this, though, there is a sense that this generation belongs here. They know little else and they seem more comfortable in the city than in the rural areas. Perhaps it is the brick homes that help, perhaps it is that the community they are growing up in are no longer labelled migrants by the powers that be. Whatever it is, roots are sinking into the sandy soil in a way that never happened for their parent’s generation. There is a sense of belonging and with belonging one hopes there will come a stability, a sense of ownership which firms up the social structures of these once transient communities. Perhaps as a result crime and violence in these areas will decrease as people who belong hold one another accountable. If this were so, the lives of Lwandle’s children will be better, much better than the sometimes brutal lives of their parents. For the children of Lwandle the future certainly looks brighter than it did two decades ago. After all the Kingdom of Heaven does belong to such as these.
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