Yesterday was the most impactful day so far on this trip. I was guided around the Khayeltisha township with Sibulelo and Wandisile from the 18 Gangster Museum, who are former gang members working to educate youth in the community about gang prevention.
Khayeltisha means “near home,” and is the largest and fastest growing township in South Africa, currently housing over 24 million people in a space that was meant for 64,000. The townships were built under the apartheid government in the 1980’s as racial segregation was mandated and millions of Black and Coloured people were displaced. (“Coloured” in this context refers to citizens who are bi or multi racial.) 30,000 families were chosen from Crossroads to move, and during the removal 733 people were killed due to police brutality as a response to protests. The apartheid government even went as far as to set homes on fire in order to forcibly remove citizens.
Before going into the details and interviews of the day, I want to acknowledge two things that were weighing on my mind: One, ensuring that I would look beyond the homes made of metal sheeting and view this community with the biggest asset lens possible. Two, I was horribly self conscious about falling into the “slum tourism” category. Since arriving in South Africa, I’ve seen dozens of pamphlets advertising “township tours” that sport photos of smiling white people surrounded by a dozen Black children who aren’t wearing shoes. I had the opportunity to talk about this frankly with Wandisile, and I asked how people in the townships feel when they see white, foreign tourists in their midst. He replied that people view our presence very positively, adding that Black and Coloured people often enter into white spaces (especially for work), but it’s rare to see white people in Black and Coloured areas. He also noted that it’s beneficial for the children in the townships to be exposed to people of different races. This conversation made me aware that I had a self-imposed negative view of my presence based solely on assumptions, and moving forward I attempted to abandon this attitude.
We first climbed to the top of Lookout Hill, which provides a 360 degree view of the entire township all the way to the ocean. Wandisile and Sibulelo pointed out their former high school from up above, and outlined where the Coloured areas lay. Wandisile explained,
“Coloreds were placed in their own communities, Blacks were placed in their own communities, and whites were in their own communities. You were treated according to the color of your skin. If you are black, you get the worst treatment, if you are colored, you get bad treatment, but not as bad as Blacks, if you are white, you get the best treatment. So between 1963 and 1967, there were very fair skin Colored people and you couldn’t tell if they were Black or white, so they developed the “Pencil Test.” They’d take a pencil and put it on yourUIKeyInputRightArrow head. If you’re Colored, your hair is supposed to be thicker. If you shake your head and the pencil sticks, you’re Colored. That was a real test! Five white people moved to Colored communities, and three Colored people were “upgraded” to whiteness.”
I had been curious about the term “Colored” since I began researching South Africa’s history a few months ago. I inquired about if South Africans consider the term derogatory, but they disagreed:
“Here, people are proud to be called “Colored.” However, a lot of students in universities are trying to remove “Colored” as a racial group, and saying they are Black. In the university consciousness movement, they regard themselves as Black, but in general, people still see themselves as Colored. They’d often prefer it to Black, because they don’t see themselves as Black. There’s a strong disconnect between Coloreds and Blacks. Coloreds are trying to build their own separate communities away from Blacks, and some people think this is perpetuated through the government and the elite white class trying to continue the legacy of apartheid segregation.”
We began our walk through the township, and I swear that Sibulelo and Wandisile knew everyone we passed on the street, even hugging people through the car windows! The sense of community felt stronger than anywhere I have ever been. They explained that one major benefit of the township is that everyone knows everyone, and everyone looks out for their neighbors.
I had expressed my desire to learn more about education and youth development in Khayeltisha, so we started by checking out some local businesses. On the way, we passed the first radio station of the township, and I learned that it was originally used to alert residents if their medications were available. We first visited The Spinach King, a local business started by the charismatic Lufefe Nomjana. He spoke to us about the desire to provide the community with healthy, fresh food, and cited the rise of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity as motivators to help educate the township about healthy eating.
Our next stop was Siki’s Coffee Shop. The owner, Siki, created a space where people in the township can find work and develop themselves. During the daytime hours, the shop sells coffee, and in the evening, it transforms into a neighborhood garage. He also provides a computer room with internet. Sibulelo explained that locals can use the library computers, but it is unrealistic to try to complete a CV when you’re limited to 30 minutes online at a time. Wandisile noted that this is a trend when it comes to local entrepreneurs.
“People are starting organizations, and young people are starting companies with the purpose of bettering their condition. In the township, you would go to maybe 100 businesses that are formed by people from the townships, and if you asked them why they started it, they would also answer, ‘To better the condition of my people,’ not just to make money. Money only enables me to better the community.’ We are tired for waiting for a messiah who is not coming. People have come to self-determine their futures.”
At Siki’s, we sat around and discussed education, history, colonialism, and apartheid over coffee. I wish I could share everything we talked about, but here are some of the highlights:
People who teach in schools are people who have been trained during a different era.
When you look at privileged schools, they are in support in teaching kids about what is currently taking place. They take kids into businesses to get experience within the community as part of their curriculum. But our schools in the townships are still using the same system from back in the day. The teachers were trained in such times, they do not know any better. It is difficult them to adapt to change. They are educated to believe that you just come to school to teach these kids one plus one is two. They’re all about depositing information, that’s it. They don’t know yet how these kids could be part of the movements.
Are the teachers often older? What about younger teachers?
Another problem is the creation of teachers. There was a time when being a teacher was one of the best jobs, but now there is a lot of need, but few are employed. Young people would rather take on other disciplines, so if young people do go into teaching, it’s because they often do not have other options. Not all of them, but the vast majority.
As a student, you come as an individual into a schooling system that has its own culture and way of doing things. So instead of coming there and changing the system, the system changes you.
The problem with our history is that it is one that celebrates colonialism. It’s one that wants us to feel that in the absence of colonialism, we would not have a history. Like we were colonized to be civilized, and we never would have advanced otherwise. In our history class, they would teach us starting around 1652. As a young boy, all you’ve been taught is how someone else “discovered” Cape Town.When I look at history in schools, it implies that we had no history before the Dutch settlers came here and killed people. And it was structured to try to avoid the brutality of it, and rather focuses on the progress it provided. One of the biggest issues I had is that it was like someone deposited the information and we had to memorize it. There was no dialogue, we could not question it. Our teachers would tell us, “If you don’t write what is written in the textbooks, you will fail.”
And your teachers were Black?
Yes. They were subjects of racism and colonialism. This is a common thing today: There are Black people who view the township or anything related to Blackness from the lens of a white person or outsider, not from their own views. Their whole psychological makeup has been consumed by information that they’re given by people who look them, but has not been created by them. People are not able to make their own views of things from their own lens. People were trained to look down upon themselves, and self-hate. So when you come to our schools and see our teachers, they have often been trained to look down upon themselves.
Our last stop was the 18 Gangster Museum. While the building is small, the information and presentations are incredibly impactful. The museum was founded by former gang members who work to educate youth about the dangers of gang involvemement. I met with a man who had been released from prison 7 months earlier, and talked about how the birth of his child had motivated him to change the course of his life. The men explained, “Gangs are consequences of the social ills of a community. Kids react to violence by joining a gang, seeking a sense of belonging.” All cited the lack of opportunity as the most influential element in gang membership, and if kids weren’t forced into constant survival mode, there would not be a need for gangs. I also learned about organizations such as “Waves for Change,” and “Safe Spaces Soccer Club” which to provide youth with alternatives to seeking gang membership.
The day was a game changer for me in a myriad of ways. Most importantly, it was a reminder of the power of crossing racial, socioeconomic, cultural, and geographic barriers. Being in unfamiliar spaces only expands your lens, humanizes others, and bridges differences.