Tuesday, September 4, 2007

The Townships, Colored and Black

The Townships -- where do I start? They are unimaginable, unforgettable, seething, intense, hopeful, forlorn, needy, independent, Black and Colored, and bursting with possibility, depending on which one you visit.

We have spent the last two days, with a little help from my friend Songs Ngcongolo, visiting Black and Colored townships. Their names are: Langa, Guguletu, Khayeliysha, Athlone, Heidiveld, Manenberg, Philipi, and Belville South. Some are poor, some are middle class, some are a mix of both. They are creations of the Apartheid era, they are also places where people live and work and raise families and dream of the future, or can't see a future and just try to get to the next day.

In Langa, Songs takes us around and shows us various areas in the township. Langa is the oldest township in South Africa. The housing ranges from one room shacks, like the one described in our play, to two story brick homes in an area called "Beverly Hills." Incidentally Beverly Hills is literally across the road from an area filled with shacks where people have no plumbing. There are schools, small shops, churches, small eateries, and bars. Everywhere you see people going about their daily lives, going to work, kids in uniforms going to school, driving, walking, talking, laughing, seemingly unfazed by the circumstances that surround them. Unfazed but not unaware, everyone we met spoke of their desire for change. Either in their own lives, or more generally of change for South Africa and all her people. Be it social, political, economic, or educational, it was something that was on every one's mind. This ability to live and get to the next day in spite of what one faces in life is a big part of our play.

Songs introduced us to his friend Nkululeko, his name means freedom. He is a man in his forties who lives in the house he grew up in. It started as two rooms, a kitchen and a bedroom, and the family added to it. Nkululeko is a master drummer, he plays in a band named Amampondo that is hugely successful in South Africa. He has played with Hugh Masakela, Airto, Flora Purim, and other musicians of note yet he lives in the most humble of abodes next to a shebeen called Fanie's (under Apartheid a shebeen was an illegal bar). He and Songs introduced us to everyday life in the township of Langa.

Nkululeko and Songs:

We ate at a place called Tigers, a butcher/restaurant/bar. That's right, all those things under one roof. You go in the butchers and pick out your cuts of meat and some seasoning, you go into the next room to season your meat and it is cooked on a hardwood charcol fire, you go to the terrace to order what you want to drink, your meat is brought to you, and you eat. It was the best food we ate in South Africa.

Incredible poverty and deprivation across the road from Beverly Hills and the undeniable pulse of a vibrant everyday life, this was Langa.

The other Black townships we saw were Guguletu and the largest township in South Africa, Khayelitsha, a place that is home to 1.4 million people.

The Guguletu Seven -- A memorial to seven young black men who were killed at a crossroads in the township.

The next day we went to Colored townships. Their names are Athlone, Belville South, and Heideveld, and all three are working middle class communities. However, being classified Colored didn't insulate you from poverty and one room shacks, remember the circumstances of our characters in Blood Knot. We also saw Mannenberg and Phillipi, both Colored and both achingly poor. That was where we saw how Zach and Morrie (the brothers in our play) lived. Their lives under Apartheid are still being lived today after that horrible system has fallen.

In Belville South we met another of Songs' friends, Rodney Adonis. He was enormously helpful to us. He gave us insight into the life of a Colored man in the 1960s, the time of our play. We talked about the state of mind and psyche under Apartheid. How as second class citizens with a few more privileges, a mindset of fear could be created, whereas for a Black person who had no rights, not even citizenship and nothing to loose, there was often no fear. We discussed the different ways that horrid system impacted the lives of the people it oppressed, both Black and Colored. We saw so much, felt so much, learned so much.

It is very hard to put it all into words, so I'll stop trying. I'll try to put it all into my work on stage. It's a daunting task, but that makes it all the more exciting. Wednesday we went to Robben Island and we heard the most incredible story about that place from a former political prisoner. I will not try to speak for him, we recorded his words and we will put them in the blog, either as audio or transcribed text. I'm just going to call that post "Tell the truth and shame the devil."


More pictures from the townships:

1 comment:

Pippa said...

Wow...an incredible account of your trip. Takes me back to my S.African childhood, visits to CapeTown, learning about the bulldozing removals of District 6 etc. But particularly on the issue of "blood" and race, being in the stands at the Rand Easter Show in the early 60's when David Pratt unsuccessfuly tried to assassinate Verwoerd, the Prime Minister, the architect of aparthheid. But he was slain a few years later by Tsafendas, a man born and raised in Mocambique, whose efforts to be classified from a white to a coloured were thwarted. He was in love with a Coloured woman but was unable to pursue the relationship as he was "white." He became the assassin of Verwoerd. Killed him with a knife in the houses of Parliament in Cape Town. A great book about this is "A mouthfull of glass" by Henk van Woerden, and an incredible play "I.D."

Cant wait to see Blood Knot.