South Africa townships lash out in warning

There are riots in South Africa. Once there was a song about that, but this should not be music to anyone’s ears.

Government troops have been called out and people are being killed in places known as the townships in Johannesburg and Cape Town.

Having just returned from there, I saw no riots, but what I did see suggested that I was looking at a country on the brink, and just in need of a push.

Before leaving Vancouver, I Googled Cape Town and found tourist advisories that warned: Do not visit the Cape Flats as there is danger of being mugged and even physically harmed. Imagine Tourism Vancouver issuing such a warning for the Downtown Eastside or someplace truly dangerous like the Broadway SkyTrain station.

To be blunt, the townships are where apartheid still lives, the law be damned; indeed, millions of South Africans in “apartheid-free” South Africa still live in these places. Fly over Cape Town or Johannesburg and, even from 2,000 feet up, you can tell the colour of who is living beneath you.

The warnings said “Don’t go”, so I went. The reality of the Flats begs a terrible question no one would answer: Why is this all still here? The question is not welcome. The Flats should have vanished into history long ago, but it hasn’t. The townships are not a museum; they are very much alive, volatile, and may be the places from which a new civil war is just waiting to erupt.

In the Cape Town case, a huge black population once lived in an extremely high density area immediately abutting the west side of downtown, romantically named District Six.

It was perhaps the size of our West End but with more people. When it was destroyed—“bulldozed” describes what happened to it—its 250,000 residents fled to and created a huge shanty town called Langa Township. The bulldozed land was cleared, all except for the churches; even today that land is open, just weeds and churches—poetic.

The cynicism of this is not lost on the local guides as they show you Langa in stages. First you see the “better” buildings made of cinder blocks, built to mask the view from the highway that connects Cape Town International to the city’s stunning centre. Behind the “better” buildings are the shanties built of boards with dirt floors—no toilets, no running water—shanties that form the real core of life for most of the people.

There is no reliable population figure, but ask any local and the number given is in excess of one million people.

There is more to understand. At its height everyone carried passbooks with pictures and numbers all ending with a letter: “W” for White; “C” for Coloured; “M” for Malay... But there was a another letter, “D”, standing for the word “dumb”; the “Dumb Pass” meant “Black”.

People carried that book for over two generations. I saw two elderly women nod their heads yes, lips pursed in anger, in response to the guide at Robben Island, where Mandela had been imprisoned, when he called to them, “Sisters, do you remember carrying those passbooks?” I heard the astonishing story a second time, when I visited Langa and met a man of 77 years living in a cockroach-ridden, three-family, small hot and humid room, who clung to his decrepit passbook just to show it to anyone who would stop to look at it—to anyone who cared to learn about the horror that has never really died.

The Townships belie the claim that Apartheid is finished. It is different but still quite alive, and it should be feared. The blacks are fed up with unemployment and bad housing. Furthermore, they endure a statistic suggesting that some 40 percent of township populations are HIV-positive; on Sunday, one can see the AIDS funerals.

Now add to this over four million illegal black immigrants who have fled the terror and hunger of Zimbabwe or Kenya or Darfur or Rwanda just to get to this comparatively better place, and who will now compete for jobs and awful housing.

Against this, there are too many white South Africans who voice the archaic “place theory” of the American South; y’ know, blacks would never want to live where they weren’t wanted. “Get ready!” I said to one fellow who obviously had never heard of Rosa Parks. These notions of secure white neighborhoods need to be walled in with bricks, electrified fencing, and security gates—sleep tight.

The western media wants to label the township riots as xenophobic, a reaction to the illegal immigrants. But the true hatred is not toward the immigrants, it is toward the thugs who are continuing to destroy countries like Zimbabwe and Kenya.

From what can be seen in the townships, home to millions, one has to wonder if these riots are really a first cry for help—a warning that reflects a fear among many that what has happened to their neighbours will happen to South Africa next.

Alan Herbert is a former Vancouver city councillor and former chair of the Vancouver City Planning Commission.

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