A Glimpse of the Effects of Apartheid

We were asked this same question by our friends when we got back from our trip, "What was the best part of your trip?" That turned out to be quite a difficult question for us to answer. Would it be the safari or when we stood at the historical Cape of Good Hope? It is a difficult choice but if we had to make one, our visit to the township was one of the very most special highlights of our trip.

The term" township" was created to describe areas that were formed when black South Africans were displaced and forcibly removed from the city during the apartheid, before the time of Nelson Mandela. Racial segregation laws banned different races living in the same area. Residential areas were classified according to racial groups: white, black, colored (term for people with mixed ancestry), and Indians. The process of land reclamation as white-only led the non-white people to forcibly move out of areas they were already living in. During the apartheid, racial segregation laws included separate public areas such as bus stops, beaches, schools, etc, for white and black South Africans. The apartheid went on in South Africa for many years beginning from 1948 and only coming to an end in recent 1994 when Nelson Mandela was voted as South Africa's first black Prime Minister in the country's first free and independent general elections. The country has gone through so much domestic tension and international pressures against the apartheid. While South Africa today has achieved triumph in the eyes of the world, the effects of apartheid are still visible, especially in townships.

A visit to the township gave us the opportunity to dig deep and understand the essence of how a large part of the South African population, who were affected by the apartheid, live and not only seeing the glitz and glamor of the country that only typical tourists see. Traveling to another country for us is so much more than planting ourselves in photographs and buying souvenirs. We want to make the effort to interact with locals and understand their way of life (often they are the best people to learn and get tips from!). Meeting the township community became a very special part of our trip to South Africa. Within the same country we saw wealthy mansions with gardens big enough to fit 2 single family homes in the garden space, and with the visit to a township we got a 360° view of life in South Africa.

During the apartheid when people were forcibly removed from the city, they built shacks for themselves in areas where they were allowed to call home. These areas, called "townships", were formed at the periphery of a city so that those people were still able to get to the city. There are many townships in different parts of the country and all of them are at fringes of a city including Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, Knysna, etc. The township we visited was in Knysna.

Ever since the end of apartheid, the government is gradually helping the displaced people to transition into better living conditions by building small brick houses for them. However, due to the high number of shacks and huge areas that each township consitutes (each township can span up to an area of 25,000 sq ft), the improvement is gradual with some areas being slightly more developed than others.

Areas in townships that are not yet developed at all remain in its most original form from when the shacks were first created by the residents. The tiny homes were built from pieces of wood hammered together. Vinyl cloth were put over the homes as roof. These shacks have no running water or electricity. The people share common ablution facilities which means having to walk from their shack to the ablution facility for a shower. They also share a common water source where they will gather buckets of water and walk home with them. Inside their shacks, they cook using parafin oil stoves. Numbers are written on the outside of each shack for address purposes.

Some of the semi developed areas in the township that are going through a gradual process of improvement have several brick houses scattered among the remaining wooden shacks. The government builds the brick houses for free for the families but they have to apply for it and to qualify, the family has to meet a certain low income criteria. Though the process of improvement can be seen, it will take a long time (maybe even 20 years) for every family in the township to receive a brick house.


When a family gets to have a brick house built for them by the government, their shack is first demolished in half to make space for the brick house so that the residents can still live there while waiting for the brick home to be completed. Alternately, the government might move them to a temporary housing for 3 months. People in the country who were displaced by the apartheid are also listed according to areas and are in line to receive monetary compensation.

The semi improved areas have a water source outside their homes by connecting water taps to the main water pipes. This means being able to do their washing right outside their homes.

Some of the more improved areas show marked development with more brick houses than the less improved areas.

Many families who have received brick houses for themselves have found ways to better improve their living conditions by building an extension within their brick houses.

What we also found interesting was that many families who have qualified and received free brick houses from the government actually chose not to live in their brick house. Instead, they have built a shack behind their brick house where they can live so that they can rent out their brick house for about R600 (US$90) a month. What an entrepreneurial way of living! With more disposable income, they could use the rent money to buy more food every month.

Inside a township is a vibrant community in itself. There are public schools and libraries for children living there. At the Knysna township we visited, the library has a computer room used to teach children about computers and the internet. There are two clinics in this township where children can go for inoculation.

Several churches can also be seen in the township ranging from the liberal to the more conservative churches. Interestingly, we also saw a Rastafarian community within the township.

Many immigrants from Zimbabwe and Congo move to South Africa to look for a jobs which adds to the number of people in the country needing accommodation. They have made townships their home due to the very affordable housing. It has become a common practice for the Zimbabweans and people of Congo to rent industrial containers as a venue for their hairdressing and dressmaking businesses.

Townships have their own pubs and grocery stores, although we did not see any restaurants specifically at the township we visited. At one of the grocery stores, we met the owner whose name is Obama (who seemed quite chatty) and we told him that we were from the U.S. where the other Obama is from.

We were brought around the Knysna township by Ella and Penny, both extremely wonderful people, who have formed Emzini Township Tours in which the proceeds go back to helping the community. The visit was just between Ella, Penny, T, and I, hence we had a very personal experience that day as they introduced us to their friends and the community in the township. Not originally from Knysna but now living in this township, Ella has a compelling life story which she shared with us. Growing up during the apartheid with alcoholic parents who divorced when she was 6, her mother and her were kicked out of the house before living in the farm where her mother worked. School days involved walking 7.5km each way everyday, before having to drop out during the final 2 years due to financial difficulties. She had very tumultuous teenage years coupled with bad decisions before meeting a Baptist minister from whom she learned to turn her life around and, in her words, to start loving herself. She finally found a way to finish high school despite being late for her age and some of her early work stints include restaurant dishwashing, domestic helper at a home, and general office work before coming to a realization that what she really wanted to do in life was something that would make her happy. She came to know Penny from church and they both came together and decidedly wanted to do something that gives back to the community.

The Knysna township has a strong sense of community where people know their neighbors and gather with each other. We do not see neighborly interactions as often these days in cities and big towns where people own homes with protected fences and walls that guard the privacy of their lives. The innocent and beautiful children in the townships play with each other without a care in the world. The younger children were born after the end of the apartheid and the township where they are growing up at is their world and there is nothing more they want. They are happy children surrounded with family and friends.

Deep inside these people lie a sense of togetherness, courage, and strength. They may not have many things in life but we experienced their sense of happiness that not every wealthy person has. The community does have their own problems with drugs and alcohol but these problems exist among the wealthy as well.

After Ella and Penny showed us around and introduced us to some of their friends, Ella graciously invited us for tea and biscuits at her home which was built by Habitat for Humanity (she did have to contribute an amount that went towards building her home and if she instead chose to wait for the free government-built home, she might still be waiting today). She made her home into a Safe House and has adopted 7 children who have previously been physically and sexually abused. The children whom she loves as her own range from teenagers to infants. The two youngest are a baby and toddler who were recently separately found abandoned on the street. Together with Penny, Ella has also set up a Soup Kitchen behind her house where they can feed the children from the township after school. They also help abandoned dogs find a family and at the same time help those families to take care of the dogs. It is remarkable to see someone like Ella work her way up from a very difficult start and to get to where she is today which would had not been possible without hard work and her positive attitude to life.

In this community of disadvantaged people, T and I saw togetherness, courage, and happiness.

As a little fun thing to do, Ella taught T and I how to play the African djembe drums to the South African national anthem and the national rugby team's song!

Pictures below are taken by Penny.

Ella and her adopted 2-month-old baby

With Ella and a few of her other adopted children

Learning how to play the djembe drums

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