Township life and the exploration of ingenuity


Wandering into a township as an Umlungu brought up in a white middle class environment is always peculiar at first, but small townships, such as the one of Riebeeck East, have a certain charm, warmth and nuanced ingenuity about them.Apartheid having ended in 1994, the African National Congress became the party in charge and have since made several, often repetitive promises of socio-economic wellbeing and equality, however, walking into any township one can see that the promises were just that, promises. Unheard, neglected and underpaid, township folks stop relying on the normal status quo of infrastructure, instead most are semi self-sufficient towns built on broken dreams and pure ingenuity.


The township of Riebeeck East is a strange amalgamation of the traditional, quasi avant-gardism and a recycling dream work. The people have found their own way to house themselves, building sheds out of the corrugated iron that has become the poster child for African poverty. Even the animals seem to have adapted to a certain relaxed lifestyle that personifies small townships. A Cow lies in the middle of the road while children rush past it screaming and chasing each other. Goats and sheep explore and graze independently, returning to their makeshift pens as the sun sets. No coercion or herder needed.What amazes me most however are the small, subtle, clever solutions people have implemented to ease their lives, the creativity and physical on-the-wall art when it comes to decorating one’s small, but proud home, traditional solutions that have been revived and the trust and relative peace and security that one would struggle to find in bigger townships such Khayelitsha.


The people are friendly, chatty and most will put whatever they are doing on hold to talk to you, if English or Afrikaans can be used as linguistic medium. I would however recommend learning basic isiXhosa phrases, putting in a little bit of effort and letting the people see that you’re trying is a great ice breaker. If you get it right they’re appreciative, if you don’t, you both have something to laugh about. I stumbled over my words while introducing myself to one young man and completely buggered up the word, the man laughed out loud, slapped me on the shoulder and proceeded to talk to me in English.The traditional clashes with the new around every corner and has become a unique style in its own right.

Combine a lack of basic services, a forty kilometre dirt road ride to the nearest shop and a high unemployment rate and you get ingenuity. The ingenuity is often missed, glanced over if you don’t take the time to explore a township deeper. Door hinges are made out of large rusted springs and hooks. The spring shuts the door by being extended and a small, bent nail holds a chain that is wrapped through the fence and gate. It’s a modern double security measure to keep the goats and cows from grazing on your lawn.Many of the houses are RDP style houses that have shack extensions, shacks made out of large tin sheets, stones, mesh and wood. Others are built traditionally out of wood, clay and cow dung. Two rows of large straight branches are hammered into the ground parallel to each other outlining the perimeter of the house; thin long branches are tied on horizontally in a ladder like fashion providing a frame for the clay and mud which is then dropped in between the thicker branches and sculpted into a wall. After many weeks of work you have a house.


There is however a huge irony to the dilapidated houses that one sees, an oxymoron that can only be described by don’t judge a book by its cover, because whatever your assumption was ,will more often than not, be shattered when going in.The inside of a shack is the complete opposite of the decrepit exterior one sees from the street. Sometimes you walk onto a traditional cow dung floor that is redone every week, other times bricks or plastic sheets, however, it is the furniture and interior that breaks the stereotype. A big TV is always the first thing you will notice, sometimes even with surround sound. The houses are clean, immaculate furniture and cupboards house old photos and little sentimental riches. Couches, beds, stools, chairs, tables, and desks are plenty, cluttered together for social convenience. And the people are social let me tell you that.Fences are used as washing lines, neglected caravans transform into children’s playgrounds, mud houses are rented for R50 a month, plastic 2L Coke bottles get sliced up and used as makeshift wind gauges, chickens, cattle, goats and pigs are kept in small wooden and mesh pens in the backyard, washing is done outside in large plastic tubs and fires crackle to boil water or make roosterbroed.


The township is a constant hub of activity, life goes on whether government supports them or not, the people living here have made a plan and have succeeded in it Having spent several days trudging through the township of Riebeeck East I have become quite attached to the people. Everyone knows everyone in the township; everybody greets and is respectful of each other. Neighbours sit together on small plastic stools gossiping over a cup of coffee. Washing is done communally. Old and young smile and share jokes, the atmosphere here defies the physical manifestation that one perceives as poor. The people are rich in heart.