Vamos Cycling Tour in Langa – Understanding the Townships
How many times have you driven out of town on the N2, thoughts drifting towards your weekend away, cruising past all the “leaving Cape Town” landmarks: the ex-Athlone cooling towers, the townships, the failed housing projects, more townships, the airport. Do you know the real story about those townships? The housing projects? Or the realities of township living, the vibrant characters, the traditions, the culture, the food and most importantly: the people. Well, it is a must to visit to find out what really goes on in Langa, for example. And we had the privilege to do so last week. Last Friday, we as an office went to find out more, by bicycle.
We went on a half day tour of Langa township with Vamos Tours, run and inspired by Siviwe and Garth (both local Capetonians) who are making it possible for locals and tourists alike to be exposed to the layered township life of the oldest “informal settlement” in Cape Town. So we arrived at Gugas’Thebe, the cultural centre, and met Siviwe and Nathi, our guides for the day. Gugas’Thebe is decorated with the most groovy mosaic patterns: a visual feast.
After a short introductory talk and safety briefing we set off on our bikes, stopping along the way at a school, railway station and community project, a hostel and a roadside butcher. And Siviwe talked us through all these interesting sights as we went. The bicycles we used are hybrid touring bikes with comfy saddles and easy to use gears on the handlebars. The going was really easy as the terrain was flat, so the tour is perfect for any riding ability, even first-time cyclists. Siviwe’s intimate knowledge of the topics at hand and easy going manner made listening and learning a pleasure. Siviwe was born and raised in Langa, so he has a complete understanding of the neighbourhood, knows everyone and one feels completely safe in his company.
For me the most fascinating backdrop to this tour was the struggle for decent housing: a big issue that involves every local. The constant struggle for a way up the pecking order is abundantly clear. Along the way we visited people in all the various forms of housing that are available in this township. It has something at every level: shacks, hostels, suburban houses, plus newly built gateway houses and flats.
First we visited a hostel, where previously only men were allowed to reside, now 3 extended families are crammed in, 12 people to a room of 3 beds, a two plate stove for heating in the winter, 1 window and communal toilets/kitchen. It is real…very real. But the residents were extremely welcoming and humble. Oh, and it was remarkably easy to find… in an organic township kind of way: turn left at the table of sheep’s heads (aka smileys), go down the alley between all the brightly coloured washing, under the sheets, past the underwear, park your bike and go up the stairs to the second floor.
Another feature of the tour was the food available at all the street stalls. No supermarkets here. One can buy all manner of chickens, the biggest you have ever seen (move over Woolworths!), very live and clucking with feathers, or freshly dead and plucked, ready for the pot, or even walkie talkies (feet and head), freshly cooked! The full cycle of life is available to witness. So if you were unsure about where the food that we eat comes from, this will is a good education. There is also fresh tripe, cow’s head and every other part of cow. In fact fillet and rump are nowhere to be seen. The most expensive bits are the offal. We also visited a “Smileys Deli” where ladies work throughout the night on creating the local delicacy: the Smiley (a sheep’s head!). It is quite eye-opening to witness the process, but I will spare you the gory details, suffice to say that the result costs R34 and can feed at least 2 hungry people for lunch. Strangely enough no-one in our group was hungry at this point!
We also rode through “Beverley Hills”, the upper middle class area, lined with suburban houses, complete with colourful paint jobs, hand-tiled decorated pavements, flower beds and all. Houses sell for up to R500 000 and there is no stock available. Demand is high. And just around the corner we arrived at the Settlers Way shacks lined up next to the highway (those ones you always see), which are right next to the brand new uninhabited houses, built by First National Bank. These houses are still standing empty, as the neighbouring shack dwellers will not allow anyone to move in or buy them. So FNB’s idea of selling these sought after houses bombed when the shack dwellers first ransacked the houses and took anything that was removable, and threatened anyone who attempted to move in with violence and eviction. They believe it is their right to receive these houses as they were erected next to their shacks. The government housing list and its many flaws are in full view in this township. We also visited Nathi’s flat, which is one of those in the Gateway Housing Project. He finally received it after paying rent for many years and being on the list, then living in temporary housing during the building phase. A long road.
So we finally arrived back at our starting point, having covered the whole township without even breaking a sweat or realising where we were going. Just meandering around, being educated and soaking up the sights and sounds of township life. From here we did a short shuttle to Gugulethu to end off with a pub lunch/braai at the legendary Mzoli’s Meat restaurant. And this is quite an experience in itself. Not to be missed.
At Mzoli’s the only food on offer is meat: mostly red, and lots of it. Mounds of meat lined up at a deli counter, beef, lamb, pork and chicken. Your choice then gets rolled in Mzoli’s secret recipe of spices (my guess is generous amounts of MSG are involved) and finally braaied over monster fires. And finally presented in a large enamel bowl…and that’s it. No plates, no cutlery. Just eat with hands, and go. Simple yet genius. And yummy!
At lunchtime on a Friday the local DJ was pumping out the tunes and the place was heaving with revellers getting fired up with the weekend in sight. Drinks are not sold on site, so punters are welcome to BYOB or procure booze from one of the various local shebeens in the hood, which we did. What a vibe! Reluctant to leave, with party just getting going, we headed back to Langa for the final item outstanding: the Happy Feet Dance Troupe. A gumboot dancing group started by Siviwe and friends. The group is made up of kids ranging from 7-16. And they were brilliant. What a unique skill.
This is a highly valuable day out, a really important education and insight into modern day South African living. Go there, experience it and see for yourself. And take your friends!
Contact Garth or Siviwe to book. Details below.
Phone: 072 499 7866
And visit their website soon.
Note: it is not live yet: http://www.vamos.co.za/
A few more facts if you are interested:
Langa is a suburb found in Cape Town, South Africa, established in 1923. Similar to Khayelitsha, Langa is one of the many areas in South Africa that were designated for Black Africans before the apartheid era. It is the oldest of such suburbs in Cape Town and was the location of much resistance to apartheid.
Although Langa literally means ‘sun’ in isiXhosa, the name of the township is derived from the name of Langalibalele – a chief and renowned rainmaker who in 1873 was imprisoned on Robben Island for rebelling against the Natal government. Various prominent people fought for his release and he was subsequently confined to a farm called “Uitvlugt”, which is on the site of present day Pinelands. Langa, which adjoins Pinelands commemorates this folk hero as it was developed in 1898 on the land know as “Langalibalele’s Location”. Hence Langa is often called “Kwa-Langa” meaning ‘place of Langa’.
Geographically, Langa is bordered by Jan Smuts Drive to the west, Settler’s Way to the south, Vanguard Drive (N7 Highway) to the east and is served by Langa Railway Station. Joe Slovo is the largest informal settlement in Langa and one of the largest in the country. It is currently being threatened with forced removal to make way for the N2 Gateway Housing Project. The Joe Slovo informal settlement has since been removed, and transformed into the N2 Gateway Housing Project (2006), as seen when travelling along the Settler’s Way N2 Highway out of Cape Town.