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November 04, 2010

Vamos Cycling Tour in Langa: Understanding the townships

Siviwe explaining more

Photo courtesy Luke Powers

How many times have you driven out of town on the N2, thoughts drifting toward 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.

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. We arrived at Gugas’Thebe, the local 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. 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.

Walkie Talkie

Photo courtesy Luke Powers

First we visited a hostel. Where only men were allowed to reside previously, there are now three extended families are crammed in, twelve people to a room of three beds, a two-plate stove for heating in the winter, one window and communal toilets and 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 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 creating the local delicacy: the smiley (a sheep’s head!). It is quite an eye-opener 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 two hungry people for lunch. Strangely enough no one in our group was hungry at this point!

Claire FNB houses

Photo courtesy Luke Powers

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 brand new houses built by First National Bank. These houses are still standing empty, as neighbouring shack dwellers will not allow anyone to move in or buy them. FNB’s idea of selling these sought-after houses bombed when the shack dwellers first ransacked the houses, taking anything that was removable, and then threatening anyone who attempted to move in with violence and eviction. Apparently they believe it is their right to receive these houses as they were erected next to their shacks. Needless to say, the government housing list and its many flaws are in full view in this township.

We also visited our guide, 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.

We finally arrived back at our starting point, having covered the whole township without even breaking a sweat or realising where we were going, rather 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 and braai at the legendary Mzoli’s Meat restaurant. This was quite an experience in itself, and is not to be missed.

Meat on fire at Mzolis

Photo courtesy Luke Powers

At Mzoli’s the only food on offer is meat: mostly red, and lots of it. Mounds of meat lined the deli counter – beef, lamb, pork, chicken. Your choice then gets rolled in Mzoli’s secret recipe of spices (my guess is generous amounts of MSG are involved), braaied over monster fires, and finally presented in a large enamel bowl ... and nothing else. 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. Drinks are not sold on site, so punters are welcome to BYOB (bring your own booze) or procure booze from one of the various local shebeens in the ‘hood, which we did. What a vibe! Reluctant to leave, with the 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 ages 7 to 16. And they were brilliant! What a unique skill and great to watch.

Our tour through Langa was a valuable day out, making for 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 on +27 (0)72 499 7866, info@footstepstofreedom.co.za. Their website, www.vamos.co.za, will go live soon. Watch this space.

Luke Powers is a tour designer and planner for Africa Bespoke. He was born and raised in Cape Town and is passionate about traveling in Cape Town and beyond. When he is not in the office you will find him running around on a mountain or surfing somewhere along the Cape Peninsula. He also quite likes browsing in any junk store, is a bit addicted to Milnerton Market, and loves a good cappuccino.

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