Beautiful and special in a South African township
Kayamandi Township, Stellenbosch, South Africa
Mama Swartbooi lowers herself into a chair in her dining room next to the wooden table covered in a black and pink cloth. In one corner, a wooden cabinet displays a collection of plates. A lace curtain hangs over the window to diffuse the light but outside she can see Swartbooi Street running past in both directions.
It’s no coincidence that they share a name – the street was named after her father-in-law who was “a good guy”. He did a lot to look after the community here. In particular, he campaigned for the rights of residents who were once mistreated by police – locked up in gaol for not having the right identification cards, for instance.
You see, Mama Swartbooi lives in the black township of Kayamandi in South Africa, a place that symbolises the cruel segregation of the country’s former apartheid regime. Not that the residents like to see it that way anymore.
“It’s a very good place,” Mama tells me.
She pauses before delivering a joke that I was not expecting.
“It started being a good place from the first time I came here.”
I’ve come to meet Mama Swartbooi in her home here because she is part of a new wave of respect that Kayamandi is earning. The township is just a short drive from the nearby city of Stellenbosch, one of the most beautiful and tourist-friendly places in South Africa. Kayamandi has traditionally been seen by foreign visitors as a restricted area, hidden on the outskirts, scary. But that’s changing now people like Mama are welcoming tourists into their community. Mama hosts lunches here in her dining room, for example, showing her guests the local food and telling stories about life in the township.
We’re joined this afternoon by Thembi Koli who also lives here in Kayamandi. She gives guided tours of the community and has offered to show me around. Before we even start to walk, I can tell she’s passionate about Kayamandi.
“If I win the lottery I would… well, I would first go to Jamaica for a week,” she says as we all laugh (“Classic Thembi!” Mama exclaims!)
“But truly speaking,” Thembi continues, “I’ll come back and still stay here because there’s no feeling when you wake up in the morning and you hear ‘hi meza’ (meza means neighbour), and you know you’re home.”
“Even if I go away for two days, I get homesick. I miss the noises, the colours, the ripeness, the love, the togetherness.”
I am the first to admit that they are not the words I would automatically have associated with a township where many of the homes are still shacks and the poverty on the streets is visible right away. I am actually a bit scared arriving here. This doesn’t seem like a safe place for a white guy to be when everyone else is black… but I try to hide these feelings as Thembi and I start our walk into the community.
One of the first things we come across is an old shipping container on the side of the road that has been converted into a hairdresser’s salon with two doors and a fold-down window. The portly hairdresser with a slight flamboyance turns around when I arrive and asks if I would like a cut. When I take off my hat to show my bald head, he just gives me a cheeky smile – “Don’t worry, we’ll just use some of these extensions!” I find myself laughing and we all have a bit of a chat.
Hang on. Wasn’t I supposed to be scared here?
Only minutes later I find Thembi involved in an impromptu soccer game with some kids at the intersection of two roads. A few minutes later she’s got her arms around a young boy. Then she’s back with me pointing to the mountains a few kilometres away.
“The best view in town, isn’t it?” she asks. I’ve got to admit, it’s pretty impressive and better than I’ve seen from some of the other areas around Stellenbosch.
We head into a part of the township that seems more dense than we’ve just walked through. Rather than streets, there are just narrow alleyways that wind around the shacks made of uneven sheets of corrugated iron. It’s darker here with only narrow gaps for the sun to get in. The ground is covered in dirt and you could stretch out and touch two or three homes at once. Thembi explains that if a fire starts in one shack, it can easily and quickly spread through the area and every few months dozens of families are made homeless when this exact scenario happens.
I hear a few sets of feet running through the alleys behind me, getting closer. Suddenly I realise that I had completely forgotten any fears I had about Kayamandi – but they’ve instantly come back. I turn defensively to face the approaching sound just as the beaming faces of four young children come around the corner.
“Photo, photo!” they squeal at me. I get down on one knee and snap a few photos of them and then turn the camera around to show them the shots on the screen. They all giggle and hug each other as they look at the images and then at their friends, as if to make sure the likeness is accurate. They thank me, smile, and then run away again.
Hang on. Why was I ever scared here?
It’s not the only time that’s going to happen to me here this afternoon. There does indeed seem to be a real sense of community here – exactly how Mama and Thembi described it to me. But it would be unfair to dismiss the legitimate social issues like poverty that are still prevalent in Kayamandi.
We visit a kindergarten full of toddlers and young children which is just across the road from the local high school. It’s located here because the mothers of most of the children are teenagers who spend their weekdays in classrooms next door. The toddlers seem excited by their visitors and I get mobbed, with so many kids climbing on me that I’m trapped on the ground for a few minutes.
I am starting to realise that here in the Kayamandi township, like any society, there is a range of socioeconomic groups, a range of lifestyles, a range of dreams, a range of ambitions, a range of realities.
Portia Mpangwa is a good example of this. She has set up her own jewellery shop in the community – something that didn’t exist like this previously. She makes her pieces by hand, based on her own designs and sells mainly to the tourists that are now starting to visit. Although she still gets some interest from the locals.
“I love the beads,” she explains to me. “I love them. I have a passion for designing jewellery. If you do something, you need to have love and passion.”
The ‘ripeness’ that Thembi described right at the start is making sense the more I meet people here in Kayamandi. I have some great conversations with people and laugh more than I have all day. There are some great characters and they are happy to chat.
I ask Thembi a hypothetical question about whether she would ever want to move to one of the mansions in nearby Stellenbosch.
“My grandmother brought us up – my cousins and I – to be happy because those big walls don’t necessarily mean they are happy,” she answers.
“I grew up wearing second hand clothes but I was the best stylish girl ever. I am still going to the second hand shops because I can use the money for something more important. So the houses… well, it’s everyone’s dream to build their parents a big house. But it’s not that I want to take my parents or my grandparents to town. I want to build here.”
I remember that Mama Swartbooi said a pretty similar thing to me when we were talking about the same topic.
“I love beautiful things. I go to second hand stores – I also go to bazaars and garage sales. I get what I want there, something special.”
And that’s what Kayamandi is to both of them – and to so many of the other people who live here. Compared to other cities, it may seem more like a garage sale than a mall of designer outlets. That doesn’t mean it’s not full of beautiful and special things, though. And, to me at least, those beautiful special things are the people I have met this afternoon.You can find out more information here about a Kayamandi tour including lunch with Mama