Africa Overland: Conflicting Cape Town

If there is one place on Earth that is capable of simultaneously warming and breaking my heart it would have to be South Africa.  Less than 10-years after the first free election in South Africa that marked the end of apartheid and elected Nelson Mandela as president, I was working for Virgin Limited Edition in London and Richard Branson had just opened a wonderful game lodge called Ulusaba in Sabi Sand Reserve, not far from Kruger National Park.  In 2001 I was sent down there to fill in for a staff member who was on holiday.  I was only meant to go for a week but ended up staying for almost a month and fell in love with the place. Over the next five years I’d find myself a regular visitor to South Africa, spending most of my time in the bush along with many visits to Johannesburg.

During that time South Africa was still very much grappling with the transition from a white minority government to black majority rule, trying to repair the damage and pain from decades of apartheid and South Africans were trying to find their place in this new society.  From my vantage point many things were going well such as the increase in tourism and the fact that I would see more and more blacks in jobs traditionally reserved for whites.  But at the same time it felt like poverty had gotten worse, violent crime was spiralling out of control and there was no doubt that South Africa was gripped in an AIDS epidemic of almost biblical proportions.

Analysing or even trying to explain South Africa during that time is way beyond both my abilities as a writer and a simple blog post, however it is important to understand something about that history and the transition from apartheid in order to understand not only the South Africa of today but to give understanding and context to politics, economics and social issues in almost every other Southern African nation, particularly in countries like Namibia and Zimbabwe where South African influence was strong.

In any case, South Africa provided some of the happiest and saddest experiences of my twenties and became a country that feels like home.  This was my third visit to Cape Town and I was here to begin my 6-week Africa overland adventure which commenced with a tour to one of the townships before we drove north toward the Namibian border.

Cape Town was recently voted the best city in the world by one of the many organisations that releases those lists you hear about in the news such as ‘best places to visit’ and ‘most beautiful cities on the planet’.  This was the latest in a long line of accolades bestowed on Cape Town and it certainly is a wonderful place to visit.  Set on a beautiful Atlantic coastline with a backdrop of imposing mountains and peaks, Cape Town is undoubtedly beautiful.  The city is surrounded by stunning scenery and world-renowned attractions including Table Mountain, the Cape of Good Hope where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet and some of South Africa’s renowned wine producing areas.  The beautiful bay is home to Robben Island, South Africa’s own version of Alcatraz and most famous for being the prison that held Nelson Mandela for 18 of his 27 years as a political prisoner.   The city centre is jam-packed with great examples of African colonial architecture, boutique shopping and fabulous restaurants.  And to top that off Cape Town is one of the few major South African cities where it is safe for a tourist to walk around the town centre to enjoy the sites, unlike Johannesburg or Durban where this generally remains too dangerous.


Yet whenever I hear travellers gushing about Cape Town or hear about it winning yet another place on a ‘worlds best’ list, I can’t help but feel uncomfortable.   Cape Town is an amazing destination but I think that the current plight of thousands of South Africans who continue to live in terrible poverty in the City’s townships is often overlooked.  Slums are not a uniquely African problem, just ask anyone who has been to places like Rio de Janeiro or Delhi, but the difference is that people don’t seem to gloss over their presence when discussing cities in India or South America like they do with South Africa, implying that most of South Africa’s problems ended shortly after apartheid did in 1994 and that the Rainbow Nation is doing just fine.  But that is just not the case.  Not even close.

Gugulethu township is a vast slum just outside Cape Town.  It was created during the 1960’s under apartheid laws and its original inhabitants were forcibly removed from their homes in downtown Cape Town so that whites didn’t have to look at them every day and so that the valuable inner city real estate could be developed for something else.  The location for this and most other South African townships was chosen so that whites could go about their daily life without dealing with the daily life of non-whites, yet still take advantage of what was effectively a slave labour force that was within commuter distance of white homes and businesses, thus why most townships in South Africa are located either on the outskirts of town or in an area bordering white suburbs but separated by some type of barrier like a busy main road, a river or a large strip of empty land.

We approached Gugulethu on an overcast Sunday morning and it slowly began to reveal itself as a vast ocean of corrugated iron packed between borders that were marked by highways.  Despite the crowded nature of the slums they never seem to spill over their designated borders, presumably due to enforcement by local government and landowners.  Sadly, that appears to be where government interest in the townships ends.    We pulled over on the side of a busy road and the township began immediately next to the road barrier, this slum was literally taking up every available inch of space.  Our young Xhosa guide told us to wait whilst he found us a house to visit and within seconds he had hopped over the barrier and disappeared into the shanties.    We waited awkwardly and although we didn’t speak about it I think we felt like bumbling intruders, a vanload of privileged white travellers about to gawk at slum life in Africa.  I wanted to bolt but I was committed now.



He shortly returned and led us down a step bank past some women in worn bathrobes and kids playing in the dirt to a nearby shanty.  This home was made from corrugated iron, cardboard, old sacks and pretty much anything else the owner could find.  The house was constructed and held together in some ingenious ways; rocks held the roof down, tar scraped off the road on a hot day plugged leaks, old bits of string, recycled nails and plastic grocery bags held things together.  From nothing the people who built this home had created something and sadly not something temporary.  This was a permanent home that would continue to fall apart during every strong wind or rainstorm and they would continue to keep it together at all costs with bits of trash and a lot of ingenuity.

I had been making small talk with some of the women by the road so was last to reach the house.  By this time the other 12 members of my group plus the guide were jammed inside and there was no room for me so I leaned though the door to listen and was immediately struck by the smell of urine, body odour and something sour I couldn’t identify.  Our guide had grown up in Gugulethu and now made it his mission to spread the word about life in the townships.  He spoke passionately, emotionally and intelligently about the myriad of problems people face from the cost of medical care to the difficulty in getting to school or work.

Whilst South Africa has a welfare system the monthly allowance given to this woman was barely enough to cover necessities like food let alone pay for medical care and school uniforms.  The townships are huge and the poorest people live far away from central services like schools and clinics.  The lack of money aside, simply getting to school or a doctor is a major hurdle, never mind trying to find a job and commute to it.  Electricity, running water and any form of plumbing are all non-existent in this part of the township so people use makeshift shared latrines and at night it just goes completely dark.  In winter they huddle together under dirty old blankets for warmth and in summer they simply have to deal with the suffocating atmosphere inside these tiny shacks, super heated all day via the corrugated iron roofing and walls.    It is too dangerous to go out at night so people use buckets as toilets then empty them in daylight.


Thanks to red tape and a general disinterest the police rarely make it to the townships, certainly not to the remote areas of them so crime is dealt with vigilante-style.  If a crime is being committed people will raise a flag and make a lot of noise, this draws a crowd who will find the accused and deal out a swift and harsh punishment.  This usually involves an intense beating but for serious crime the infamous necklacing might still be used whereby a tire is put around the accused and set on fire bringing about a slow and painful death.  Rightly or wrongly, in the absence of a trusted and organized police presence this seems to work and our guide suggested that crime is relatively under control but only during the day. At night nobody ventures outside unless they have nefarious reasons or are incredibly desperate.  Rapes, robberies and other gang-related crimes are rife after dark.

There are no streets in this part of Gugulethu, just a series of dirt pathways and as every available square inch of space is being used some of the shanties are built on slopes or the dirt floor of the shack might incorporate some natural lumps and bumps that people just have to live with.  There are no basic services like rubbish collection so trash just blows around but there is surprisingly little of it as people can find a use for just about anything either to keep their shack together, to use as children’s toys or to sell.  Throughout Africa you find toys fashioned from trash, the most ingenious example probably being footballs made with old tire tubes and plastic grocery bags.

Before the tour we had been advised to bring cash to give to each person we visited so that they could make some money out of our visits.  As my fellow travellers began to exit I stepped inside to hand my money to the resident of this shack who I hadn’t seen until this point as she had been hidden behind the rest of the group.  I stepped down into her home and found the atmosphere even more claustrophobic and it was obvious that it wasn’t healthy to even breathe the air inside for too long.    The floor was covered in old rugs, bits of carpet, cardboard and sacks.  A single worn and dirty armchair sat against the wall, the other wall contained some rudimentary shelving where food and cooking pots were stored.  A double bed filled up most of the room, sat next to it was the women who lived there, dressed in a pink bath robe and looking unwell.  For the first time I realised a tiny baby was in the bed and I was overwhelmed by sadness at the hopelessness of it all.  Four people lived in that tiny filthy shack and they had virtually no hope of ever getting out of it.  Just by accident of birth that baby was likely going to live in a shack just like it for her entire life.


Western society often tells us that if a person just gets an education and works hard they can succeed in life.  In many ways the inference is that poor people need to help themselves and that it is their own fault they remain stuck in poverty.  But what if you can’t get a proper education because school is too far away?  What if the school requires a uniform and you can’t afford it?  What if you overcome these hurdles but then a parent dies or gets ill so you have to give up school to look after your siblings?  And what happens if you get through school but university is too far away or too expensive to attend?  Or you get ill and can’t afford a doctor so a routine illness like a common cold turns into a serious chest infection that remains untreated, perhaps forcing you to quit your job?  And even if you get through these hurdles, how will you find a job and commute to it?  How will you stay focused and productive at work or study if you are weak from lack of proper food and tired because you can never get a good nights sleep thanks to overcrowding and extreme heat or cold in your home?

The fact is that if you are born into true poverty there is every chance you will never get out of it.  The stories of people who do are extremely few and far between.  People often point to individuals like Nelson Mandela as examples of poor people who make it in life and although he lived in a township the fact remains that he was a prince from a noble family who had money, who were able to get him educated and he could use his social standing to get ahead and do good things for his country.  For most people born in slums all over the world they have no such advantage and no chances at all.  It was incredibly difficult to look at that baby and know it would take not just good luck but a series of near miracles to get her out of the slums and into a proper home in a proper suburb with a meaningful job.   And the hard truth is that more people on our planet are born with those prospects than people who aren’t.  Being born into a middle class family is an extreme stroke of good luck and an anomaly.

The next stop in the township was a visit to a local pub which was yet another shed made from corrugated iron with a dirt floor.  We were there to experience something of the social life in the township as well as the local beer.  We parked around the corner and somehow made it through crowds of excited kids to the pub.  The sun was now peeking through the clouds and when we entered the shack we were plunged into a dark smoky room.  Once my eyes adjusted I noticed planks of wood set upon buckets around the room that served as seats.  They were lined with locals already imbibing in a drink despite it being early on a Sunday morning.  As it turns out Sunday is a big drinking day in the townships.

The front half of the shack was seating and the rear half was a makeshift brewery where Umqombothi was produced in large plastic barrels by the woman who ran the bar.  This beer is brewed from various ingredients including sorghum and maize malt, the frothy mixture is then poured into a large tin can that is passed around the bar with each person taking a long draught for themselves before passing it to their neighbour.

p1050775Photo by Kit Garretts


Photo by Kit Garretts

We were there to experience this ritual so we squeezed onto the benches and I found myself next to the only local female patron in the pub.  In a very African way she sidled up close to me and put her hand on my knee.  We exchanged pleasantries before she told me in heavily accented English all about the difficulties of her life.  She had lost her job and couldn’t find another one and even if she did the wages were so low that they didn’t cover the basic day-to-day necessities.  She said that prices keep going up but wages stay the same so there is no way for any of them to make a better life.  Whilst I have no doubt that she was hoping the seemingly rich white person she’d found herself next to would either produce a large wad of cash or whisk her off to a high paying job, there was also no doubt that she was speaking the truth.


After passing around the surprisingly tasty tin of Umqombothi a few times we emerged back into the light and took a drive through the commercial centre of the township.  This drive took us past thriving markets including a huge outdoor meat market where I had to quickly avert my eyes from seeing sheep being slaughtered.  I am one of those people who inexplicably has no problem witnessing human hardship but can’t stomach seeing an animal being hurt.  The township looked vibrant and plentiful.

I wondered if this is all most visitors get to see of the South African townships and thus why more tourists aren’t expressing outrage at the way many Africans live here; if you only drove through the centre you’d think things weren’t so bad.  There are little parks, clinics, schools, shops and markets teaming with fresh produce.  People are laughing and socialising on the streets.  Here and there are monuments to the struggle against apartheid and marking past injustices against the community.  A series of sculptures have been erected in the place where the Gugulethu Seven were murdered by the police and another plaque marks the spot where Amy Biehl was beaten to death in 1993.  All of this makes it seem like things have moved on and that South Africa’s truth and reconciliation is done, dusted and worked a treat.

We wind up our tour at Mzoli’s, a famous restaurant where you bring your own booze and feast on huge plates of barbecued meat. Mzoli’s has been featured in many food blogs and has its own Facebook page.  You pay a cover charge to get in and it seems like despite its rustic appearance it has turned into a trendy and slightly edgy place to be seen.  I notice groups of wealthier South Africans who don’t live in the township turning up with bottles of whiskey and crates of beer to enjoy a boozy afternoon in Gugulethu.


Once again I’m struck by an uncomfortable feeling.  I’m glad that the township is benefitting from tourism and glad that people are visiting but something doesn’t sit right with me.  It’s something I’ve felt in various places around the world where extreme poverty meets tourism, where people think they are having an authentic experience and are helping out with their tourist dollars, yet somehow you know that it isn’t helping enough and might even be hindering things.  Not because I think tourism can’t help regions develop in positive ways but because sometimes corruption and social structures mean that only a few pocket those valuable tourist dollars whilst the government can pretend all is well because tourists are visiting and giving rave reviews about their most shameful areas, yet in the end somehow life just doesn’t change for the ordinary person living there.  I don’t think that means tourists shouldn’t go or that tourism encourages bad behaviour on behalf of governments and community leaders.  That is giving way too much credit to us tourists.

I asked our young guide why he thought things hadn’t progressed more since the end of apartheid in 1994 when Nelson Mandela pledged and subsequently tried very hard to get people out of the cycle of poverty in townships and into jobs and proper housing.  He blamed the government and told a narrative that is depressingly familiar throughout Africa, if not the world.  That story basically centres around power, greed and corruption.  Despite Mandela’s best intentions and efforts, South Africa did not become the leading example in Africa of a country based on democracy, social welfare and sound economics that it could have been by now.  Whilst it remains the economic powerhouse of the continent it has so far been unable to provide jobs, education, housing and healthcare to much of its citizens.  Apartheid no longer exists in law or in practice, but the average black person living in an average township has seen very little change to their way of life and unless something drastic happens they probably won’t in the foreseeable future.

It has taken me weeks to start writing my African blog because I had to start with South Africa and my visit to Gugulethu that further complicated an already complex view I have of this country, and for reasons I can’t explain that view feels deeply personal.   I’ve typed and deleted thousands of words just covering the South African part of my trip because part of me wants to keep politics out of a travel blog but another part of me knows that would be disingenuous.

As we finished our meal in Mzoli’s I asked our guide what he thought needed to happen to get people out of the slums and we touched on the awkwardness of slum tourism.  He said it was important that tourists continue to visit; not only do they inject cash into the economy of the townships but they bear witness to life there.  He felt the most important thing tourists can do is to visit then tell the world what they see because somehow that might eventually create enough embarrassment to the government to generate some positive change.   He seemed to feel that international pressure is the only way to change things.

This was a depressing yet recurring message I was to hear on and off through the rest of my African trip.  Depressing because other than occasional outrage about things like a dentist killing a lion or worry about where diamonds come from, the Western world doesn’t care enough about Africa to apply any real pressure.  Most people sign an anti-poaching petition or sponsor an African child then consider their part done.  The most depressing aspect is that many Africans don’t realise that this is where popular Western interest tends to start and finish.  Most people in the West can recall at least a few facts about rhino poaching but very few realise that South Africa still has millions of people living in slums.

In the end I decided to do what our tour guide in Gugulethu wants tourists to do which is tell the story as honestly as I can.  Cape Town is a beautiful city that should be on everyone’s bucket list and South Africa is an amazing country to visit, but I believe it is important to visit it with your eyes wide open and to educate yourself as much as possible about what you will be seeing outside of the beautiful vistas, amazing game viewing and fabulous wine.  I’m not sure what the end goal of trying to get under South Africa’s skin truly is but something tells me that the more people who truly see it and talk about it there are, the more chance this country has of finally repairing its wounds and creating a better life for everyone who lives there.

Recommended Reading: The many links throughout this post lead to webpages where you can learn a lot about the issues and history I have touched on.  There are a huge number of books about Africa but here are a couple of very readable ones to get started with…

Africa:  Altered States, Ordinary Miracles by Richard Dowden

The Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela

Recommended Viewing:  The Long Nights Journey into Day  | The Bang Bang Club

The Slideshow is missing from this post because I took very few photos in Cape Town.  As I’d been a tourist there before I didn’t do any sightseeing and it often felt too instrusive to take photos in Gugulethu.  All of the photos I did take are in the main body of the blog along with a couple kindly provided by Kit Garretts, one of my fellow overlanders.

2 thoughts on “Africa Overland: Conflicting Cape Town

  1. Pingback: Africa Overland: South Africa to Namibia – The Wandering Wincer

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