KHAYELITSHA, South Africa — The small structures alongside the dusty roadways of this sprawling township are called “informal housing.”
That’s one way to put it.
They stretch for miles, one hard against the next, many pieced together from scrap wood or sheets of corrugated metal. In luckier parts of the world, they might be called sheds.
The township’s other residences, “formal” houses, are built from cinder block and modestly larger. Next to the informal housing, they are palaces.
Most houses have no numbers. Perhaps instead, many have colors — bold splashes of blue or yellow, mosaic representations and elaborate murals of lions, elephants, heroes, nature.
A less common color is green. Trees, lawns and plantings are not routine here, which is one reason my wife and I pause when we come upon a garden.
It fills what could otherwise be a home lot, perhaps 12 feet wide and 20 feet deep. It’s a vegetable garden, fronted by some of the best-looking spinach I have seen in my life.
We are admiring the garden through its protective chain-link fence when a woman in a bright blue dress walks out from the adjacent house.
We ask if this is her garden. Yes. We ask her name. Irene.
Because it’s spring in this quasi-suburb of Cape Town, Irene says, we’re seeing her early, cool-weather vegetables. Behind the spinach she has planted more greens, then onions in the back.
Winter having been a long dry season, Irene intersperses the plants with empty two-liter soda bottles, right side up, partly sunken in the soil.
She explains that she pokes tiny holes in the bottom of the bottles, creating a time-release system wherein scarce water will slowly trickle into the dry earth at the level of the roots.
It’s a garden contoured to fit its space — space it has clearly fought for and won. It’s also a meticulous garden. The divisions are clear, the rows straight, the distances between plants uniform. It is well-weeded and if the pests that invade every garden invade this one, they have been neutralized. The green of the spinach leaves is as bright as the blue on Irene’s dress, and there is not a pinhole in sight.
Like gardeners everywhere, Irene seems pleased that people admire her work. We chat for a few moments about gardens and the pleasure of fresh produce before we move along.
We are among a group of 16 American and British visitors walking through Khayelitsha with a local guide, Juma Mkwela, who might also be called an intermediary. While no one spells it out this way, his presence enables us to feel and perhaps look a little less like voyeurs.
Juma, who grew up in Zimbabwe and moved to Cape Town in 2006, uses the term “responsible tourism.” He hopes visitors, having seen up close that life here can be hard, will at the same time resist the temptation to assume life must also be bad, or that the people who live it must simply be victims.
Stretching over 23 square kilometers outside Cape Town, with more than three million residents, Khayelitsha is the second largest township in South Africa, after Soweto.
Like all South African townships, many of its roots lie in apartheid, whose mission was to leave the non-white majority of the country with little or nothing. All cities everywhere have starter neighborhoods, once labeled ghettos or slums. Here, apartheid institutionalized them.
Because apartheid only ended in 1994, the cleansing of its toxins has barely begun. “It’s going to take time,” Juma says.
So does the deceptively difficult step up from informal to formal housing.
Informal housing, the corrugated-metal structure, has one utility: electricity, delivered from hundreds of poles with thousands of wires fanning out like the bones of a circus tent. There is no running water or indoor plumbing, only jugs, tubs and communal port-a-johns, which a large tanker truck pumps out several times a week.
Formal housing has two bedrooms, electricity, running water and an indoor bathroom with a tub or shower.
Residents of informal housing can apply to the government for a formal house. Many do. If they are accepted, the house is free. A family approved for a formal house today, Juma says, will get it by 2030, or maybe 2033.
Some residents try to save money to buy a house on their own, which requires finding a job in a country where unemployment runs around 27%. The employment rate in the township is about 50%, in large part because apartheid pushed the township far enough away from Cape Town, and most of the jobs, that many people simply can’t get there.
Almost no one has a car. It’s too far to walk. Public transportation is dodgy. The only solution for many Khayelitsha residents is to start their own businesses. Hair styling, produce, laundry, housewares, takeout food, whatever. In Khayelitsha, you see “Cash Store” more often than you see “Starbucks” in Seattle.
What you don’t see are cell phones. In a scenario that would be unthinkable for London, Hong Kong or Peoria, not a single person walking down these streets is staring at a phone. Not one.
Asked about this, Juma laughs. “Don’t be completely fooled,” he says. “The kids find ways to get access. They go to centers that have wi-fi. They’re kids. They figure things out.”
So do the grownups: The long line of low rooftops in Khayelitsha is dotted with satellite dishes. Thank you, electricity.
“People love their sports,” says Juma. He also says it’s okay when TV imports a world that must seem galaxies removed.
“People here are grateful for what they have,” he says, and while that’s a phrase always packed with nuance, Juma is perhaps suggesting that progress is best measured in generations.
One generation ago there were passbooks, curfews, police raids and white boots on every black and coloured neck. Today there are not. It’s a start. .
There is still crime. There are also activity centers, youth programs, art classes, sports, markets, schools and elections.
There are gardens too, private and communal. “One of my dreams,” says Juma, “is that every home will have a garden.”
Call it an unintended legacy of apartheid: Adversity breeds community. “People know each other here,” Juma says. “They take care of each other. There are people who could afford to move out who stay.”
That is to say, Khayelitsha like all communities embodies more complexities than an aerial photograph might suggest. If outside visitors see and perhaps absorb a little of that, Juma tells us, the visit has been valuable.
And can these visitors tell how the people who live in Khayelitsha feel about us dropping in?
No, not really.
The faces on the streets here are, frankly, too normal. You might as well be trying to read the minds of passersby in Tuscaloosa. Many smile, some look away, some seem wary. Clusters of teenage girls laugh over their private dramas. Young boys stop horsing around long enough to mug for cameras. A woman in a bright red dress carrying a baby doesn’t volunteer to have her picture taken, but accommodates a request.
You’re there for a few minutes. You can’t know.
But you can know this: Early in the spring, Irene is growing a fine crop of spinach.