Art After Apartheid: Touring a South African Township

Khayelitsha Township, Cape Town, South Africa May, 2014

Lion’s Head Mountain, arguably Cape Town’s most recognizable and most photographed landmark, rises above the magnetic cosmopolitan cityscape, a beacon of all that is, and has long been true and noble in the world.

View from Companys Gardens

Lion’s Head Mountain view from Companys Gardens

Like the Eiffel Tower or One World Trade Center—on clear days it can be observed from nearly any angle throughout the city. From the pleasant walking paths of Companys Gardens to the boardwalk skimming elegant restaurants at the V & A Waterfront. Its silhouette is so beautifully crafted by nature that if not for its enormity, it might be mistaken for a carefully sculpted man-made art installation.

You’d never imagine that it could embody anything other than a symbol of light and right. And yet, as my friend Michelle and I zoomed southeast from the bustling city center in a beat-up Honda bound for Khayelitsha Township, I caught glimpses of a mist-shrouded Lion’s Head in the tiny car’s rearview mirror as we began to pass decrepit shacks in the overcast daylight—the hunk of rock seemed to me to mutate into a kind of shadowy overlord. A figure more morose than mirthful. A dour symbol of South Africa’s not-so-distant past.

It wasn’t long before the entire horizon, clear to False Bay on the coast, was replete with a million-hued 3-D jigsaw puzzle of corrugated tin roofs, rickety walls and towering poles supporting fickle wires that flowed in electricity (when luck would have it, at least). “Welcome to Khayelitsha,” our guide, Juma Mkwela, smiled proudly from the driver’s seat. “This is where I’m from!”

Welcome to Khayelitsha Township

Juma’s Township Art Tour is a one-man show, and his passion and talent lies in making it an utterly beautiful, amazingly authentic, and hauntingly unforgettable one.

Juma

Juma at his office

Chicken. It’s what’s for dinner.

A compact, genuine man with warm, twinkling eyes and smiling enthusiasm that spreads quick as a flame to everyone around him, Juma deftly navigated the unkempt streets, dodging large trucks, scattering school children, mangy dogs, and occasional flapping chickens which, I suspected, would not be long for this world.

Faucets and indoor plumbing are a rare luxury here. Ramshackle outhouses with rusting tin doors are a given (the outhouses are an interesting adventure on their own when it’s raining at nighttime, as they generally don’t contain interior lights, I learned). Tourists wanting to experience the real deal here will receive it—and the ‘resort crowd’ best be prepared. You’ll not be served a fruity Mai Thai around here, but that’s what makes it such an awesomely authentic experience—this place is a culture vulture’s dream come true.

While weaving his way through the obstacle course streets, and past colorfully painted exteriors, the guide told us about the history of the township. A 17 square mile piece of land that had been set aside during apartheid in the 1980s for the displaced and immigrant black population, Khayelitsha has since grown to nearly 400,000 strong. 

This community continues to expand, with people settling here mainly to find work in Cape Town. Though any work they might be lucky enough to find in the city often requires an hour (or much longer) ride by bus or train. And the commute (before, during, and after) can be dangerous—particularly for women. Rape and homicide are a sad but consistent hazard of township life, and the ongoing reality of HIV and AIDS takes the violence to nightmarish levels.

But, as Juma explained to us; where the desperate darkness here pushes in, the artists of Khayelitsha are pushing back.

Their weapons take the form of colorful spray paints in a can, and their messages are clear, loud and unavoidable.

HIV kills just like a gun

Many murals were more positive, serving as reminders of hope and love and righteousness. The words of Nelson Mandela and others live on in the art of this community.

One of many tributes to Nelson Mandela

One Life to Live, One Love to Give

The sole purpose of many of the murals, it seemed, was simply to speak to the heritage and cultural traditions of the people. Ancient cave drawings of cheetah and elephants have evolved in modern times to become these stunning, elaborate paintings.

The cheetah, a very revered native cat

One of the things that struck a chord with me most deeply was this sense of happiness in the people we came across.

In the West, I think a lot of us imagine that you couldn’t possibly have reason to smile when you live without a lot of things we consider to be basic.

But the people we met smiled at us with genuine warmth, and the kids laughed and hammed it up for my camera like outgoing, happy kids do.

Fruit sellers and cooks at the food stalls greeted us out of sheer friendliness, not even attempting to hawk their wares to the expensive-camera-wearing tourists.

We stopped at Juma’s mother-in-law’s hair salon for a few minutes to say hello, and found her to be very kind as well.

Grilling

The best parts of the day-long tours were saved for last. Juma took us to a sort of roadside grill park where slabs of beef and chicken sat stacked neatly upon the cooler corners of makeshift grates laid over charcoal grills, awaiting hungry passers-by.

The timing was perfect, as the hours of township touring had our stomachs growling. The stop was (as was everything we did) conveniently included in the tour fee, so Juma paid and all we had to do was choose our hunk of meat and let the experts grill it up to perfection right in front of us while we waited.

When the sizzling dinner arrived to our little stall corner, we sat down in plastic chairs, passed around a bag of fluffy Wonder Bread, added some zesty seasoning, and tore into the tasty feast while chatting.

Outside dark clouds had gathered and it was beginning to sprinkle, but the deepening grey dusk allowed a sliver of pink to peek through on the horizon. Somehow at that moment, with my simple beef sandwich, and good conversation, I felt very at home, relaxed and happy. 

What could round out the evening better than a visit to the local bar for a nightcap? Back in the beat-up Honda, Juma wondered aloud where to take us. Michelle and I hadn’t seen anything resembling a bar so far, and were open to his suggestions.

Beer

This gives new meaning to the term “home bar”

It turned out that the reason we hadn’t seen an official drinking establishment was that each of the ‘bars’ in the area were in fact…somebody’s living room.

The couple whose home/bar we stopped in at happened to be in the middle of patching a sudden leak in their tin roof with pieces of cardboard (the rain had really started coming down at this point). We entered to find the wife handing slices of a cardboard box to her husband, who teetered precariously atop a couch with a hammer in hand, and nails clenched between his lips, scanning the ceiling to figure out where the worst of the drips were originating from. The scene was surprising, and kinda comical at the same time.

But it didn’t stop them for a second from being completely welcoming and cheerful, producing three cold bottles of the local brew, Savannah Dry, a delicious cider beer, before getting back to the task at hand.

One very patient baby

One very patient baby

Michelle and I watched the progress (we offered to help, but were politely turned down), sipped the sweet, tangy brew, and had fun trying to draw giggles from the couple’s adorable baby daughter, who sat propped up in the crook of an adjacent couch while her parents were in leak-fixing mode.

As we chilled at ‘the bar’ we got Juma to give us the story on why he got into the township art tour line of work. The reason is both heartbreaking and heartwarming.

Juma was one of the fortunate few from Khayelitsha who was able to go to college, on an art scholarship. When he graduated, he had a very hard time finding good work that he truly believed in as an artist. Simultaneously, he found himself wanting to do something—something meaningful—that would give back to this community that essentially formed the person he is today.

So he did it the only way he knew how.

Juma started his art tour business to bring the art and artists of the townships to the world, and he brings art to the community through compassionate projects geared toward the kids of the township. Basically, by taking this incredible tour, we were helping to support his mission of giving back, and we felt nothing but happiness and gratitude for the entire experience.

It was late and rain was making for a muddy deluge by the time we dashed out to the old Honda for the drive back to our hostel in Cape Town. This time, the storm made it impossible to see the massive outline of Lion’s Head Mountain even as we entered the city. I found my feelings toward it were now mixed. Part of me considered it representative of the darkness that Apartheid had created in this place at the tip of Africa. But another part of me held on to it as a figure of change, a proud witness to the good things that have happened here—including the beauty and art that the people of Khayelitsha have brought to their amazing township.

Have you ever taken a tour abroad that truly moved you?

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