One of the biggest themes that this journey has centered around is life in the townships. Throughout our time in the Western Cape and Johannesburg, we have driven by and walked through a number of different South African black townships.
Since we arrived in South Africa I have been the most fascinated with the concept of the space people occupy. Personal space is something that I personally value very much. Upon entering a township, it becomes immediately clear that living space is extremely limited, and the space that an individual is able to occupy is even smaller.
Langa was the second township that we visited and easily the one that we spent the most time in. It was here that I first took notice of how welcoming the people in the townships are of us. As a class we had discussed our fears of being seen as intruders, or that we would be seen as treating the citizens living in Langa as zoo animals or something to marvel at. As we drove into the township, we were greeted by bunches of people and children waving and smiling at us. The townships were not the sad and bitter place I had imagined them to be—they were full of life and hope despite the awful conditions that people were living in.
Homes and shops were piled on top of each other in whatever available space could be found. I could see entire families occupying single rooms through open doors and windows. Where there were no shacks or buildings, there were cars, fire pits for cooking, and clothing lines. There was little to no free space to be found regardless of which street we turned down. What shocked me the most wasn’t the condition of the township itself, but the small amount of space that people are expected to live in. I had recalled during my reading Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane that township residents lived in cramped spaces and that some could barely afford to rent a bed (Mathabane, 1986). In my mind, I had assumed “renting a bed” meant a small room with nothing in it but a bed. It wasn’t until visiting one of the hostels in Langa that I got a true sense of what renting a bed meant.
Our guide in Langa told us about his experience growing up in the hostels, and we visited the hostel where he himself grew up. More than twenty families shared one common space and only a few bedrooms. It was hard to wrap my mind around, until our guide invited us to speak to a woman who had been living in one of the rooms for 27 years. Upon entering, I noticed that the room was about the size of my bathroom back home. There were two beds in the room and an endless number of bags and suitcases full of clothing and personal items shoved wherever there was space for them. Bags were stacked on shelved reaching the ceilings, shoved under beds, and placed into corners. The beds seemed smaller than what I remember a twin-sized bed to be. The woman told us that she shares the room with another family, and shares her bed with her three children.
It was in this moment that I realized just how cramped these people really were. This woman was sharing a bed with her two adult sons, as well as her teenage daughter every single night, as well as living in a room a third of the size of my bedroom at home. My room is where I go to relax and unwind when I need to get away from things for a while. Trying to place myself into this family’s position was one of the most difficult mental roadblocks I had to work through. I had considered it difficult to live with a roommate, but even then, I still had my bed to myself. I had never once thought about what it would be like to live without a space of my own. Even without this place to unwind and escape, the people in the townships did not seem bothered by the lack of space. In fact, the lack of space seemed to help foster a sense of community so strong that it kept some residents from moving out of the townships, even when they had acquired the money to leave.
I entered this trip believing that townships were a place of sadness and bitterness. I had no real grasp on how valuable space is to township residence, and just how limited it truly was. The biggest thing I am taking away from this experience is that you do not need belongings, or even your own space, to be happy. It is not your surroundings that determine your quality of life, it is the people that you surround yourself with and the choice to be happy with what you have.