Longing to Escape Apartheid: The Economies of Townships

Longing to Escape Apartheid

The economies of townships


“We lived like animals – sleeping in the same unmade bed for days on end. It was no different from a rabbit in relation to its burrow.” (Ramphele)


Apartheid might be over, but many South Africans are still facing the harsh conditions of inequality. Townships are the home to many blacks and coloureds who are forced to live in impoverished communities brought on by segregation. Consisting of nearly half of South Africa’s urban population, townships and informal settlements are “home to nearly 60% of [South Africa’s] unemployed” (“The Economics of South African Townships”). This exceedingly high unemployment rate is a result of the inevitable. The moment the government decided to limit a group of people’s resources, they automatically limited their chances for success. The question now is what can be done to change what was once inevitable?

Langa Township

Walking along the streets of Langa in Cape Town, the lingering disparity was undeniable. Streets were piled with trash, ‘houses’ were shacks, and a single mattress was a bed for an entire family. Observing such poverty was an overwhelming experience that makes you question how these families survive financially. You wonder, what types of job opportunities are currently available to these impoverished individuals?

Current Opportunities

During our stay at Langa, we observed many ways in which families earn their living. Primarily, men do so by commuting out of the township to the city and mining areas (Ramphele). However, there are also opportunities within the township. The largest source of income for South African townships appears to be tourism. Tourists from around the world, including our class, travel to townships and ironically pay to witness poverty. This money does not just benefit the individuals providing the tours, but it also provides income to other people living in the township. As we entered a hostel and took pictures of severe living conditions, I was not aware that the families who lived there were making a commission off of our observations. Families in harsh living conditions can open their home to tourists in order to earn a portion of the profit. Furthermore, tourists are essential for restaurants like Lelapa that aim to provide a traditional South African meal to travelers wanting a safe environment. Lastly, there was a small market geared towards tourists where people from the township made and sold South African art.

imagesOutside of tourism, we also witnessed various small retail and service facilities, including hair salons, soda shops, restaurants and churches. However, these areas seemed bare and did not seem like a significant source of income. It was clear that some of these methods are working to support the township, but it is also clear that these methods are not enough. Without education and essential resources, people within the township will never receive the escape that they have been longing for.

Methods of Escape

Fortunately, there have been organizations that provide people in South African townships with money and supplies to start or expand a small business. An example of this is The Township Project. This organization is a Canadian non-profit that provides microloans to aspiring entrepreneurs in townships. These loans implement the same principles as the work of Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus. The Township Project helps impoverished people gain the initial capital needed to start or expand their own business and helps them work towards being a self-sustaining entity (“South Africa–Overview”).

Another organization that we were able to witness firsthand was Monkeybiz. As we encountered, Monkeybiz is a business that has become a benchmark for non-profit organizations. It takes a twist on the typical charity by incorporating a unique art form: beadwork. Monkeybiz provides work for numerous women living in poverty .The business provides their artists with the beads, which they then use to create unique pieces of work, ranging from beaded animals to beaded dolls to beaded mirrors. Monkeybiz also provides women with “educational, entrepreneurial and business workshops to inspire growth of ideas and/or new [businesses]” (“Community”).


In South Africa, the lingering effects of apartheid are undeniable. Poverty in townships continues to be a sign of inequality that limits the chances of prosperity for many South African citizens. Although townships contribute to more than half of the nation’s unemployment rate, there is hope for escape with the help of organizations like Moneybiz and The Townships Project. The struggle for complete escape will not be an easy fix. However, it is vital for the livelihood of the nation’s citizens that we continually work to change what was once considered the inevitable because since when does the past have to define our future?


“Community.” (n.d.). Monkeybiz. Retrieved from www.monkeybiz.co.za

Ramphele, Mamphela. (1993). A Bed Called Home. Ohio University Press.

“South Africa – Overview.” (2009). The Township Project. Retrieved from


“The Economics of South African Townships.” (2014, August 21). The World Bank. Retrieved from http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/southafrica/publication/the-economics-of-south-african-townships-special-focus-on-diepsloot


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