South Africa Diary: Pride and Poverty in Khayelitsha Township

Southern Africa 2016

By Kim Bui

May 16, 2016

Also published by Reported.ly

About 30 minutes from the waterfront in Capetown, South Africa — where you can find tourists, kayaking trips and fancy cars — sits a city that no one wants to recognize. Khayelitsha is one of the country’s larger townships — informal settlements that are home to thousands.

A view of a street corner on the outskirts of Khayelitsha.

It’s debated how many people live in Khayelitsha. Some statistics say one million, others suggest somewhere around 450,000. Like many townships, there are water, sanitation and violence issues. Unemployment is high — up to 50% for men and boys, which only contributes to the city’s violence issues. Meth, nicknamed Tik, has also found a home here.

At one point, I ask an activist to detail more what she means by there are “rapes all the time.” She responds that women are often raped twice, three times, four times, over their lives in Khayelitsha. It’s a fact of life. Walking 20 feet to the closest outdoor toilet, you must have a relative watch over you, just in case you get robbed — or worse.

A view of Khayelitsha, a informal settlement in Capetown, South Africa.

In one area known as RR Section, there are streets wide enough to drive through, if you want to call them streets. Chemical toilets, the kind you see in big concerts and events in the US, dot the landscape. They’ rarely taken care of, placed somewhat randomly, including precariously on eroding hillsides. Somewhere around five families share a toilet, with some families numbering eight or more people each.

A number of community organizations serve Khayelitsha. Social Justice Coalition works on sanitation and violence, while Treatment Action Campaign focuses on HIV, tuberculosis and health issues. Both work on gender-based violence.

Throughout RR Section, you hear the sound of people building. The homes — shacks made of tin, plywood and whatever else is available — are constantly under construction. Fences need to be mended, cabinets added, more tin added for insulation against the chilly Capetown winters. Winter rains also often flood homes, stranding families for months until the water dries up. “You have to be mobile and you have to be rebuilding,” says Joel Bregman of the Social Justice Coalition.

Two chemical toilets sit at the edge of a hill In Khayelitsha, South Africa.

Some people in other sections are lucky enough, if you want to call it that, to have homes made from shipping containers. You can’t expand your home then, though.

Down the “street” stands a building, dusty on the outside. It’s not marked at all, and there is no door. Inside I find some chairs, some in better shape than others, and a pool table. A man sits outside, basking in the sun on a chilly day. He wears a beanie and a sweater, chatting with a few women who are minding children. He slowly smokes a cigarette, the lines of his face etched deep.

A bar in Khayelitsha.

This is his bar. It’s full on weekends and at night, but completely empty in the middle of the afternoon. People like to come for the pool table. He buys his beer from down the street at a market and sells it at a cheaper price, about R15, a little less than $1 US.

Business here is like that. There are signs for single cigarettes and packets of snuff, fish and chips, liquor — pretty much anything that can be for sale is for sale. It’s the only way to make a little money, because jobs are tough to come by.

A spaza, or general store, in Khayelitsha, South Africa.

If you’re lucky, you’ll run a spaza. Spazas sell pretty much everything, from diapers to oranges and batteries. They’re cheap and many are Somali-owned. Zacki Osman, 23, moved here to open one. Most of his family immigrated to South Africa in search of something better. He’s had his shop for four years and he is proud of it, talking about business with a smile as people float in and out, buying drinks, snacks and supplies.

It was too hard to make a living in Somalia he says; this is better. “I wanted to relax,” he says with a laugh.

Zaki Osman at his spaza in Section RR of Khayelitsha. 

The neighborhood known as Site C has the same shacks and homes, but few streets. Tight alleyways are the only way to get from one end of the section to another. There’s no streetlights, and just one set of toilets for thousands of residents. It’s one of the most dangerous sections in Khayelitsha, though no one is exactly sure why. There are gangs here, but there are gangs all over the city. Community leaders — elected officials that serve as a sort of council — say the police do not care, frequently letting criminals out on the street even after repeated offenses. The police won’t patrol Site C because their cars won’t fit and they refuse to walk on patrol.

A nearby polluted swamp led to the infection and death of two young children in recent years. It is littered with trash of all sorts as insects graze along the standing, murky water. A tiny piece of concrete serves as a bridge over the open pit.

The swamp in Section CC, as locals call it, of Khayelitsha.

“We tell them not to play here, but they do,” says Tamsaqa Matabata, one of the elected community leaders.

Their parents can’t afford to move elsewhere, so they stay, with their other children and families, right next to the swamp.

Children at section RR in Khayelitsa.

Despite the soul-crushing conditions in Khayelitsha, it’s still considered home. Residents say they’d like sanitation, better toilets, more jobs. Many of the people I meet have lived here for 10 or more years and have no intention of leaving. Children wander the street, some with shoes, some without, and play games. Mothers wash their laundry in buckets and hang them over fences to dry.

A woman washes laundry in Khayelitsha, South Africa.

The grandmother of a child who died because of the swamp asks if she can come home with me, to America. She is solemn, still sad over the loss of her grandchild three years ago. I tell her my suitcase is too small, but I wished she would come visit.

A resident of Khayelitsa stands next to a photo of her granddaughter, who died from an infection contracted in the local swamp.

Kim Bui is reporting from South Africa this month on a fellowship from the International Reporting Project.