Taking the long walk to freedom


I’m a child of the 1970s and 1980s. I grew up during the apartheid years. I was in the eighth grade when Archbishop Desmond Tutu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. I was in college when Nelson Mandela was released from prison. In graduate school, I worked as a research assistant for Diana Russell, a South African feminist scholar and author of Lives of Courage: Women for a New South Africa (which featured an in-depth interview with Winnie Mandela).

So when the opportunity arose to travel to South Africa through my college’s international studies program, I jumped at the chance. For whatever reason, international leisure travel doesn’t interest me so much. But political travel – now, that fascinates me. I wanted to learn more about the apartheid years, and about post-apartheid South Africa.

I had no idea what I was in for. So many things I experienced on that trip changed me, in ways that are hard to explain. But I’ll try and share some of that experience with you.

First, the “township tours,” which are one of the ways South Africa has capitalized on tourism opportunities. Townships, if you’re not familiar with the term, are segregated areas, usually built on the outskirts of large cities like Cape Town and Johannesburg, where non-Whites were forced to lived during the apartheid years. These townships still exist, and while non-Whites can now live within city limits, these areas are still largely non-White and poor. These guided tours are controversial – some, like anthropologist Shelley Ruth Butler of McGill University, see the practice of busing wealthy travelers through a neighborhood so they can gawk at the poor and oppressed as highly problematic. (The “Real Bronx Tours” in New York City were criticized for the same reasons.) Others see it as an opportunity to bring money into the impoverished townships, while educating people about the harsh realities of post-apartheid South Africa. I can see it both ways, and although I was conflicted about it, I decided to go on one of these tours. And, I have to say, it was by far the most powerful experience I had on that trip.

This particular “township tour” took us through the communities of Khayelitsha and Langa, both of which are located on the outskirts of Cape Town. Both of them have a combined population of about 450,000 people, which is similar to that of Sacramento, the city in which I live. However, consider this: Sacramento covers a little over 100 square miles. Khayelitsha and Langa are about 16 square miles. Four hundred and fifty thousand people packed into a space that’s one-sixth the size of Sacramento.

And this is what that looks like – today. Not in the 1980s, when apartheid was in full force, but now:

Most people in these townships live in shacks made of corrugated sheet metal, usually with dirt floors. Most of them don’t have indoor plumbing or running water – instead, spigots are located every few hundred feet along the streets. Most people work in very low-wage jobs, as domestic workers, service workers (often in the tourist industry), or manual laborers. And according to Jane Battersby of Queen’s University, the majority of residents experience what she calls “food insecurity,” meaning that they don’t have consistent, reliable access to safe, nutritious food.  Through the tour, I learned that crime rates, especially crimes against women, are incredibly high – in 2012, for example, 1,960 cases of domestic violence and 937 cases of assault against women were reported. Hate crimes, particularly against lesbians, are common in the townships as well. And HIV infection rates are through the roof – it’s estimated that about 40,000 people (roughly 10% of the population) are infected with HIV. I was struck by the number of AIDS ribbons I saw displayed on billboards and banners – in fact, I saw one painted on the wall of one of a church, and another on the side of an elementary school. Apartheid might technically be over, I thought to myself after that tour, but racism and oppression are alive and well. All of this outside of Cape Town, a highly industrialized city that, in many ways, is no different from what we have here in the United States.

Later, we traveled to Johannesburg and took a tour of Soweto (SouthWest Township), a township with a population of 1.3 million people. Again, to give a comparison, that’s about the size of San Diego, which is the fifth-largest city in the United States. But Soweto packs those 1.3 million people (98.5% of whom are Black South African) into 77 square miles, while San Diego covers about 325 square miles.

Many of the houses in Soweto are reasonably well-constructed – “matchbox houses,” they’re called, four-room boxy buildings usually built out of brick or cinder block. Nelson Mandela’s former home is a matchbox house. So is Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s home, which is located a few houses down from the Mandela home. But corrugated sheet metal dwellings were common there, too.

Like Khayelitsha and Langa, violent crime is common in Soweto, particularly crimes against women, and increasingly hate crimes against gays and lesbians. Soweto is known for having among the highest HIV rates in the world. About 17% of the population is HIV positive. One in three gay men are infected with HIV. Three out of five women have HIV. And most of those affected live in the townships.  These statistics, in my opinion, are staggering.

I think about Nelson Mandela, sitting in his cell in the maximum security prison at Robben Island, with only a straw mat to sleep on. I think of his ongoing subversive acts – hiding news clippings in the lime quarry he was forced to work in, sharing knowledge with other fellow political prisoner-inmates, secretly writing his autobiography (and ultimately being found out – and punished for it). He devoted his life to social justice. “Real leaders,” he said, “must be ready to sacrifice all for the freedom of their people.”

But clearly the work isn’t done. The townships of South Africa, riddled by the effects of poverty, racism, sexism, and homophobia, tell us that unequivocally. So do many communities right here in the United States, in fact – right in our own backyard. Mandela took that long walk to freedom – and it’s up to us to continue that walk until all of us have truly reached the destination.

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1 Comment

Filed under activism, hate crimes, health, HIV/AIDS, homophobia, human rights, racism, sexism, violence

One response to “Taking the long walk to freedom

  1. Pingback: Taking the long walk to freedom | Sacrificial Tomato

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