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Culture, Reality
South African Township Life

Kasi Musings

by Morrel Shilenge / 06.12.2010

Townships attract a lot of clichés. It’s a world unto itself. With its own culture of how things are done. In any township, you’ll recognise that you have entered another planet. From the stench, dirt all over the place and the Richard Attenborough picturesque smoke from ibawula – you know that you are in the ghetto. In winter time, there is smoke everywhere, people trying to stay warm. There is no fresh air. It’s a place where pets are fed left over Sunday lunch. Dogs on beetroot. Cats on rice!

To stay in a township is an experience you can’t forget. There’s no place like ekasi. You really can take a boy out of the hood but you can’t take the ‘kasi out of the boy.

Lets take a look at township life. Nobody is “originally” from the ghetto. Everyone from Soweto, Khayelistha or Mamelodi comes from a rural village somewhere else. Bright lights syndrome.
The first thing you see in a township are liquor billboards advertising beer. Folks love to drink. Drinking culture runs deep. There are skeems (booze collectives) and stokvels for drinking every Sunday. On every street there’s a shabeen, a bottle store or spaza. Drinking is what you do to kill time. Or yourself, slowly.

South African Township Life

Besides the drinking, you’ll notice new malls sprouting up, something I totally disagree with! It increases consumption and creates false needs. Malls worsen the situation. Sure these malls are owned by black business owners, but who truly owns the shops, the supermarkets, the products on the shelves? Who are the franchisers? White capital. There’s so much scarcity in the townships already. Fuelling the desire to consume increases crime and kills small businesses that have been servicing these communities for years.

Black people are committed consumers. We live to buy. But why add fuel to the fire? Township communities are the poorest of the poor. If it wasn’t for darkies KFC and McDonalds wouldn’t survive. If only we used our buying power wisely. Less fast food and more real estate. More start ups. More asset building.

South African Township Life

There are good things too. Townships have amazing street culture, from kids playing soccer on the street then tennis in the late afternoon. Adolescents on every corner jolling. A sea of Shoprite checkers bags in the hands of workers coming back from work.

“Abolova” chilling. These are the guys who talk about wanting to make something of their lives, but hardly ever do. They smoke, drink and daydream about becoming the next big star in the music industry.

Weekends start on Puza Thursdays. Friday Nights see heaving boozy streets – it’s Vrydag Mos. Saturday you watch the Kaiser Chiefs and Orlando Pirates games near a bottle store, or even inside one. Sunday is church, Johnny Coltrane played by ama-taima, and more drinking stokvels.

Unique Kasi lingo on every corner. But the culture stays the same.

South African Township Life

People in townships are a community and they try to care about each other. If one neighbour doesn’t have sugar – they can borrow next door. In one house, you will find multiple generations: grandparents, parents, children and cousins from villages stay for good.

Stealing is an occupation. A job you work at. Some people wake up in the morning and go robbing. It’s what they do. Tax free. Nobody questions it outright. Everyone gossips about it. “Do you know that one who steals cars for a living?”

Steve Biko once said ghetto life is so tough it’s a miracle anyone grows up to be a functioning adult. I did. But then again, my existence was tempered by another Steve Biko quote. “Black man, you are on your own.”

South African Township Life

Read the second part of this series Work and Fire.

*All images © Morrel Shilenge.

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  1. vanilla dice says:

    That’s a very interesting juxtaposition – “Black man, you are on your own” vs the often discussed and vaunted concept of ubuntu, that intrinsically within black culture a person only reaches actualisation through their interaction within a community. I have wondered for many years how this tension in poor black communities could resolve itself, the history and tradition of community and common good vs the growing greed and self-interest usually pursued initially for survival but then quickly adopted as a means towards prosperity and comfort.

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  2. tshego says:

    *sigh* I have this discussion all the time, if not with uppity blacks that are more ‘cultural’ and ‘real’, then with whites that are blase and couldn’t give two hoots about differentiation. Are you ready? Here we go: NOT ALL BLACKS ARE FROM THE RURAL AREAS. I hate to bust your neat little image there but there you have it. Not all of us have a ‘homeland’ or a dear old gogo in a hut somewhere. Great for those who do, but it’s not necessarily a prerequisite for all urban dwelling brown hued folk. Some of us are actually from the city. We are not denying any roots when we say we are kasi. For some of our families, the city grew up around them. We were in ‘jo’burg’ before some white guy found a shiny rock in a stream. So yes, if you or yours suffer from ‘bright light syndrome’, please don’t make it all our story. Thank you kindly. Otherwise good ode.

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  3. happy brown says:

    Homogenising the black experience…BORING BUD.

    This ode is a bit of a cliche full of a middle class perspective on how the native lives in his habitat. Tshego put it well bud, some of our families were here way before “the shiny rocks in the stream”. Who is this story written for, is it so that white folk can get YOUR understanding of how the other live. If when you see a township you see booze, abolova and malls then maybe you have a limited perspective and understanding of the hood. I’m not saying the hood is not rough here but really now have intention behind your writing especially if you would have us believe that you are the black voice. Black man you are alone, so please write with this in mind and this might fuel something worthy of our time. And please do not homogenise the black experience we are a mixed bag of people that are tired of the cultural voyeurism associated with our race,culture and living spaces. Some of us are not using black consciousness as our entrance point to white middle class culture. Black man you arent alone, you’ve got brothers and sisters everywhere.

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  4. Johannes says:

    me whitey was in gugs a few weeks ago at a small kroeg in the middle of nowhere-i was feeling nervous when i arrived.the people i had to meet where very nice.i was looking over my shoulder when i wentoutside talking on my cellphone.i survived.i saw 3 scandinavian girls playing with some kids across the road.i wanted to warn them. they looked unconcerned.i scowered the papers the next day for news of their demise.then i went to kayalitsha 2 weekends ago and down a little street i saw two germans emerging from their rented house-off to the beach…why are they still alive ?are they mad?im confused-i thought all black people living in the ghetto would want to rip a whitey to pieces-whatis going on

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  5. Andy says:

    dunno if that’s fair HB – this is Morrel’s perspective and how he sees it. It’s a personal take, it’s nothing that can be denied. If you don’t see it that way. Write about your perspective and what makes it different then send it to andy@mahala.co.za

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  6. Lizzy says:

    someone needs to communicate that there is no more need for shopping centres in the townships to the Local Economic Development practitioners in local authorities all over the country. they see shopping centres as a way to keep the money in the township. pity they’re prodominated by franchises. whats the alternative? cant keep densifying the townships without facilities (social as well as economic) and job creation. else its a perpetuation of dormitory style development. are you suggesting industry in the townships? want another south durban basin? and office parks? can you imagine companies relocating head offices to umlazi?
    Sigh. its pretty difficult for planners and economists to figure out too…

    good article.

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  7. Zwelinzima Kasi says:

    I saw a fascinating documentary on urbanisation in China a few months ago. In it they show low-income Chinese workers spending their weekends at the stock exchange, where they choose to invest whatever small disposable income they have on company stock rather than the immediate gratification of alcohol, entertainment etc. This is one of the reasons why the Chinese nation will come to dominate world commerce in the years to come, while we spend our time moaning that we are not the masters of our own destiny with beer bottles in our hands.

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  8. Roots says:

    To equate the destruction of the peasant farming economy, forced labour migration to bright lights syndrome is outmost ignorance and insulting. Find out how township came into existence and spare us your fiction

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  9. Black Thought says:

    This writer spews stereotypes in the pretext of being insightful. But then again, what can one expect for someone so ignorant, they think Steve Biko coined quote ” Black man you are on your own”. Go read and come tell us something better. I wonder if you even know how these townships you talk about came into existence.

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  10. La Bantu says:

    “Black man you are on your own”- refers to the black race in it’s entirety, this in respect to the race that was then an opponent to black man’s freedom.

    Ubuntu- refers to and encourages emparthy, compassion, brotherhood within a community and a people/human kind in general .

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  11. La Bantu says:

    There is therefore no correlation between the two “Black man you are on your own” and the concept of Ubuntu.

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  12. vanilla dice says:

    Maybe then he should have said “Black People, you are on your own”?

    The semantics of this still doesn’t detract from the large amounts of evidence from the townships that Ubuntu is in short supply. Does urbanisation automatically imply self-interest?

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  13. Zak! says:

    vanilla, you are so smooth-yet so thick!
    …you are on your own, served to urge black people to unite against a common enemy, rather than presenting a fragmented force (competing for individual political/ideological points) against a brutally organised enemy.

    ubuntu servers as a guiding social conscience as it were, that is more concerned with the wellbeing of the collective, and here I agree with you, its evidence is sorely missing!

    “urbanisation?”- don’t know, but capitalism doesn’t give a damn whether you are black or white – “You are on your own!”

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  14. Kontlap says:

    Morrel didnt grow up in the townships. If I didnt see the name at the top, I would swear that this was a white person who wrote this. This whole perspective is foreign, from the outside looking in. Its as if a tourist wrote this article.

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  15. Blackpepper03 says:

    I’m surprised that most have not seen the points highlighted in this piece. In as much as they may be stereotypes, they were manufactured by someone and they are there for a reason. If you pass by any taxi rank, train station, most bus stops what do you see? A shebeen, a big ass billboard with castle/Mellow wood and a black man having a glass with a huge smile…Is it ever really like that? Hell no. All it says is that booze will make you happy and God knows we (black men/women) need an escape from the unhappy lives we live in segregation from CBDs. All these malls are said to be there so that we can “access” what we need…I don’t think so. The mall is there so you (black man/woman) don’t mess up Sandton/Waterfront/Century City…It’s to keep you where you are and by doing so you don’t even know if you’re getting your monies worth. Townships were created to we keep out of white areas. Townships are there to confine the black nation and to breed less of us that oppose the circumstances….

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