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Rethinking ‘townships’

By Lucille Dawkshas

What are “townships”? I’ve often thought of them in terms of the visual meaning of outlying “ships” to the central harbour of a CBD, but what makes suburban areas any different? Wikipedia’s contributors tell me “townships” are: “the (often underdeveloped) urban living areas that, from the late 19th century until the end of apartheid, were reserved for non-whites (black Africans, coloureds and Indians).” Yes, underdeveloped. Non-whites. Poor. Or?

I recently visited a friend in KwaMashu in Durban. I was warned that her “shack” was “under construction”. But when I arrived I found an up-market townhouse in an area I would consider “the suburbs”. “KwaMashu is not a township,” I exclaimed, “every township has some shacks somewhere”. In my mind “townships” equalled the presence of shacks, whether in the form of backyard dwellers or extensions of informal settlements. Perhaps a misconception I share with many?

A colleague as well as two black friends live in “townships” but had never been in an informal settlement before. In two of these cases I was the one who took them, a little ironic, me being a white South African. “Townships” are not necessarily informal settlements and there is a distinct othering of such areas within “townships”.

A now ex-student of mine is moving to what was formerly considered a model C school. At a fundraiser for her on the weekend, her area of residence was described as “dismal”. The lady organising the event said: “When I found this girl, she was in a dismal classroom, in a dismal school, living under dismal conditions.” I work at that school and know that “township”, so I immediately took offence. Dismal is not a word I would use for any of those places.

This is just one example in a flurry of examples that shows that the residents of “townships” are disempowered and dehumanised by language throwing a pity-party on their behalf and perpetuating the low self-image that the poor have of themselves in a society obsessed with what you own and where you live.

In the dominant discourse “townships” are bad places where poverty prevails, crime flourishes and people live sad lives in their “dismal” environments. I’ve been in and out of “townships” over the last 15 years and have found the opposite. I feel a little like Rod MacKenzie in his recent piece “Why ‘freedom’ sells” about the problematic subjectivity of the media portrayal of China and its religious intolerance. People have asked me whether I am not scared of being in the “townships”. This is probably due to the ongoing violence mediatised during the uprisings in the 1980s and 1990s. An older naive citizen asked me whether I was not afraid they would necklace me for wrong reasons. Despite white people in “townships” still being an anomaly and garnering such a reaction, I have never been afraid of being in any South African “township”.

To me “townships” are places where people live. Ordinary South Africans go about their lives with a spirit of survival and hope. Perhaps I’ve taken too much of a biased, idealistic view as I see: children playing in the street; young men on corners checking out the eye-candy walking by; mamas sitting out in the sun doing their washing; the fierce street committees interrogating a thief; good neighbourliness; people strolling to and from the therapy of church; businesses of all kind; friendly faces; a spirit of survival. And in many cases construction and development — housing, libraries, clinics, schools, parks. Dismal — no. Bustling, changing, joyful, alive — yes.

A few years ago The Big Issue ran a piece about the migration of white South Africans to the “township” in search of a safer, cheaper and more communal life. More and more whites and non-whites are migrating to “townships” in search of a better life and yes, for the most part “townships” are safer places to live. Your neighbours and street committees are your unpaid security and I’m told that in the majority of cases you will get back any stuff that was stolen from you. I use the “township migration” article as a comprehension piece with my students in the “township” school I work at to push a more positive view of the areas they live in. I believe we need to strengthen the bid to help improve the self-image of these young, poor South Africans who are all-too-often marginalised. We need to move away from the paradigm of tying your wealth to your self-worth and defining each other according to which area you live in.

Perhaps, in this post-apartheid South Africa of ours it’s time to do away with the heavy-laden term of a “township” since it carries the negative connotations of — poor, decrepit, dismal, underdeveloped place of residence to those dehumanised by those who don’t know them. And because it is not accurate anymore that these areas are underdeveloped or non-white. Perhaps by referring to specific areas by name and individual’s living circumstances or abodes we create a greater sense of inclusivity and give said individuals a more human depth or dignity. Let’s know better who we are talking about and refer to them and the areas they live in in a less dehumanising manner.

Teacher by passion, writer when life allows. Lucille Dawkshas completed two degrees while travelling and working around the world, spending time in schools along the way to see how they did things. If she weren’t married to her job, she’d marry a camel, because they have the most gorgeous lips.

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