Destination: South Africa
Book: Khayelitsha – uMlungu in a Township by Steven Otter
A Guest post by David Lee, Go Backpacking
(While the book David recommends is definitely not a travel book, it will add deeper understanding to your travels in South Africa as Steve Otter experiences the township life as few tourists ever will.)
In October 2008, my South African friend picked me up at the international airport outside of Cape Town, and drove me under cover of dark toward a popular downtown hostel. As we sped down the highway leading from the airport to the city, he relayed an anecdote about how his car once broke down along a section sandwiched between two sides of a township we were passing through. He didn’t wait around for help, he said, because it was too dangerous (for a white guy) to be alone in that area at night.
Townships are South Africa’s most poverty-stricken neighborhoods, better known as slums. Khayelitsha, the biggest township outside Cape Town, is home to almost a million people. And when journalism student Steven Otter took it upon himself to experience living in a black township as a white young man, he and his friends had real reason to fear for his safety. Apartheid may have ended, however the disparity between the rich and the poor is still cause for high crime rates.
I bought[amazonify]0143025473::text:::: Khayelitsha – uMlungu in a Township[/amazonify] while in Cape Town on account of the cover and a quick glance at a few of the pages. The cover photo shows the author seated and talking between two of his black friends – the beer bottles on the table an indication that they were in a shebeen (unlicensed bar). Steven uses the experience of living amongst his country’s poorest people as a way to try and come to terms with his identity as a South African.
I quickly found it to be an engrossing story, offering unique insight into the cultural norms of the predominantly Xhosa community from the perspective of an outsider. While I would opt for a guided tour of the townships during my time in Cape Town, the experience was insulated, giving only superficial impressions of what day-to-day life must be like in those neighborhoods. Reading Steven’s stories was like having a secret window into the living, breathing Khayelitsha. You come to know the guys he befriends, the women he pursues, and the tsotsis (thieves) he encounters.
Despite the terrible living conditions Steven details during his time in Khayelitsha, there was an enviable bond and sense of community amongst the residents which made life in the rich, well-guarded areas of the Cape look cold and unwelcoming. His book greatly enriched my experience of traveling throughout South Africa, for every major destination, from the coastal resort towns like Knysna to the sprawling capital of Johannesburg, have townships where millions of people live like they do in Khayelitsha.
David Lee is an avid traveler who backpacked around the world from 2007 to 2009, visiting 22 countries along the way. He runs several travel blogs, including GoBackpacking.
I am so grateful to David for writing this guest post about South Africa. I am almost embarrassed to admit that there are two whole continents I have not touched–Africa and South America. So I always welcome contributions here from people who have experience and good travel reading for those parts of the world. Thanks, David, for an entertaining and informative post. And, reader, whether you are a backpacker or not, please take a look at David’s web site for its excellent information.