Book Introduces South Africa

South Africa Barbershop
South Africa Barbershop

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.

South Africa Capetown Poverty Area Bedroom
South Africa Capetown Poverty Area Bedroom

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.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

9 thoughts on “Book Introduces South Africa

  1. Thanks pen4hire, I never really think about things like that – a lot of visitors to Cape Town have tracked me down one way or another and my wife and I have taken them into Khaya. The more people who go there the better so we really don’t mind! Have a great day – spring is in the air here in Cape Town and I think I’ll probably climb the mountain a little later!

  2. Thanks Vera and Dave that feels good (!), but it is more of an honour for me to hear your views. I’ll look around the Library in the next few days! Dave, yes that is something you find across most cultures in SA. My first night ever in Khaya, years before I moved in, I slept in my friend Chris’ bed while he and his 8-months pregnant wife slept on the floor. At first I protested, but he said it was rude to disagree with his culture! I still have a very long way to go, but I have learnt a lot from these kinds of incredible displays of humanity.
    I have never been into the Knysna township, but your story makes me want to go – perhaps I’ll drop in in December.

    1. Hi Steven: Just wanted you to know that I passed your contact info on to Dave, but didn’t think it was a good idea to let your phone number hang out here for everyone to see.

  3. Hi David, thanks for a wonderful read, I really enjoyed your post. As the author of the book you have written about I am extremely pleased that you appreciated it. I still see all my friends in the book so next time you’re in our wonderful country feel free to contact me on [phone number removed by moderator]. My best friend Ta-fumsa has also set up a tour company where visitors accompany him into TR Informal Settlement on public transport and he offers accommodation to those who want to spend a bit longer there, living with him in his shack. But if you come back I will be sure to take you into Khaya myself.



    1. Steve: Thanks so much for dropping by and commenting to Dave here. Hope you looked around A Traveler’s Library while you were here. We are honored to have you visit.


    2. Hi Steven – thanks for writing such a great book. It encouraged me to look beyond the commercial township tours.

      In Knysna, I arranged an impromptu homestay in what is suppose to be the country’s biggest Rastafarian community (which of course, was in the middle of a township). The hospitality I experienced from my host, Brother Paul, was wonderful. He even offered me his own bed while he slept in a tent with his relative in the unfinished part of the home.
      .-= Dave´s last blog ..A Dead Bat In Paraguay by Roosh Vörek =-.

  4. I’d just like to say that I’ve been reading Dave’s blog for nearly two years now and whilst this book doesn’t really sound like it would particularly make me want to travel, it does sound like a great insight into the real culture of the place. Thankyou!
    .-= Darcy´s last blog ..What’s In My Bag? School Edition =-.

  5. This book sounds very unusual. David’s write-up made me want to read it. Ever since Cry The Beloved Country forty-something years ago, I have found South Africa fascinating. Recently we had B&B guests from South Africa, who moved, with regret, because of the crime. People say it is so beautiful. Know I will never get there, so thanks for the tip.

Comments are closed.