Replace hell of townships with places fit for raising children

Mamelodi East township. File Picture: Oupa Mokoena

Mamelodi East township. File Picture: Oupa Mokoena

Published Nov 24, 2023



“Township life alone makes it a miracle for anyone to live up to adulthood.” These are the words of the great Black Consciousness intellectual and leader Bantu Steve Biko. Though said almost five decades ago, they still ring true even today.

These words form the basis of our instalment this week as we examine township life and what it has been like in the last three decades of the post-democratic era. We must fixate ourselves on the ‘human settlement’ known as the township because, for one, most of the South African population is found in these settlements.

As such we cannot simply ignore but we need to examine it with the honesty it deserves. The thesis we put forward is that the township as it stands today, is a hellhole and nothing can be done to it other than end it as we know it today and, this must be done with utmost urgency.

The South African township is a contemporary product of colonialism, capitalism and apartheid. First with the hostel dwellings as the mineral rush emerges and the building of industries around them. The migration from native reserves to these towns as natives lost their land and all ways to make a living.

As the population around places like Johannesburg increased so settlement and the need to build the townships arose. The Native Land Act and later Group Areas Act are the direct legislative basis for the building of the townships. Just from this alone, we can see why the township emerged.

It was a settlement to act as a labour concentration camp to feed the rising industries of the cities. The spatial planning and industrial development of South Africa was and is still so skewed that it created a situation where real economic production and opportunity were concentrated in the big cities. Thus, the natives flocked to these places.

First, the hostels were the primary places of residence and then the townships, but one thing is common, overpopulation on small pieces of land with little to no real development. The township was nothing but a place for reserve labour supply for the big industrial towns.

History informs us that these townships were never meant for real human settlement and development but as glorified concentration camps to supply labour. The characteristics of all townships are almost the same throughout history.

One entrance and one exit. One school servicing a large population, is usually under-resourced as they were not really meant to cultivate human intellectual potential but just meant to develop human labour with skills to be able to work in the industries.

If lucky there was one sports ground and usually no library or clinic. Mostly there were and in many still, no recreational facilities for kids and adults alike to be able to play and enjoy life away from the rat race of employment or seeking employment.

This is still almost all true today even with the new settlement built today. These settlements do not allow for human imagination and the cultivation of total human development. In the township, imagination is structurally disallowed.

The township resembles social death both spiritually and material. Though like in any other situation ‘life’ has been created in the township, this is not a proper life. These are just acts of survival so that life goes on and another day is seen.

Lions who live in the zoo still roar though not living in their natural habitat and thus not living to their true potential but they are still protecting their ‘territory’. Maybe this is why township residents still proudly proclaim ’ikasi lami leli’. For when given lemons we create lemonade, and we enjoy it like it is the best drink in the world.

Thobani Zikalala is an independent political commentator. Picture: Supplied

As Pastor Xola Skosana once proclaimed, 'township is hell’ as he and others marched through the streets of Khayelitsha, indeed the township is hell. Look at the list of the most dangerous places in South Africa on the basis of murder and violent crimes reported.

At least seven out of ten are townships, indeed like Biko said it is a miracle to live up to adulthood in the township. The next time you drive through the township count how many old-aged people you see. Maybe this is why many in the township are looking for an exit.

This leaves the township poorer in terms of role models, so the younger generation is left with wrongdoers for role models because these are the people they see who have ‘made it’.

As I have said above, imagination systematically is not allowed in the township, making it an exception, not a rule. Those who have made it have left. Many have no hope and thus are stuck in a life of crime and/or ravaged by drugs. For an idle mind is a playground for evil things.

We need to do better than we have done in the past three decades and unfortunately, the township cannot be transformed into something it was never meant to be. So what do we do? End the building of townships and rethink human settlement.

It must be a rule that all human settlements must seek to cultivate and develop human potential for the betterment of society. So build a human settlement with all necessities of life from education, healthcare and recreational facilities. We don’t need SMART taverns as announced by Gauteng Premier Panyaza Lesufi, recently.

Our people do not need more taverns, no matter how much investment is involved. We need more industries by us for us. We need to control our own resources and our economy. We need more stories of our own making it without the scrutinisation and accusation of being unscrupulous.

We need these positive stories so we can create belief in our people that it is possible to make it in life the right way. We need to rethink human settlement for the working class, abolish the township and give our people a fair chance at making it in the world.

Why are all townships at least 20km away from the nearest central business district? Who said our people do not want to wake to the smell of fresh air and sea breeze or to beautiful vegetation and the music of beautiful birds in the morning?

Our people also deserve big yards and enough space to raise children, three decades after democracy we cannot continue to be squashed into the human concentration camp conveniently called a township.

Look at the stark contrast between Alexandra and Sandton communities living side by side only divided by a highway. Alexandra is the human reserve of those who give Sandton life but go back to jumping over dead bodies as they force sleep while scared that big rats will bite their children to death while they sleep.

This may sound like an emotional rant by a frustrated township-raised youth but maybe it is just that. It is nothing but an attempt to make loud the cries of a million young South Africans denied the right to live and imagine life properly.

The township settlement must end and settlements that cultivate and nurture human potential must emerge. The township deserves more than just taverns on each corner as the only recreation spots available.

The people have shown how much they can do from the little that the township has provided them. Many roses have grown from the concrete but those are the exceptions. We must provide the soil so that being successful becomes the norm rather than an exception. It all begins with ending the hell that is a township and creating human settlements for life.

Thobani Zikalala is an independent political commentator.

Daily News

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