On a recent trip to Cape Town I was asked to take over some books for the fledging library at the LEAP school in Langa, the oldest township on the Western Cape. The school educates children from local, high-need communities, preparing them for, in many cases, university entrance and life beyond Langa.
On our flight on the way back, an elderly white British couple were horrified that I’d visited a township. “Were you safe?” they wanted to know. They had been staying with family further up the coast, who apparently would rather take a longer route than drive somewhere beside the townships. “The people there will steal anything,” confided the woman who had gone out of her way to avoid such places during her three-week stay and had presumably based this statement on hearsay.
I was a little anxious about visiting, not for safety reasons, but because there can potentially be something uncomfortable about what my husband, who did not come with me, called “poverty tourism”. There can be a fine line between curiosity and contributing to the local economy by visiting (township tours are now very popular) on the one hand, and gawping at a way of life that is unimaginable to our own pampered existence on the other. But the school had meticulously arranged my visit – the chance to meet and talk to students and see the school and also the area it serves.
Langa, like any other place, is a jumble of contradictions. To describe it as “poor” and move on is as meaningless as describing London as “rich”. Like any place, it has its wealthier residents – its teachers and nurses who live in very pretty, brightly-coloured permanent residences on the edge of the settlement, with their proud, well-tended gardens: my guide Lungiswa told me that it’s impossible to buy one of these as people hang on to them, and there are never any for sale; and like any place it has its poorer residents – the ones we think of when we think of townships – in their temporary, corrugated-iron shelters built practically on top of each other in no discernible pattern. In between the two are the modern, rather faceless blocks of government-built apartments – as characterless as anything you might see in Dalston or Dagenham. Do people prefer living in these, I ask, (hoping it isn’t a stupid question) or in the shacks? Yes, Lungiswa says, because they have heating, and so are warmer in the winter, and yes because they have inside toilets, but they are very small and anonymous. She is scathing, however, about some of the new housing. It was built, she said, because of the World Cup. “The government didn’t want tourists to see our houses,” she says, “so they built some new homes to hide us, because we are bad for South Africa’s image.” The driver argues that it doesn’t matter why they were built, it’s a step in the right direction and the new homes are a great benefit for the area. They argue a little as I sink into the back seat and decide not to offer an opinion.
But Langa is not devoid of facilities. Like anywhere in sports-mad South Africa there are quite a few sports pitches; there is a supermarket; there are bright and enterprising local shops, carwashes and other services operating out of people’s homes or roadside stalls; and there is a wonderful library that felt so identical to my own in Burnt Oak that I felt a strange sort of deja-vu for a moment. The library – a community facility with computers and internet access and a range of groups and services operating from it – is just the kind of local resource our own government is closing down back in the UK.
Even the shacks are not necessarily what they seem as you drive past them from a distance on the main road, bemoaning poverty from a safe distance. Walking past one, I’m surprised to see it’s fitted with what looks like an IKEA show kitchen; others have solar panels and satellite dishes; many have little but clearly lovingly-tended flower pots around them.
The school itself radiates pure joy, and pupils and teachers alike are obviously justifiably proud of it. The library is growing but they are very keen to increase the number of fiction books available – they have a lot of text books donated by various schemes and projects, but to encourage children to read and engage they need fiction. I had brought over, spread carefully across suitcases and hand luggage to max out the luggage weight restrictions, a donation of books from one of their visiting teachers and a donation of original novels from London-based author of teen fiction Miriam Halahmy. Visiting an English class first hand, I was excited to see the children striding up and down the dusty yard as they enthusiastically enacted scenes from a play, which would not have been possible without donated books.
As part of my visit I go into two classes. The first, a serious group of budding accountants, journalists and nurses studying for their matriculation, listen with disconcerting attentiveness while I talk about London and the UK education system, aware that there are very, very few scholarships for undergraduate students, putting it out of their reach for the time being but making postgraduate study an option for the future. The second, though, 13 and 14 year olds, gifts me one of the most enjoyable 15 minutes of my life, leading to an impromptu, passionate discussion about football, (“your team beat Chelsea? But I have not heard of your team!”) and my connection with the school, the teacher who had donated the books. “We love Miss Lindsay!” chorus the class. “She is our favourite teacher.” “Miss Lindsay was my favourite teacher too, around twenty years ago.” One girl’s eyes widen. “Twenty years ago? You are SO OLD!” Before I can stop them my phone is taken out of my hand, and eventually returned five minutes later with about 20 selfies added to the memory. “Will you put us on the internet?” It would be my pleasure – so here they are:
I would very much like to go back to Langa in the future and see how it’s doing. I would like to follow the careers of every single one of those bright, intelligent, enthusiastic children. I was touched by the wonderful welcome, privileged to have been invited, impressed by the teachers and their hard work and dedication. I wish them all the best in their small corner of this wonderful, complicated, beautiful country.