Look at Me — Dancing in the Townships!

As I sat between the kids in the backseat of our rental car, parked on the main street of the Langa township in Cape Town, South Africa, and listened to the tour guide give his introductory talk on the history of the townships and their residents, I could feel the resentment steaming off of them. It was a resentment that went beyond their normal resistance to cultural sightseeing.  Can we please not sightsee today? had become a common refrain over the first two months of a year-long trip around the world.  But usually, once we got to the museum or prison or church, and they started looking at the pictures and hearing the stories, they became interested or at least understood the point of why we’d brought them.

My eight-year-old daughter slumped in her seat, as if she didn’t want to be seen.  Her clouded gaze out the window broadcast neither curiosity nor fear but embarrassment.   Why were we making them look upon the lives of poor people? What was there to be gained or learned from it, except how lucky they were not to live here themselves?

The answer to these questions had seemed straightforward when planning our trip through mostly developing countries in Africa and Asia from the comforts of our brownstone in Brooklyn: exposing our kids to life outside their bubble of privilege would encourage them to feel both more grateful for all that they had and committed to the ideal of a fairer world. But now that we were on the road, this tidy object lesson seemed almost laughably naïve.

My husband, who sat in front with the guide, had turned down the radio, but the digital faceplate remained illuminated. Every ten seconds or so, the text would announce the name of the song: Dilemma. Dilemma. Yes indeed.

Five weeks earlier, shortly after we arrived in South Africa, we had lunch in Johannesburg with a woman who writes about film for the influential blog of African politics and culture Africa is a Country. A South African guy we know from Brooklyn started the blog and he introduced us to this woman, who then offered to meet up and advise us about what to do and see while there.

We mentioned our interest in visiting Soweto. Not only did the township play a key role in in the overthrow of apartheid, but we wanted our children to see another side of Johannesburg besides the mostly-white gated community where we were staying with a family we’d met in our last stop of Uganda and the mega-mall done up in the style of a Tuscan castle where our hosts had taken us for dinner.

At the mention of visiting Soweto, the woman journalist made a face. She asked if we’d read a recent post on Africa is a Country criticizing the phenomenon of social justice tours, AKA township tours.  We hadn’t. In her opinion, these tours turned poverty into a spectacle that people could visit like a zoo and then go back to their comfy hotel rooms, feeling all smug with their knowledge that they’d “borne witness.”  I shot my husband a glance. Yuck. We didn’t want to be those tourists.

When we got home, I read the piece myself and was further persuaded by its argument that these tours reinforced the very belief system that apartheid created: black people, because they are primitive and dangerous, must be isolated in segregated spaces; and these spaces, which are necessarily often squalid, overcrowded, and rife with crime, seemingly prove this vision of their occupants. But the commenters were equally persuasive posing the same question I had: what was the alternative?  Ignore these physical reminders of the legacy of apartheid? Convince yourself that the country had progressed over the last twenty years and was well on its way to fulfilling Nelson Mandela’s vision?

The guide directed my husband to drive. We headed to an area nicknamed the Beverly Hills of Langa.  In what seemed a well-rehearsed spiel, the guide pointed out a house with a pool and recited some impressive recent sale prices for various properties.  He told us how the African National Congress had built thousands and thousands of homes for people to move them out of the shanties and “gave them” incomes of $300 a month.  He made the life in the townships sound like easy street, which seemed to deepen the kids’ resentment even more.  We had made this big deal about how foreign and desperate it might seem and how people are just people everywhere.  But these people weren’t even that poor.  Our AirBnb rental in Cape Town didn’t have a pool.  Why had we suggested the townships might be a bit scary?  As the guide prattled affirmatively on, my eight-year-old crossed her arms, slumping further.

During our travels so far, in Ethiopia and Uganda, our children had witnessed kids dressed in rags, kids forced by their parents to work in quarries mining for limestone, kids whose parents couldn’t afford their school fees, and kids in local markets who held their hands and begged for money or shoes. But that poverty’s sources were so tangled with feudalism and revolution, colonialism and corruption as to be beyond clear explanation and remedies, and I worried that these experiences were inviting pity—or worse, disgust—instead.

In South Africa, the history of legalized apartheid parallels much of the United States’ history of state-sanctioned segregation, and the legacy of those systems– impoverished black people—was something they had already witnessed at home without necessarily understanding its sources. The more recent history in South Africa offered a chance to make clearer the connection between cause and effect.

I tried to get the guide to talk about the shanties.  Did they have running water?  Electricity?  I recited some statistics I had come across online about the high percentage of residents who lived more than 200 meters away from running water.  Couldn’t we see some of those areas?  But he refused to engage in any discussion about the difficulty of life there, and kept circling back to his theme about what a great job the ANC was doing in lifting up the lower classes.  I began to wonder if he was on the ANC’s payroll, or if he thought this was what the township tourists wanted to hear. He had grown up in Langa himself and perhaps a hometown pride kept him from painting life there in a more desperate light. Yet I was also becoming distressing aware of my own motives and assumptions in wanting to see the parts that fit my idea of what life in a township was supposed to be like.


When you tell people you are going to South Africa, you are inevitably warned about the crime.  Carjackings at stoplights in Jo’burg.  Purse snatchings and pick pockets on the Waterfront in Cape Town.  Never ever walk around at night.  Although our flight to Johannesburg arrived at one in the morning, our hosts insisted on picking us up at the airport, because, our hosts said, it wasn’t safe for us to take a taxi or arrange for a driver.  Given that this couple was mixed, a middle-aged Afrikaner guy who had married a younger Congolese woman, we reasoned that this precaution was based in experience rather than unfounded fear or racism.

Over the next few days, as we drove our little rental car around the city, I found myself constantly on the lookout, checking to make sure the car doors were locked, tensing up at each intersection, viewing suspiciously any of the black people walking by, from the sun-parched men who waited on the roadside to be picked up for day labor, to the neatly dressed students with their bulky backpacks, to the beggars missing a hand or their sight who approached our car at stoplights. After feeling very safe and at ease all over Ethiopia and Uganda, even when we were the only Westerners around, this feeling of constant vigilance was jarring and exhausting.

As we drove around Johannesburg, up seven hours to Kruger State Park, over to Mozambique, and back, and then around Cape Town, lost on our way from the airport to our rental apartment, nothing happened.  We weren’t far from the sea and I finally dared to roll down the window. I took in a deep breath of the pungent briny air.

We didn’t have a working smart phone or GPS and were forced `to navigate the old-fashioned way–with a map.  On the phone to our rental’s manager, I tried to figure out where we were.  The ocean’s on our left, I told her.  There’s lots of huge sand dunes.  Wait, here’s a sign.  We’re just entering Mitchell’s Plain.

Mitchell’s Plain! she repeated with alarm.  You shouldn’t be anywhere near Mitchell’s Plain!

Across the dunes, I spied rows of neat small one-story houses.  A little girl was riding her bicycle down the street.  I’m sure we’ll be fine, I said loftily.  We’re pretty street-smart coming from New York City.  I hung up and rolled my eyes meaningfully at my husband.  All this concern for safety in South Africa was starting to seem overblown, and rooted mostly in a fear of poor black people.

A couple of weeks later, on our way to the trendy Woodstock area of artisanal pizza and bespoke Shwe Shwe pillows, we drove past miles upon miles of townships–Khayelitsha, Gugulethu, Langa.  We had never made it to Soweto and these were the first townships the children had seen. As the kids stared out the window at the sheet metal shacks slanting every which way and rows of concrete toilets lining the road like something you’d see in a refugee camp, we told them about the shanties that students had built and occupied on the lawns of our respective universities to encourage these institutions to divest from South Africa in protest of Apartheid. We brought them to Robben Island where Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners from the ANC had worked long days in mines, moving piles of rocks from one end to the other, in a form of make-work heavy labor, while subsisting on measly diets whose portion sizes varied according to their ethnicities, with “Natives” getting two-thirds the amounts as “Coloureds.” At the District Six Museum, they learned about the Group Area Acts that removed black people from the cities, unless they had employment in which case they had to live in the townships, and the relocations of the “Coloureds” from established central neighborhoods like District Six to remote barren flatlands such as Mitchell Plains.  With all this context in mind and a few prefatory conversations, we booked our tour to the townships of Cape Town to, yes, bear witness, but also to show our kids that they didn’t need to be afraid of these spaces and the people who lived there.

This lesson was particularly important to me because of my own family history.  After being raised as white in a very Waspy part of Connecticut, with all the racist assumptions that came from growing up there in the 1970s, I found out at twenty-three that my father was “colored” (in the parlance of his day) — a mixed race Creole from New Orleans.  His fair skin meant he could pass as white, or “play white” as they called it in South Africa, and I didn’t learn the truth or meet his family until he died.  This meant that my kids were mixed too, although no one could tell it from looking at them. Beyond the normal parental interest in raising socially-conscience children, I wanted to be sure they weren’t afraid of something that was a little part of themselves and played a big part in shaping my–and their–family history.

But our tour guide kept refusing to serve up the object lesson I had in mind. We drove on to Khayelitsha to see more streets of newly constructed homes and a large shopping mall with a ShopRite and SuperSpar, a food/department store chain, and branches for every bank in Cape Town.  I registered silently my surprise at seeing the ATM machines–people dared to be seen taking out their money?–and felt more and more like one of “those” tourists.  What purpose did this urge to search out the grittiest, most impoverished areas serve, other than to satisfy my conscience that we’d seen it, so we could go back to enjoying the many pleasures afforded to the white people of Cape Town? Or was it something else?

On the car radio, we had also been hearing reports of the ongoing murder trial of Anni Dewani, an Indian woman from Sweden who came to Cape Town for her honeymoon in 2010. She was kidnapped and then murdered by her cab driver during a visit to the Gugulethu township. The husband was currently on trial for conspiring with the cab driver to kill his wife, but he claimed that it was her idea to visit the township in the first place, because she wanted to see the “real Africa.”

Maybe we can visit the school, my husband suggested.  We had read about that possibility on TripAdvisor.  Somewhere where there are other kids to engage our children?

It was too late to visit the school, but there was a daycare we could go to.  We parked in front of a bright yellow house, with a front yard filled with ride-on toys.  On the street a couple of guys were at work fixing a car.  The guide said loudly, for their benefit I assumed, So everyone’s got their cell phones and their bags?  Let’s go.

The children were in the middle of their nap, but the daycare manager let us peek in.  The room was lined with hooks and cubbies, labeled with names written in bright red marker on masking tape.  Rows of shelves held books and toys, a play kitchen held bins of slightly grimy-looking plastic fruit.  The kids stretched out in sweaty abandon on mats spread across the floor, with some of them sucking a thumb and others snoring, and still others fidgeting with one eye open, waiting to be released.  In other words, it looked not unlike daycares I’d seen in the United States, including that of my own children.

We continued to Gugulethu, where we were driven past another huge mall that was recently completed.  This one was owned in part by the same guy who started Mzoli’s, a popular butchery-restaurant where we were planning a late lunch. “He’s the richest man in the townships,” our guide told us.  See, the township had millionaires too.

Mzoli’s, according to TripAdvisor and other reviews, was a “must-see” destination during a visit to Cape Town.  Named one of the city’s top 100 dining establishments, host to British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and international sports stars, it had a reputation as a very lively place where you could mix with the locals, knock back some beers, and listen to top-notch DJs spinning deep house and kwaito, a kind of slowed-down house music indigenous to South Africa.

As we waited in line at the butcher to pick out our cuts of meat, which would then be grilled on one of the braai stalls, a waiter with beautiful mahogany-colored skin, a mohawk, earrings, and a neon green t-shirt asked me in the honey-dripping camp of a young transsexual if we were doing alright.  I nodded dumbly, trying to not register the overwhelming blast of rum on her breath.

We found a table in the cavernous outside dining area on the far side from the dance floor and DJ station.  The waiter, who introduced herself as Angel, fetched the kids cans of soda and brought us bottles of Castle beer.  She seemed to be the only server in the place, but she plopped down in the seat next to each of her customers, slung one leg over the other and crossed her arms coyly over her knee, as if she were your best girlfriend settling in for a heart-to-heart.  I saw her giving high fives to a solo Korean man, playfully hip-checking one of the women in the group of Spanish doctors in town for a convention, and winking at a table of regulars.  At our table, she ripped out a sheet from her waitress pad and leaned down to show my five-year-old son how to transform a series of squiggly lines and half-circles into a beautiful butterfly.


After she left, my daughter asked why the waiter–he? she? she wavered–was being so friendly.  My daughter has a keen bullshit detector, but like many kids, she can also be wary of things or ways of acting that are unfamiliar.

I think it’s a she, I said.  She just wants people to feel welcome and have a good time.  I think it’s really nice of her, I added.  But as I watched Angel work the room, I also caught a whiff of desperation mixed with the booze in her intense effort, as if this was a performance that could ravish her faster than the poverty of the townships or even the difficulty of life for a young trans person not far from countries where being gay risked imprisonment or even death.

The soda cans were warm and the kids wanted ice.  I saw some locals sitting with tubs of ice on their tables, and the next time Angel came round, I asked, shouting over the music that had suddenly gotten louder, if we could have some for the drinks.

You want ice? She shouted back.

Yes, I nodded.

She held out her arm and beckoned for me to come with her.  Feeling a little foolish, I looped my arm through hers. Jauntily, we strolled across the dance floor.  The Spanish doctors looked up, smiling enviously at the prospect of our adventure. Out the entrance of the restaurant we strutted and down the street.  Where was she taking me, I wondered.  I had my purse slung over my shoulder, which contained not only the $80 we had agreed to pay the guide, but another $200 we’d taken out for that week’s expenses.  As I tried not to think about this, a louder voice that I’d developed over the years of interrogating and dissembling my own prejudice fretted in my head: Stop worrying. It’s the middle of the day.  What can happen?  In clubs and restaurants in New Orleans, in the South Bronx and deep Brooklyn, I’d been one of the only white-appearing people, and I’d been comfortable.  But I was without any stewards here and this place was unfamiliar. Try as I might, I didn’t feel at ease.

We entered a corner store, and Angel released my arm to retrieve a bag of ice from a deep freeze.

Oh, no. I said. We don’t need a whole bag. I just wanted a little bit for the kids’ sodas.  Don’t you have any at the restaurant?

She shook her head and said sweetly, I’m afraid this is the only ice we have. I felt like a jerk for being so suspicious when she was only trying to get me what I’d asked for.

We can do without the ice, I said.

On the way out, Angel told the shopkeeper sorry, presumably for not bringing him a sale. Back at the restaurant, the party atmosphere had kicked up a notch.  One of the locals who was there celebrating someone’s birthday dumped a bottle of beer over the birthday girl’s head, and the whole table jumped up, swearing and laughing.  The Spanish doctors had finished eating and shifted restlessly in their seats.  The music got louder still and the tempo quickened.

Okay, everyone, up, called Angel.  She gestured to the long table of Spaniards to get to their feet.  They hopped up obediently and surrounded her on the dance floor.  She lifted her palms and pumped them in the air in the universal sign of Let’s Party.  The Spaniards started shaking their hips and waving their hands.  The cameras came out.  They regarded each other with surprised delight: “Look at us!  We’re partying in the townships!”

My husband and daughter looked on with a mix of amusement and disdain as these soft-bellied middle-aged doctors boogied.  My five-year-old son, who could never resist the chance to bust his moves, hopped up from his chair and started spinning on one leg in an empty corner.  I began snapping my own photos, while my husband paid the bill.  Either the effects of my beer had kicked in or the misunderstanding over the ice chastened me out of my discomfort, but I started to look upon the scene differently.  It was fun and lively, just as the TripAdvisor reviews had promised, and while the whole setup might be a bit touristy, wasn’t this kind of mixing with the locals more meaningful than staring at their shanties through a car window?  What a nice change, too: that a young transsexual could be more or less running the joint after the virulent anti-homosexual sentiments we encountered elsewhere in Africa.  I resolved not for the first or last time on our trip around the world that I would try my best to suspend judgment.

We finished up our tour at the visitors’ center across the road from Khayelitsha that also functioned as a computer training site, library, and craft workshop location.  Although it was in the middle of the afternoon in the middle of the week, the place was deserted except for a few women who were stringing necklaces from tiny plastic beads sold in bulk from China.  The guide walked us up a long series of stairs to the top of a hill that offered a nice view of the ocean.  On the opposite side from the water, the townships stretched in concentric circles of small houses surrounded by ramshackle shanties as far as the eye could see.

After we handed over the fee, the guide seemed to relax his rah-rah ANC stance. He talked about the jobless rate of 25% in South Africa, with the averages much higher outside the major cities.  People would keep migrating to the cities looking for work and the shanties would keep growing.  It was hard to see an end or a solution.  But he was grateful to have this work so he could provide his kids with the schooling that would give them access to a different kind of future.


Two days later was Thanksgiving, and we hosted two South African families we’d met for dinner.  Despite the fact that the kids had never really become engaged during the tour, I hoped that the visit provided a vantage point from which they could view our many blessings and understand that not everyone had the same advantages. As I cooked, I planned in my head something to say over dinner about everything we had to be thankful for while also being mindful of the observation of Gandhi, who had spent twenty years in South Africa and helped to craft the ANC’s initial non-violent strategies, that no one of us are truly free until all of us are.

During dinner, we described our tour for our guests, turning the guide’s PR campaign and the dancing Spanish doctors into a funny story.  Following the laughter, our guests, who were white, admitted that they had never been to the townships themselves. Then someone mentioned the story in the paper a few days earlier about the tourist who had been murdered.

I feel bad for Mzoli’s, commented another guest, since it’s bound to hurt his business, and he does provide a lot of employment for the locals.

My husband and I looked at each other.  What? we said in unison.

Who got murdered? my daughter asked.  Where?

The alarm in our eyes made clear that we had no idea what they were talking about.  One of the moms leaned back from the table and told us sotto voice that a woman described as “a young blond tourist” in all the news accounts had been returning to her car parked around the corner from Mzoli’s when someone shot her in the head and took her cell phone.  My stomach, full of turkey and stuffing, dropped beneath the table.

After everyone was gone, I looked up the news report myself.  The young woman had been murdered early evening, around 6 pm, two nights before our visit.  Surely our guide had known about this.  I remembered his refusal to stray off the wealthier streets of the townships and his careful insistence that we follow his directions on leaving so we didn’t accidentally end up on the wrong street.  I thought about how nervous I had felt walking to the store around the corner to Mzoli’s, the same corner where the woman must have been killed just forty hours before.  The liquor on Angel’s breath and the evident strain in her efforts to keep the mood light made a sudden sickening sense to me.  I didn’t recall seeing any of the beefed-up security mentioned in the news articles or any police presence in the townships, which made me angry on my family’s behalf and all of the people who lived there. For that matter we hadn’t seen any police anywhere in Cape Town, although over the course of our one-month stay, we saw many sanitation workers picking up garbage from the manicured highway meridian, city workers who regularly drained and scrubbed the tidal pools that lined the southern part of the horn, and the city-paid shark spotters stationed all over the western side of Table Mountain to alert swimmers and surfers of any great whites lurking in the area.

I finally thought to look up the murder rate in Cape Town, and was surprised to learn that it is the 20th most violent city in the world, a full four spots higher on the list than America’s most violent city, Detroit.  Most of this violence is contained to the townships and black and coloured neighborhoods such as Mitchells Plain where “coloured” gangs with names inspired by American culture–The Americans, J.F.K, and Thug Life—reign. As I read about the staggering crime rates, I wondered if we were better or worse off for not knowing this earlier.

In the middle of the night, I lay awake, my belly overstuffed from dinner, my blood coursing with the metabolizing sugar in all the wine and desserts, and my head overflowing with questions.

For our remaining week in town, we didn’t adjust our behavior in any way or alter our now familiar routes, but as we shopped and ate and ran around visiting the sights we hadn’t yet made it too, these questions kept running through my head, echoing many of the same questions I have about the United States.  How do you dismantle such a thorough prolonged system of political, geographic, and economic disenfranchisement?  How do you develop trust and equality between two groups of people when one had so greatly prospered at the terrible expense of the other?  How do you get young people and college students, for whom the end of apartheid twenty years ago–or the passage of the Civil Rights Act fifty years ago–might as well be ancient history, to see the current crime rates and adverse conditions of many black people through the lens of those respective legacies? In the climate of an uncertain future, how do you make them care enough to keep pressing for a justice and equality that continues to be elusive? And how does a city maintain its reputation as one of the top travel destinations in the world, landing the coveted number one spot on the New York Times’ list of 52 places to visit last year, without encouraging tourists to turn a blind eye toward its social problems?

Most of all I wondered what lesson my children were going to take away from all of this?  That it’s always the dark-skinned people who are being oppressed, who live in shacks and shanties and they should feel grateful that their grandfather divorced himself from his ancestry when he did? Or that, although the world is rife with examples of injustice, it is also full of stories of people who have dedicated their lives to seeing this injustice undone?


  1. Hi Bliss! It was so many months ago when I had the pleasure of meeting you at Vincent’s (when you did the interview with him) and since then lots has happened for both of us. And for Vincent! But I know you (and your family) have experienced SO much more and learned a massive amount about the world and about yourselves. Do you ever miss being in one place, at home in Brooklyn? Or perhaps the more you experience the more you want to continue experiencing! I’m sure you know that Vincent is turning 95 next week (incredible, isn’t it?!), on the 9th, and he plans to stay put and have an open house. Wise, I think. His hernia makes him uncomfortable periodically but it seems to have stabilized and he has dizzy spells now and then, but says he can handle them. I see him at least once a week, usually, and in between we talk on the phone. He does get out quite a bit and when he’s at home he is writing a lot. He even bought an iPad a couple of months ago and seemed to catch on pretty well but only to a certain level. I showed him how to get to your blog on his iPad but he doesn’t have much patience, you know! I think he’s gotten frustrated. I will see him tomorrow for Easter brunch and will give him a print-out of your piece about Cape Town. By the way, Vincent wanted me to tell you that he thought of your dad last fall on October 11th, or shall I say he thought of him a little more than usual. Because I know he thinks of your dad practically every day and talks about him often. Well, you probably know this but I wanted to be the messenger I promised him I’d be! I’d like to send you some photos and am wondering if there is a way to do that. Are you also accessing your email address now and then while traveling? Speaking of photos, I love the photos you’ve posted on your blog. Keep on trucking’ and taking it all in! What you (and your husband, and your kids!) are doing is so fantastic. Looking forward to reading more! Vincent says hello and sends his love! Hugs, Tina


    1. Dear Tina: Nice to hear from you. I tried Vincent in the morning on his birthday and got the machine. Maybe he was sleeping. Hope it was great and i am still reachable at my email which i think you have. Hugs to you and a big kiss for Vincent. xBliss


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