On Saturday we ventured into Langa to drop off some beanies at a home for orphans. I, once again, was struck by the vastly different worlds that exist in this city, ten minutes’, less, from each other.
I had never been into Langa before. I’ve lived in Cape Town for over fifteen years. I was a bit nervous, we didn’t know the route, or the roads. I phoned my sister to tell her where we were going, so somebody knew where we were, two white girls in Langa. That’s not something I’m proud to write, but it’s the truth, and until we start telling the truth, things won’t change.
We left our house in our middle/upper class (wealthy) Southern Suburbs street mid-morning, Saturday, pushing the green button to close the garage, the blue button to close the gate, the brown button to switch the alarm on, it’s blue light winking conspiratorially at us. There was not a soul in the street except for the solitary black cat who lives on the corner, flirting with the street tree. No children, no people, no dogs. Quiet, still, clinical. Tall walls, electric fences.
Heading into Langa, the road changed from well-marked, to not-marked. Pot-holes, huge puddles of water, rubbish everywhere, the ‘lack of service delivery’ – those words I’ve seen on the news – here in full technicolour. My privilege tapped me impatiently on the shoulder.
Amongst it all, people, dogs, children, a humming throng of Saturday morning activity, life being lived, as the snooty British voice of my iPhone’s GPS ordered us to turn left, right, take the third exit off the circle. From houses, to shacks, drainage bad, and back to a quieter street, lined with neat houses, one of them the one we were looking for. The snooty Brit said: “You have arrived.” Well, yes, thank you, Sir Snootalot.
There was no bell, just a gate. No need for pressing a button to unlock, unarm. Lift the latch and come in. Two little boys walked past the car, looking at us curiously as they kicked a soccer ball between them. A knock on the door resulted in another small boy appearing from around the corner of the house, and a delighted invitation to follow him. Inside, a lively bunch of children, wanted by nobody in their families, or orphaned by murderous HIV (that makes my heart ache), cared for by these amazing women.
The room was papered with pages from magazines, neatly stuck. It was bright, colourful, as a TV droned in the corner and the house mother peeled potatoes into a huge bowl while watching the children. The beanies were a hit, and we left, feeling helpless and inadequate in the face of motherless children, and these ones, at least, are being cared for. My privilege, at this point, was whacking me over the head, hard.
Back into the streets of Langa, Sir Snootalot directed us down a one-laned street, tin shacks peering over it, crowded, with children in their tiny yards, dogs in the street, Saturday washing flapping in the damp winter air. We reached a dead-end, bollards preventing us from going any further. Sir Snootalot was urging a U-turn,
And it was then, that I got scared, lost in unfamiliar territory. Territory that, for me, had always been given an air of danger. I grew up in Small (very Conservative) Town, South Africa during the revolting days of Apartheid. While my parents were liberal, I went to a public school, where the ‘Swart Gevaar’ was every day. I knew it wasn’t right, I was taught that by my parents and I knew it intrinsically, but that stuff gets into your head, that ingrained fear. I thought, by now, I’d overcome it.
Nope, there it showed its ugly head, stuck – only momentarily – in a dead-end. We turned around, we drove around the block, joining the main road, past the taxi rank with huge braais billowing smoke, meat piled high, people getting together, shouting to each other, smiling. Smiling at each other. And at us. My fear dissolved into shame. I was angry at myself for feeling more fear here. Let’s not kid, this is South Africa, we all live with a degree of caution, but that being in Langa made me more fearful, made me cross.
And made me think, and continue thinking, long after we’d left that place where, at no point, was I made to feel in danger by external factors, only by my own, ingrained stereotypes and fears. And it’s those that I’m examining now, and pulling apart, and trying to fix, because I don’t want to be that woman. I should be way past that by now.