Township Life In South Africa - A Volunteer's Perspective

As a prospective volunteer in South Africa, you may have heard the terms “township” or “location”, and you’ve wondered what on earth they mean. Welcome to Township Life 101!

Throughout South African history, the terms “township” and “location” are what the local people have used to describe the neighbourhoods on the periphery of developed towns and cities. These areas were inhabited almost entirely by non-white people, who were not allowed by law to live in “Whites Only” suburbs.

The township people were mostly native Africans, Coloured people of mixed-race ethnicity, mixed-race families who were banned from living in the suburb of the white spouse, and people of Asian origin who came to the country as migrant labourers from China and India. The township neighbourhoods sprang up in a big way in the late 19th century as urbanisation grew, and people had a need to live near work opportunities.

Historically, the communities in these townships were socially marginalised and economically disadvantaged by the apartheid regime. This led to poverty and social unrest, which in turn have led to a great need for social development programmes on a number of levels. That’s where you, as a volunteer, can step in and help out.

You’ve probably heard frightening tales of South African township unrest and crime, and seen footage of shabby run-down third-world streets lined with dirt, and angry unemployed people gesticulating at or even attacking police and journalists. Don’t be fooled though – the mainstream media loves to concentrate on bad news as if it’s the only news! Yes, it’s true there is poverty and restlessness in townships. But what you don’t see in the media is the incredible spirit of resilience and creativity that have led to townships being described as the “heartbeat” of South Africa. As a volunteer, you will have the opportunity and privilege to work in these communities and experience their hidden gems first-hand.

If you are a prospective volunteer from a Western first-world country, there are a few things you will notice about townships that may be a bit unexpected and might make you wary at first, before you really get to know the communities that live in them. Here is a list of a few of those things so you can be prepared.

  • Townships often don’t have proper running water. People might have to queue at communal taps for water that will be used for absolutely everything – cooking, cleaning, washing and drinking – and walk miles back to their residence with heavy buckets. Water pipes are not well-maintained and can often block or burst, causing spills and flooding.
  • Sewage systems are a problem in many areas – there either simply aren’t any toilets and people have to do the best they can with buckets, or the plumbing is not up to scratch.
  • Township roads can be very badly maintained – as in, not maintained at all! Driving in these areas can be hair-raising at best and dangerous at worst, especially at night.
  • Electricity is expensive in South Africa, and out of reach of many of its poorest citizens. You may notice home-made power lines rigged up on existing power cables or boxes, as people have “stolen” electricity they would otherwise not have access to. Needless to say, this is extremely dangerous and many people lose their lives.
  • Some townships consist of a mixture of proper houses and shanty dwellings built of scrap metal, cardboard and anything else available. These shanties or shacks are also often built on unstable ground that floods or subsides – because it’s the only land available.
  • Shacks are highly flammable, and an upset paraffin lamp or candle can cause a raging fire that spreads devastatingly quickly throughout the area, causing much loss of life and terrible injuries.
  • South Africa still has a high rate of unemployment and a struggling education system. It’s therefore no surprise that township youngsters are easy prey for the lures of gangsterism and criminal activities.

Now for the good news!

Most townships are a lot safer than they’re portrayed in the media – people just want to live in peace and do the best they can, and are almost overwhelmingly friendly and cheerful! Your volunteer organisation staff will be able to tell you which areas are best avoided at night, or if you’re on your own. In most areas, you will only need to exercise the same amount of caution you would in any urban area around the world.

Despite the various pitfalls of township life, its people on the whole are more than capable of rising to the challenge. Amazing stories of selflessness and generosity abound – for example, orphanages run on a shoestring and a prayer by people who don’t have enough resources of their own, let alone for others; or schools run voluntarily by retired teachers with little to no materials at their disposal; or soup kitchens organised by tireless charity workers for people who might well have only that one meal every day. As a community volunteer in a township, you will be working side by side with people like this – top-quality humans who have dedicated their entire lives to helping their fellow man, despite their own disadvantages.

You will also marvel at the spirit of entrepeneurship and creativity that surrounds you in the township. Small businesses spring up overnight in disused containers, or simply on the street when there are no other premises available – shops, hair and beauty salons, craft markets, restaurants and lively taverns (also known as “shebeens”). Larger businesses have also boomed in some township areas with the growth in recent years of the black middle class. Throughout all of these endeavours permeates a bustling, vibrant positivity; and your business or craftsmanship skills can be put to good use here.

It’s worth noting to prospective volunteers and other visitors to townships that, even if its people  become more financially successful, many of them choose to stay in the township and close to their cultural and family roots, rather than move to a more affluent suburb. Driving through each of the areas at night gives you a good idea of why this might be – affluent suburbs are as quiet as a graveyard, save for the odd barking dog, and the only life to be seen is the flickering of the TV through a curtained window. Townships are a hive of activity – everyone is in the street chatting late into the wee hours, front doors are wide open to receive visitors, and the more industrious souls are still hard at work selling goods and cutting hair. There’s never a dull moment!


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