5 things volunteers should know about South African township life

For prospective volunteers or interns looking to work in the townships of South Africa, it can be quite daunting if you don’t really know what to expect. 

After all, townships were the brutal Apartheid regime’s way of keeping its main workforce in one place, controlled, and out of the way of the white minority.

Even though Apartheid is a thing of the past, the legacy of many of its inhumane practices remains, and the township way of life has led to some serious economic and social issues throughout South Africa. It’s impossible to sugar-coat or dismiss these serious issues, unless one is extremely smallminded or selfish.

However, it’s important to realise that, while poverty and strife are normal life for most South Africans, there are many lessons to be learned from aspects of township life that volunteers from overseas should take note of when they are deciding what project to choose. The sense of community and incredible motivation, born from necessity, can be quite jarring for Westerners – but it can really open your eyes to how generous, unselfish and resilient people can be in the face of great challenges.

Let’s take a look at a few of these cultural and lifestyle aspects of modern township life which we can all learn from.

1. Sharing is caring – food for one is food for all

If you’re a student sharing a house with other students, you’re probably familiar with “my food is on my side of the fridge, your food is on your side”. Ugly disagreements can happen when someone uses someone else’s cream cheese or helps themselves to your leftover pizza!

There is rarely such a thing in South African township society – whoever has money buys food, and anyone who is hungry can eat it. Usually, a large communal pot of meat and vegetables with a side of “mielie pap” (maize porridge) is prepared for the family. Unlike in Western society where a family usually consists of mum, dad and kids, maybe a grandparent who lives with them – township families can include many relatives, and hungry neighbours as well. Everyone gets a share, even if that means the share is small.

The person who paid for, and maybe cooked the food as well, doesn’t expect a larger portion than anyone else. Tomorrow or the next day, they’ll get a portion of food that someone else paid for and prepared – so why should they complain today?

2. Space is for everyone!

Township houses are tiny by Western standards. When you grew up, you probably had a comfortable room to yourself, or perhaps you shared with a sibling. Your house had separate living quarters, so you could watch TV or eat or do any of the numerous things families do – and no-one disturbed your privacy in the bedroom!

In a small house in the township, family members share the space as best as they can. Often, living rooms double up as bedrooms for family or tenants. A living room sofa will probably be someone’s bed at night – and when it’s being used as a sofa, it will hold as many people as possible! Bedrooms are usually shared by quite a few people – beds too. Many houses are comprised of only one room in total, so space is really at a premium.

You can probably imagine how irritated you would get, living inches away from other people - but people who don’t have the same privilege of personal space are not as fazed by it. You’ll notice how people living in the township sit and stand and lean very close to each other, with no embarrassment or annoyance. Expect to have the same experience if you work in a township!

Privacy is not really a thing that folks from the township expect – when you live in a confined space with many other people, everyone knows exactly what you’re doing, and you’re not going to get any peace and quiet. If you’re lucky enough to own a car, it can become a private space to read or entertain a friend – even just parked on the street. people living in the township often spend a lot of time out of doors in the street, until late at night – the dynamic social bustle of a small township street is a sight to behold.

3. You pay rent when you’ve got money – and not when you don’t

In Western society, renting a house with friends usually means splitting the rent and services like electricity equally between the tenants. In South African township life, this often isn’t the case. Because of unemployment or irregular income, people often don’t have enough to cover their share of the rent – so the other tenants cover it for them, without complaint or resentment.

What goes around comes around after all – next month you might not have money for your share, and it will be covered by your friends. The general stress of poverty isn’t alleviated in this way, of course – but at least you know you probably won’t be thrown out into the street if you’re short of funds.

4. Bathrooms are few and far between

Plumbing inside individual houses is pretty rare. If a householder is lucky enough to have an inside toilet – it’s the neighbours’ toilet as well, and anyone else who happens to be too far from a public toilet at the time. If you as a Western person enjoy taking your cellphone into the clean and fragrant bathroom for a nice private visit to the throne – consider yourself extremely fortunate. This is not the reality of most people living in the township, or of poor people worldwide.

Not only are toilets as rare as diamonds in townships – there is usually no running water in houses either, so people make do with washing themselves and doing laundry in buckets they fill up and carry home from communal taps. Imagine yourself in winter, without a nice long hot shower and a soft fluffy towel. Pretty devastating, right?

Now, imagine spending every winter for as long as you live in this way. You’d probably not be able to put a smile on your face all day, let alone go about your daily activities with any sense of motivation. And yet – people from the township usually manage to do both these things.

5. Getting around is tough

Westerners often complain about their commute to and from college or work. The roads were so busy, the trains were so full, it took so long!

People living in the township usually don’t have the luxury of their own car, and public transport can be pretty unreliable. Unlike in European or American cities, most cities in South Africa don’t have a network of trains and buses that fan out all over the city and take you close to where you need to be. South Africans are lucky if they have one train or bus route – probably a few kilometres away from where they live – that takes them to a few kilometres away from where they work or study.

This doesn’t even take into account the expense of public transport for people on a very low income. So what do people from the township do? They take minibus taxis (which are notoriously unregulated and often unsafe – fatal accidents are almost a daily occurrence in South Africa), or they simply walk. Come rain or shine, wind or hail – it’s one foot in front of the other, until you either get to your destination, or you get close enough to your destination that you can afford the bus fare to get there!

So how does all this affect volunteers to South African townships?

By an exceptional force of self-pride, resilience and human will, people from the township arrive at their jobs or schools day after day – neat and groomed, smelling good, and wearing clean clothes. The average Westerner – or even the average middle-class South African - can barely comprehend the sheer determination and level of organisational skills this way of life demands of the average township dweller.

Volunteers or service learners who come to work in South African townships will of course get to know the locals they work with, and will have some idea of what living in the township is like – then they get safely driven back to their nice cosy volunteer accommodation for a hot shower, a filling meal, a cold beer or two, some quiet time if they need it, maybe some socialising in a comfortable environment, and then a cosy bed they don’t have to share (if they don’t want to!).

So what, you ask, is the point of this article? To make you feel bad about your privilege, or imply that poor South Africans should always be positive and friendly in the face of so much hardship? Simply, we hope to give insight into the lives of millions of people in South African townships. It helps to develop understanding and compassion for people who live very differently to us, but who STILL find the time and will and energy to help others in their communities, and to share what little they have. It motivates us to give back as much as we possibly can, every moment of our volunteer journey.

So, before you embark on your volunteering trip to work in a township, arm yourself with knowledge (check out our article on travelling safely in South Africa for more info) – and most importantly of all, arm yourself with compassion and respect!

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