Going back to where I grew up is always an interesting experience because I run into my younger self in weird ways and I am confronted with the many ways I have changed since I left Port Elizabeth. I am confronted by the life I knew I never wanted hence I escaped to Cape Town. This past week I visited my mother who still lives in KwaZakhele, Port Elizabeth, where I spent the first twenty years of my life. I often visit at least once a year. It was depressing to visit the area I once called home, I suppose in some ways it is still home. Although, now I call Cape Town home – politics of a black person from the “Eastern Cape” calling Cape Town home notwithstanding. When I arrived in KwaZakhele from the airport I was welcomed by a smell of disappointment and total neglect. Instead of the area improving in post-apartheid times, it is depreciating. When entering KwaZakhele, from whichever direction you are welcomed by rubbish everywhere. Old decaying buildings close to people’s homes have turned into dumping grounds. People are living amongst rubbish and life just goes on. My mother told me that she takes her own rubbish to a waste-disposing site about 10 kilometres from where she lives because waste pickup in so erratic and inconvenient.
When I arrived, about 5 houses from where I grew up, the floodlight that provides light for a massive area at night was lying on the ground. My mother informed me that the light was taken down around March/April 2014 to be fixed and it’s been lying on the ground ever since. The area gets really dark at night and people don’t feel safe, not to mention that some people still use the outside lavatories at night and so it’s difficult for people who don’t have well lit back yards. Some homes are so poor in this area that having a light bulb outside is a luxury. Rumour has it that when the people asked the ward councillor about why the light was taking so long to fix, he keeps on giving people nonsense excuses about parts of the light coming from overseas, but the best one was that there’s only one person who can fix the light and he was currently in Cape Town on another project.
The minute I arrived home it was one horror story after another about crime in the area. It’s so unsettling to realize that your family members are living in such a dangerous place particularly because I live in a predominantly white neighbourhood in Cape Town – which of course does come with it’s own set of issues. Most of what I saw and experienced in KwaZakhele this past week I have read about and I have seen it in townships in Cape Town, but what really struck me about KwaZakhele was the continued downward spiral of the area and people’s lives. Since I have left KwaZakhele, every time I go back it seems to be more depressing than the last time I visited. The area feels like people have just given up on life. It looks and feels like young people have no dreams about their futures. Many of the people I went to school with are unemployed and wake up to stand on street corners and ask for spare change from a passer-by who looks like they might have a coin to spare.
Like many townships around the country, KwaZakhele is a product of the Group Areas Act. KwaZakhele is an area created during apartheid to house black people in Port Elizabeth. There are many other township areas around South Africa that are just like KwaZakhele. So, in a sense there’s nothing unique about KwaZakhele. Like many townships KwaZakhele has 4-roomed matchbox houses that were built by the apartheid government in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The area was even nicknamed “4rooms” after the houses that were built in the area. Some families added more rooms to their houses using either bricks and cement or corrugated iron, or plywood amongst other materials. What is troubling is that these matchbox style types of township houses and areas are still under production by the ANC government. New houses and areas have been created to house black people and often these new areas are in the outskirts of cities, which is really the continuation of apartheid geography where black people live far away from white suburbs and the city centres.
My trip to KwaZakhele left me asking myself, why are people not more upset about the state of things where they live? Why are people not doing more to improve their lives in townships? Why are people not putting more pressure on their ward councillors for better services? Why aren’t people shaming their ward councillors on local newspapers? Why aren’t people taking care of the areas they live in? Why aren’t people requiring better infrastructures in the new areas where they live? I am sure there are a number of possible answers to these questions, and I won’t try to tackle all of them.
Although there are many service delivery protests around the country, I think one of the major problems in KwaZakhele and possibly other townships is that people don’t really believe they deserve better. This is captured succinctly by the popular phrase in Xhosa “ubungenayo nale indlu” (you didn’t even have that house) that often shocks me when I ask people about rejecting poorly build government houses. People often say that you can’t reject what you have been given by the government because you didn’t even have it in the first place. So people accept whatever they get. I find this troubling because it speaks to a deep-seated inferiority complex.
Although there are a number of processes in place in post-apartheid South Africa aimed at redress like affirmative action and land redistribution, although both imperfect they are mechanisms to redress South Africa’s gross inequality. What has been neglected in post-apartheid South Africa in the quest to redress the past is the psychological effects of colonisation and apartheid on black South Africans. I think as a country we underestimate the psychological violence that has been visited on black minds by the past regimes, a violence that continues in varied ways in post-apartheid South Africa. A more cynical view would say that white capital and the black government understand the psychological impairment caused by colonialism and apartheid of black South Africans and use it to retain power and control of the masses. What I witnessed in KwaZakhele this past week cemented to me that black people in KwaZakhele, quite possibly in many townships around the country, don’t believe they deserve better than the lives they are living. People have bought into the inferiority they have been fed by colonialism and later apartheid and the current black government doesn’t seem interested in reconstructing the psychological health of black South Africans.
The psychological effects of colonialism and apartheid does not just affect poor black people who live in townships, it affects middle class black people in white suburbs, who navigate their new surroundings as if they don’t belong there. It affects our government officials who seem to be blind to the levels of poverty, crime, and general degradation of places inhabited by black people. I think that a psychologically healthy black population is necessary in order to have a relatively functional democracy in South Africa. White South Africans also need their own projects on working on their psychological damage done by colonialism and apartheid. People often think white South Africans are spared psychological damage because they are on the other side of power, but they are also psychologically screwed up and need to unpack the ways they are implicated in the continued degradation of black life in this country and what they are doing about it.
Written by Lwando Scott