South Africa’s Joburg: Soweto’s Khayelitsha Township


With little to block the hot sun – or the winter cold – Khayelitsha is often a place of harsh extremes

“My name is Mzukisi,” the eccentric-looking man driving me away from central Cape Town announced, “but you can me Mzu. M-zoo. Got it?”

M-zoo,” I said. “Got it.”

“Before we begin,” he continued, “I should tell you that you will receive an exam at the end of today’s tour – you must pass with 80 per cent.

“And if you get 100 per cent,” he smiled slyly. “You get your very own house in Khayelitsha township. OK?”

I nodded. “And if I don’t pass at all?”

“Then you have to take the tour again tomorrow,” he explained, “and pay double.”

I laughed. “I’ll pass.”

Much of Khayelitsha's electricity is re-distributed

“The way you earn the respect of the people in Khayelitsha township is by speaking their language. So we’re going to learn three important words. To greet one person, you say ‘molo.’ Mow-low.

Mow-low,” I repeated.

Survival is the word on the streets in Khayelitsha

“Good,” he smiled, his voice rising sharply mid-syllable. “Now, to greet between one and one million people, you say ‘moloene.’ Mo-lo-wen-ee.


The ironically-named Freedom Street

“Even better,” Mzu lauded my continued efforts. “Finally, to say ‘thank you,’ we say ‘enkuzi kalkulo.’ En-kuzi cal-cool-ow.”

I took a deep breath. “En-kuzi cal-cool-ow.”


“Robert,” he sounded outright proud. “You are very good at languages, I see. Now, there’s just one more fact you need to remember before I start to tell you the history of Khayelitsha township. There’s one word – one English word – that represents life in the township.”

Khayelitsha thankfully has safe drinking water, as Mzu demonstrates

“Which word?”

“Survival,” Mzu said. “Life in Khayelitsha township is about survival. Any more questions?”

“Yeah,” I struggled to remember even one of the phrases he’d taught me. “Can we practice those words again?”

Mzu and others hope Khayelitsha's commitment to education will help raise the city up in the future

If Mzu seems like a character, it’s because he has a lot of it. Born into the Khayelitsha township, one of many housing areas created for blacks during the apartheid period in South Africa, he has leveraged his sharp mind, engaging personality and kind heart to offer one-of-a-kind tours of the place he still lives, even if he has transcended much of the abject poverty that still defines his hometown.

Adorable children at a preschool in Khayelitsha

And Khayelitsha is abjectly poor. The largest – and fastest-growing – township in South Africa, it occupies an area of just 16 square miles, yet is home (by Mzu’s account) to around two million people, whom are plagued not only by poverty, but by alcoholism and HIV, to name just a couple of the challenges they face.

Phumlani Soup Kitchen is run by ordinary Khaelitsha residents

The majority of the township’s homes lack permanent electricity: They “borrow” power from larger lines using illegal siphons known as “spidermen.” Toilets, where they exist, are only cleaned once per week; the close proximity – and suspect building materials – of many township homes make fire a common and deadly problem.

Ta Bong, pictured here, rehabilitates bicycles for children

That isn’t to say Khayelitsha is hopeless. Phumlani Soup Kitchen feeds, clothes and medicates orphans, the elderly and people living with HIV/AIDS, operating solely on the generous contributions from visitors to the township.

Khayelitsha is part of an ambitious recycling project

And some visitors are extremely generous: A recent donation from an Irish visitor resulted in the construction of 20,000 new homes.

The clash of big brand names with the lives of Khayelitsha children is almost chilling

Likewise, a young man named Ta-Bong repairs broken-down bicycles – and teaches young township residents how to do the same.

Khayelitsha is home a number of food outlets, although they largely cater to outside visitors and wealthy residents

“I provide these kids with the freedom to travel through the township on a bike,” he explained, “but also with the responsibility of making their bikes work and the pride of riding away for the first time.”

In spite of the encroachment of some large brands, small business still reigns supreme in Khayelitsha

And then, of course, there is Mzu himself. “Even if you make me famous,” he chuckles, after I remind him that I will indeed be writing an article about his township tour service, “I will still remain in Khayelitsha, no matter how much success I find – I want to lift Khayelitsha up with me.”

“Is this the exam?” I ask, as he walks toward me with a large book, after we’ve finished the tour and I’m sitting in the living room of the small – but cozy – house where he now lives, in Khayelitsha so-called “Beverly Hills” quarter.

Although medical services are available in Khayelitsha, their quality is questionable at best

He nodded. “It sure is – remember the rules!” He scurried out of the room to get some items for our return to Cape Town

I opened up the book – it was a visitor registry! (I had actually assumed I’d needed to take an exam, and paid extremely close attention as a result.)

Thank you for sharing your world with me, I wrote. I will never forget it.

“How do you think you did?” he asked.

I handed him the book. “100 per cent, I think.

“So, do I get to choose any house here?”

In spite of Khayelitsha's poverty, many elements of beauty exist

Robert Schrader
Robert Schrader is a travel writer and photographer who's been roaming the world independently since 2005, writing for publications such as "CNNGo" and "Shanghaiist" along the way. His blog, Leave Your Daily Hell, provides a mix of travel advice, destination guides and personal essays covering the more esoteric aspects of life as a traveler.
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