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Hidden Progress

It was in 1988 that I first drove along 'Zola Budd' road. Zola Budd was a turning off the freeway 'you did not take'. But I was 18 years old and, true to form, I determined to drive this way whenever possible.

These were still the dark days of apartheid. The road took its name from the famous runner (who ditched South Africa in favour of the UK and later accidentally tripped Mary Decker in the LA Olympics) - apparently because drivers sped along the road very fast. Zola Budd was near a new showpiece township the government was building. Named Khayelitsha ('New Home'), it was the inadequate response of the racist government to pressing criticism about the vast numbers of homeless blacks living in the sand Mother and Childdunes outside Cape Town.

From rural areas to the east, poverty stricken black people were arriving in their thousands. In the late '80s, hated influx controls had been abandoned. In various forms such controls had, for a hundred years, kept black people from settling in Cape Town. Now, the dam had burst and week-by-week buses packed with people and goats, chickens and even cows, arrived in the heaving townships.

Emerging form the buses into the urban crush, people set about buying wooden poles and metal sheeting with which to make a home. Then they would strike out with animals and children across the dunes to find some space to make their own. It was on my forays along Zola Budd I watched more and more shacks appear. Soon the road was lined with shacks and more appeared across the dunes, the wind blowing sand around them. Today there are 650,000 people in Khayelitsha (as a comparison, Liverpool in the UK has 450,000) and the shacks and the townships have merged to form one vast urban sprawl.

'How can they live like that?' an American guest asked me two days ago. 'Don't go into the townships' a guest house owner recently warned my visitors. People look at Khayelitsha from the outside and see a jungle of shacks and twisting alleyways in the sand. There are few visible signs of familiarity - one cannot see police stations, hospitals, shops, businesses or schools. It simply appears to be a crazy world of shack dwellers.

You have no idea of its size - it could stretch forever. It appears a place where soon you would be lost, where strange and fearful things could happen, where you might meet desperate and bitter people lurking in urban chaos. You might expect to be beset by the poor pleading for help or thieves robbing you bare.Township Shacks

My youthful inquisitiveness gave me a familiarity with Khayelitsha, and by 1993 I was going there most Sundays to attend an Anglican church that met in a primary school. As a liberal-minded, left-leaning post-grad student, I had decided that it was important to show my pale face in the townships - to make a little statement that not all whites were hostile or entrapped by fear, and to say that the townships were not 'no-go' areas and, yes, you did come out alive.

For a year and a half I attended the Anglican service in the primary school, knees wedged under tiny school desks, the ladies, dressed in their purple Women's Fellowship coats, swaying beside me as they sung their hearts out, the men standing proud in their Sunday Best, eager to be deacons. I remember that our service was sometimes interrupted by the enthusiasm of a Pentecostal congregation in the schoolroom opposite. Their 'Amens' carried loudly through the broken windows.

I was not the only white making this weekly trip into 'the jungle'. A British couple, Bob and Rachel Mash also attended. Rachel was preparing for ordination, since women had just been accepted into the priesthood.

Near the school a new section of Khayelitsha was under development called 'Harare'. I watched the area develop remarkably quickly. The Provincial Authority built roads and put in water and sewerage systems, then people moved onto marked plots and built their shacks. In the mid-1990s Rachel returned to the area to become minister of the new parish of Harare. Old Mutual Insurance had donated a simple pre-fabricated building, and here she held her church services. During the week it was well used as a training centre, a charity called Triple Trust offered classes there in leatherwork and sewing.

The people who moved into Harare established a civic committee. They punished criminals in the area - quite severely - and word went out that this was a 'respectable' part of Khayelitsha. Rachel discussed ideas with community members to improve services in the area. A committee was formed and with some donations they started a health clinic.

It was soon apparent, however, that jobs were - and remain - the key problem (unemployment presently is 67% in Harare). So the community worked with Rachel's help to turn the pre-fab building into a craft market. Initially the market opened one or two mornings a week. Today it welcomes tourists five days a week, providing an opportunity to buy crafts and meet the locals as xylophone players entertain. Matanzima, the manager and 'chef de marché', welcomes visitors enthusiastically.Children in Khayaleitsha

The small health clinic became less essential as the government opened a day hospital in Khayelitsha. But the problem of AIDS loomed large on the horizon. Today there are members of the community trained to offer AIDS education and who run support groups for those with the disease.

Education for the children was another problem. With so many mothers out seeking work, childcare is essential. The community committee, with Rachel's participation, first established a crèche in a donated shipping container. I well remember seeing fifty children crammed, obediently, into this small space, with fifty more outside playing. Then they set about raising money for a joint church-pre-school facility and with help from Anglican churches in South Africa, the UK and New York a new complex was built with a large hall, classrooms and a fine play area.

When my wife (also a 'Rachel') and I drive down Zola Budd on Sundays to go to church in Harare we do not see a jungle. We are very aware that the communities of Khayelitsha are exceptionally poor and unemployment denies work to roughly two thirds of all adults. HIV/ AIDS is running at 25% and TB rates are likewise very high. Crime, inevitably, is common. But we are privileged to see that hard-pressed communities have pulled together to provide for themselves. The Province also, to its credit, has provided basic services, medical facilities and schools sufficient for almost all the population.

Most wealthy South Africans, and many visitors, look with fear at the townships. In truth the most exciting developments are happening in amongst the 'jungle' of shacks. You find sinners - but you also find saints, who work with courage and vision to provide support to their communities. St Michael's Church KhayelitshaChurch services in the new building are full, the people wear colourful clothes, there is gusto in the singing, outsiders are welcomed with great enthusiasm, and after communion it is normal for people to dance and sing as the children kneel to be blessed by the priest. Here is a celebration of life, a display of humanity and a determined enthusiasm that I think would surprise many who whisk past this 'jungle' as fast as their BMWs will take them.
 


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