The opening lines of Martin Scorsese’s critically acclaimed film, The Departed, are so simple yet carry a message of pro-activeness:”I don’t want to be a product of my environment, I want my environment to be a product of me.” Perhaps the most relevant setting for those words is the township, what with its historical alienation and everything that resulted from that alienation. So often the unpleasant situation in which one was brought up is always cited when one doesn’t progress or squanders fortunes. How many times have you heard the “but s/he grew up in family in the township and didn’t know how to handle the fame and fortune” when a local footballer or entertainer falls on hard times?
So, what is it the township and what does it mean to be brought up in those surroundings? Is the old narrative of the township as nothing more than a labour reserve for capital still dominant and, more importantly, is it still a true representation of the situation in the post-1994 context? Is the embracing of the township experience by extension a celebration one’s misery given the historical context of the design and purpose of the township? These are some of the questions that plague the mind when one tries to understand the township as an environment that, despite its usually inhabitable state, is what a lot of people know as home. The idea of “home” is one that speaks of happiness, security, familiarity and family-hood hence Bongo Muffin’s Thandiswa, in the group’s Kura Uone(Grow Up and You’ll See), says “Ayikho into egqith’ikhaya/ xa uxakekile unentlungu zakho/ akukho ndawo efana nekhaya lakho/apho kukhona uthando/apho kukhona ukonwaba/apho kukhona izihlobo zakho”(There’s no better place than home/ when you’re confused by what pains you/ there’s no place that’s like home/where there’s love, where there’s comfort, where there’s family). So, when the township as a homely place is only viewed through the old narrative of a labour reserve doesn’t it then run the risk of seeking to nullify sentiments similar to those expressed by Thandiswa? A home, after all, doesn’t only become a home only when it is situated in the affluence of the upper classes of our society. “Home” is created out of emotional attachment and memories forged through the experiences within a house or the greater surrounding.
Eric Miyine, in a piece “Get The Hell Out of Soweto”, in his book, O’Mandingo: The Only Black At The Dinner Party, argues that as soon as possible blacks must leave the township for better residential areas because there is an (wrong) impression that blacks were meant to live in the township and nowhere else. I agree with that assertion as far as it saying that blacks aren’t bound to the township but I also believe that “home” is subjective matter and when it has been chosen it ought to be respected. The township, like its suburban counterpart, also has a culture of its own, a culture that was forged by varying traditional influences of the Africans who flocked the urban spaces during the early industrial period of South Africa. The culture of communality when there’s funeral in the neighbourhood sees the women organize themselves and aid in the preparing of food and other logistics, while the men tend to the slaughtering of the cow or bull and shovelling the soil at the cemetery and the similar is assistance is offered when there are celebratory events . Those are some of the features that have come to embody the township experience. In “Native Nostalgia”, Jacob Dlamini, beautifully paints a humorous picture of how it was his mother’s task to collect money from neighbours whenever there was a funeral and the varying reactions he’d get when he, at his mother’s behest, went knocking door to door to collect the “parcel” (township slang for money). I can personally relate to Dlamini’s experience because my mother, by extension myself, was responsible for the collection of “parcels” when there was a funeral on our street.
The township experience has been known to draw some of its former residents to it every weekend without fail because what revellers are sometimes offered ekasi can’t be found anywhere else but there and that perhaps explains the boom in fine eateries across many townships today. We didn’t have a hi-fi system at home in my early teens but I knew that come Sunday morning I’d be woken up by the music of Celine Dion, Anita Baker, Peobo Bryson, Stimela, Mirriam Makeba, The O’Jays, The Commodores, The Bee Gees and Kenny G, thanks to my neighbour’s, bhut’ Daddy, speakers placed outside his home with the volume high enough for some of us to be schooled but also loud enough to be irritating to others. Whenever some guy tends to cleaning their yard there ‘has’ to be complimenting music to make chore as ‘light’ as possible. One can’t forget successful the drinking spots that are almost always run by women who either live alone or with her children and the ‘shebeen queens’ seem to always raise the ire of the wives of men who spend their earning at her place. The township has been known to be used in the politics of identity, if you were one of the privileged ones who, at the dawn of democracy, were sent to former model c schools in towns then chances are you were called a “cheeseboy/girl” “coconut” or a “snob” by peers who still schooled in your locality. When DA national spokesperson, Lindiwe Mazibuko, objected to minister of higher education, Blade Nzimande, using the term “darkie” when referring to blacks, he replied by saying having not grown up in the township can be problematic, clearly taking a swipe at Mazibuko’s identity as a ‘real’ black person.
The aforementioned isn’t in any an attempt to present the township experience as some blissful life on cloud nine because that would be naive and wishful thinking. It is the township residents who are likely to be killed at night, it is the lesbian in the township who is likely to be viciously raped because she’s being ‘corrected’ by those who appoint themselves gatekeepers of the ‘right’ sexual orientations, it is the children of township schools who receive sub-par education and so the list of unpleasant things about that environment goes. However, in spite of all of that people were, and are still, able to try and raise their children and families and communities and that has produced a lot of inspirational people who’ve gone on achieve exceptional things in their lives. The township has become a somewhat complex animal that is multicultural, multiracial and one with varying classes that is forever defining itself anew. Orlando Pirates FC chairman, Dr Irvin Khoza, still prefers to live in Soweto even though he could afford to live in Sandton or Houghton and that choice can’t be seen as one of a person who’s thoroughly in love with the brutality that also characterizes our most famous township. Today it’s not shocking to find a doctor, a chartered account and a lawyer living on the same street ekasi. So the next time you hear Zola “Ghetto Fabulous” don’t assume that it’s celebration of the poverty and inequality of the township experience because he, Zola, has proven that he isn’t a product of, nor defined by, his past environment.