“Where am I?” is the first question I ask myself after getting out of the car. Bewildered, I look around. With me, there are three black students from the University of the Western Cape, and the driver of the car is also a young black man. I found it hard to believe that ten minutes ago I was having a cup of coffee in the middle of the Cape Town – which is more like a European than an African city – and only five minutes ago I was travelling through residential areas which were not only predominantly white, but reminded one of the English countryside. Seeing my astonishment, one of the students said, “ Didn’t we tell you that we shall bring you to Langa? This is Langa.”
Two days ago after I gave the Nadine Gordimer Memorial Lecture on “South Africa in the Twenty-First Century” at the University of Cape Town, many black students from the University of the Western Cape told me that before I left Cape Town they would show me Langa. It is the oldest black slum in the Western Cape, the main centre of anti-apartheid movements. In the late eighties, by opening fire on an anti-apartheid rally, the white coppers* killed more than 1300 people in only two hours.
So this is Langa – what sort of life and lifestyles am I seeing around me? Without doubt it is an inhumane picture, full of extreme destitution, deprivation and exploitation. There are derelict shacks all around me, and roads and pathways in a deplorable state. It seemed worse than other slums in poor countries worldwide. But most fearful of all was the expression in the eyes of the people, where there was nothing but anger, spite, and deep despair. Apart from people in war-torn areas, I have not seen so much ferocity in human eyes.
“Don’t look at anything, don’t make any eye contact, and don’t say anything. If something needs to be said, we’ll say it. Under no circumstance take out your mobile ** phone, and don’t try to take pictures. Don’t try to take any photos anywhere; we shall do that, and if you see any violent act, try to remain calm and matter of fact. We are from Langa and we hope that nothing will happen. Please remember that if non-blacks enter into this slum, they often can’t be traced. The colour of your screen is a ‘no’ ‘no’ here.” Even before the students finished their instructions, our car suddenly sped off the place in a hurry.
Cold fear was creeping up my spine. My body and clothes were soaked in sweat and I was shaking all over. “The car will wait for us in a safe place”, one of the students tried to reassure me. The three of them created a cordon around me and we started moving forward. I can see that at different corners there were small groups of residents, children aimlessly standing at various spots, and women working here and there. But I can sense that as soon as they saw our small group, silence fell as they stopped talking took the measure of us.
The air was dense with the smell of liquor, of which the air was redolent. “Do you know what is the staple of these people”? one of the students whispered to me. “Liquor at breakfast, liquor at lunch and the rawest spirits at dinner, absolutely neat”. That is why no one is ever sober. As a result, anything can happen anytime, and even the police are afraid to enter Langa. See, the police van is waiting on the main road out there.”
Believe me, I don’t remember clearly everything I saw. Whatever I do remember I have no words to describe. The photos taken by the three students reflect closest the realities that I saw. After a few breathless minutes, we reached the main road where our car was waiting.
We then started heading for the airport. There was complete silence inside the car as everyone kept quiet. But I knew that every one of us is talking to himself in his own mind. I don’t know what others were thinking, but the only question that was constantly surfacing in my mind was, “What South Africa is this?”
* cops are US English. The UK equivalent is “coppers”. As “centre” is spelled the UK way (US spelling is “center”), perhaps “coppers” should replace “cops”.