Tobeka met us at the bus stop, welcoming us to the place where she lives. ‘Over there, are the beautiful houses where the white people live’, she said pointing; ‘over there on the hill is a township where coloured people live, and this is Imizamo Yethu, where the black people live.’ Behind us ranged a ramshackle row of shacks, slanting into the hillside, random pieces of wood and corrugated iron arranged to resemble homes. To some their pride and joy, to others barely a shelter, much less a home.
Established in 1991 as an illegal settlement, Imizamo now numbers over thirty-five thousand inhabitants. ‘People don’t leave very often’, Tobeka told us, as she lead us up a winding makeshift path cut into the slope. Ribbed iron sheets leaned against makeshift wooden doorframes. ‘We get the materials from the recycling center and build the shacks ourselves’, she said, as if it was the most ordinary thing in the world to build your own house and to build it with anything that came to hand. ‘It’s very hard to live here. In the summer the huts are hot, in the winter they’re cold. We have electricity, but no running water, no toilets inside. Roofs sometimes blow off, sometimes leak’, she said, pointing to a plastic blue tarpaulin nailed over wooden lats. She said it all without any hint of complaint, it was simply a statement of fact.
Glimpses into some interiors revealed small but neat houses. Cupboards filled with ornaments, kettles on worktops, cushions on sofas, clothes hanging on racks. Schoolkids in uniform ran between rickety huts, dogs sprawled on thresholds, and women hung washing. Like suburbia anywhere, there were extensions – some shacks sprouting another percarious storey on top. There are even 750 brick houses in the township; built by the Irish philanthropist Niall Mellon who is determined to ‘wipe shacks of the face of this country forever’. ‘Spasa’ shops sell bread and milk, hairdressers offer ‘cheesekops’, there’s a nursery, a school, and a clinic. Makeshift maybe, but this was a community – people empowering themselves; not just surviving – but thriving. ‘We have hope’, Tobeka smiled, ‘Mandela teaches us we must have hope’.
But not everyone can be so strong. For some the situation is bleak and seems hopeless. Tobeka wrinkled her nose as she stopped at the toilet block. ‘Here there is a bad smell, some men still take the corner’. Unsurprising, when one toilet is shared between approximately seventy people. ‘They have a bucket in their shacks at night, and use these in the morning’, she told us. The ground was littered with rubbish. Discarded plastic and paper, bricks and stones. A dead and bloodied rat lay on the earth.
‘We face many problems’, Tobeka told us. 35% of people here suffer from HIV or Aids. An astounding 20% suffer from tuberculosis. Alcoholism and unplanned pregnancies are rife. ‘Friday is pay-day; always on a weekend there are problems’. Those lucky enough to have a job earn approx. R500 a week. (Euro 42). The biggest brick house in the township belongs to the man who runs the shabeens (pubs).
It’s twenty-two years since the end of Apartheid and people still suffer. But Tobeka finished with a smile. ‘Thankyou for coming on our tour and seeing how we live. It’s important. The people who live here make South Africa what it is’. Hope gives people courage. Maybe one day there will be economic and racial equality. As Mandela said ‘it always seems impossible until it’s done’.