|Stephen Scourfield Writing
South African township
“It’s a good look,” I tell Luvuyo Tokwe, to break the ice. Then I tell him my name, patting myself on the chest, flat handed. He tells me his – a richly rolled mouthful of vowels which doesn’t sound as simple as it looks in print here. There are inflections with which the white tongue struggles.
His friend Cecil introduces himself, too, with a first name that seems much easier. “Cecil-Mzwandile Zono,” he elaborates in a fast roll of inseparable letters, complicating things.
We all use Brothers’ handshakes, which I know. Three parts. Four parts.
We chink together beer bottles in Tiger’s Place, a shanty bar deep in the heart of Langa township, the oldest of the black humpy villages in Cape Town, in the Republic of South Africa, and a place where I once wouldn’t have been safe. This place was created by apartheid. Blacks were first forced into here in the 1900s when they were blamed by the local whites for an outbreak of bubonic plague. It is full of homes knocked together from crate wood, box lids, scavanged thin timber squares, a bit of aluminium here, a tarpaulin, cardboard. The homes are about the size of a Western garden shed, set about a foot’s length apart, some with a metre fenced off out the front. Up to 200,000 people set shoulder-to-shoulder in the dirt.
“I like the look,” I tell Luvuyo. “You’ve got style, man.”
Luvuyo tells me the immaculate, short-sleeved khaki safari jacket was restyled from a boiler suit that he kept years ago after his only, brief job. He stored it carefully, then retailored it himself.
I notice that he has tied the belt in a stylish knot. He has a bright turquoise shirt underneath, a little white hat, rolled back at the front, cheap sunglasses which look cool, long shorts and little canvas shoes. It’s a good look, alright – put together from the simplest ingredients. It says something about the man.
“Some Aboriginal kids in Australia are dressing more like black Americans,” I tell him. “Baseball shirts, baggy pants, caps turned back to front.”
“I’ve seen this,” he says. “Why look like Americans? You’ve got to be yourself. Have your own look. Your own style.”
He says he likes my “big hat”, looking at my dusty Akubra, sutured with wool at the front of the crown. “Aarrumm Williams, ya?” Not R.M. Williams, but close enough. We shake hands again. Five parts – he puts a new grip on the end, which I instinctively follow. The ice is well and truly broken.
Langa township is a place with a history and pride. It is part of the movement that changed things here – a movement that pulled the country out of unfairness and set it on the right track, seeing the end of the apartheid policy and leading to the country’s first fully democratic elections. On May 10, 1994, Nelson Mandela was elected South Africa’s first black President.
“But it’s not much better for us yet,” says Luvuyo. Cecil-Mzwandile has been out of work for a year despite looking, looking, looking.
I tell him how things are for Aborigines. Some not good, some much better. About the mood of friends in remote communities over the last couple decades. “This is new here. 1994. A few years,” I say. “It is still new – things take time. Sometimes things have to be generational. It will be better for your children. That’s the important thing.”
“Ya,” they all say. “Ya.” We all shake again. Three parts, four parts. Thumb lock, finger grip. We pat each other on the arm, chink bottles.
In the room next door, black African Brothers sit around while meat is grilled on an open fire in the corner. You can buy it, raw, off the wooden blocks in the room that is the butchers’ shop at the front.
The other white guys I’m with are somewhat nervously keeping to themselves, playing pool, but I hunker down with the Brothers. I realise how comfortable I feel with them, on their turf. We talk about politics, the world, music.
“Yeah, I like African music,” I reply to a question. “Lots of us do, around the world.”
They start naming bands and singers I should listen to – great tonsilly mouthfuls of Ms and Ws and the “ttcchhookk” click that they try to teach me.
“But jazz,” one says. “I think this is even better.” Cape Town. Jazz town.
Eventually, we say our farewells, leaving with promises to meet again. To stay in touch. They give me their cell phone numbers. The Brothers here love their mobiles.
I cross the road to Eziko Restaurant, the shopfront of the Eziko Project. The education project was originally established with some support from the Australian High Commission, amongst others, but struggles for on-going funding. At this moment, it seems the restaurant may be its only lifeline, and that is struggling too.
Manager Eugene Roxo (pronounced with the click on the X) explains: “The project is basically to teach people from the community catering skills because tourism is booming in the country. We have trained 300 students and the placement rate is 90 per cent. We have contracts with a number of people to take our top students.”
The restaurant was opened in 1998 and some tour operators bring groups here. Our guide, Mervan Sweatz, tries to make it a regular stop. The most expensive meal is the lamb casserole for a few dollars. Cheap “because we also cater for local people,” explains Eugene Roxo.
The traditional Xhosa cuisine includes umvubo (maize meal and maas, which is sour milk), umfino (spinach with pap, a maize meal), boerwors and pap with chakalaka (a spicy barbecue-style sauce) and beans and samp (a thick porridge made from coarsely ground corn). Former president Mandela has eaten here, and there is often also live local African music.
“We have to have something like this to sustain the training,” Roxo adds. The trainees, aged from 18 to 56, pay less for the full course than it costs even to cover the ingredients for the first few lessons. They will become qualified as cooks.
“We are struggling to try to hold on because this is the best project to give people jobs.”
The walls have some local artwork and I buy a bead necklace and Zulu love letters showing Table Mountain, Robben Island, where political prisoners were held, and the boats between. Zulu love letters comprise a safety pin with a little bead flag falling from it, and are made by local women. “More patient than me,” I say to one woman I meet working on beads in Cape Town, and she smiles.
I am travelling with a journalist from the Daily Mirror in London and a lithe 25-year-old Kenyan business writer from The People’s Daily in Nairobi, who has already been nicknamed Black Simba for his ability to eat national emblems and drink the lethal local beer, mgomboti.
Our meal comes but British Bulldog – the Daily Mirror man – can’t start eating because he suddenly realises the table has been set with a fork either side of the plate.
“Could I have a knife please?” he asks the waiter in his broad London accent.
“Certainly … certainly.” The waiter grins broadly with embarrassment and dashes off enthusiastically to the kitchen, returning almost instantly with one of the biggest knives I’ve ever seen. He puts it down and we all look at it in amazement. He obviously thought British Bulldog wasn’t happy with the standard table knife and brought him something that Crocodile Dundee would have happily drawn from his leather waistcoat in New York. Now, that’s what you call a knife.
We later laugh with the waiter about it – he can see how funny it is, too.
“Crocodile Dundee I,” insists Luvuyo Tokwe, eyeing my hat. “Not II – I have never seen the II. Just the I. That Paul Hogan, I like him. This is one of my favourite films.”
“Greg Norman – is he Aussie too?” asks Cecil. “The BIG shark. I like him. Like his style.”
“We like wild animals,” says Luvuyo.
And on that note, Luvuyo and Cecil-Mzwandile and I all shake again. A grip, a thumb lock, a finger lock. Cecil-Mzwandile holds my arm. “We like to have you here.” He says he sees in my eyes that I am an honest person. “You a little bit of black on the inside, Brother.”
Compliments don’t come bigger here in the townships.
He tells me his first name translates to “Joy”. I tell him I’ll name a son after him. “It’s a good name.”