Visiting Ubuntu Academy’s Students

From town to township

By Josephine Meijer

On a cloudy Saturday morning in the last weekend of January, I crawled into a car with Ubuntu Academy’s extended team and set off to visit the students at home. The core team (Lilian, Nelson & Myrna) and the 21 students last saw each other before the summer holiday, Eva and myself joined the team in January. Time to catch up and inform the students of a dream come true. It had been on the students’ wish list from the early days of Ubuntu Academy: going to camp. Now, to celebrate graduation two years later, we are actually making it happen.

Ubuntu’s students live in four different townships: Mitchell’s Plain, Khayelitsha, Mfuleni and Blikkiesdorp. Townships are a distinct South African phenomenon: most of them were created during apartheid – South Africa’s regime of racial separation and oppression between 1948 and 1994. So-called non-whites were forcibly removed by government to live outside the cities -which were reserved for whites- in residential areas called townships. To this day, this spatial rearrangement has tremendous consequences for the demography of South Africa’s cities and the way its (cultural) life takes shape.


Mitchell’s Plain

Our first stop that Saturday is Mitchell’s Plain, from Cape Town’s city centre a 40 minute drive south-east along the N2. Broad tar roads and colourful stone houses: in one such street lives Sky, who waits for us outside his house, a baseball cap framing his friendly face. He does not invite us in; we would only disturb his wife and sleeping baby boy. We tell him about the camp we are organising over Easter, giving him a briefing of dates and enthusiasm that we’ll repeat many times over that day.

Nearby live Jean-Pierre (J-P) and his friend Luchian, who (along with other Ubuntu student Michael) write and produce their own rap music under the name R.I.P – Rap In Peace. J-P’s father is their manager and proudly presents his son’s cd to me and Eva; new members of the team. The boys listen attentively to our briefing and express some composed excitement -got to stay cool- for the upcoming camp.

On our way over to Nashley we are told that this remarkable girl does not like to speak much, but rather expresses herself in dance. She’s not home and someone is sent to fetch her, egged on by grandma’s excited shouts “sy moet kom nou!”. A crowd of kids gather at the gate to Nashley’s house, curious for these unfamiliar faces in their neighbourhood. After a little wait a young, coy girl walks in. She gives Myrna and Nelson tentative hugs and doesn’t say much; I can’t wait to see her dance.

Last up in Mitchell’s Plain is Spoek, a dancer in a lanky body with an infectious smile on his face. He invites us into his one room apartment, located in his mom’s yard. Having opened his own dance school in the community Spoek is doing well. His smile grows impossibly big when we tell him that we are, truly and definitely, going to camp.


We rush to Khayelitsha to see Prince, who has been waiting for us all morning and now has to leave for work. Khayelitsha, a township further east of Cape Town, is huge, and as we are trying to find Prince like a needle in a haystack we pass areas that resemble slums across the globe. Shacks made out of corrugated iron, cardboard or wooden planks topple over each other, higgledy-piggledy, leaving narrow paths to navigate the maze. Rows of toilets line the outskirts of the living areas. We follow the railway tracks, the surroundings change, and find Prince walking towards us on an airy street, looking smart in his red jumper. We brief him in the car while driving to the taxi rank from where he’ll make his way to work, with a tight hour and a half to spare; it takes a while to get to Cape Town on public transport.


P1040167We move on to Mfuleni, which has yet a different feel to it: a relaxed community vibe, with dogs chilling in the sun and kids playing in the street where young guys hang out. Busisiwe wants to freshen up before meeting us, leaving it up to her father and brother, both musicians, to keep us entertained. Speakers and amplifiers are hooked up, plugs and wires connected, guitars brought to tune. After a few groovy tunes, Busisiwe emerges from a side room smelling lovely and soapy, cheeks glowing. She picks up the microphone and joins in the performance, relaxed in her singing but a shy giggle when the microphone falters for a moment. Although we’d love to stay, we have to keep moving and leave the house with a hop in our step.


We meet up with friends Asisipho and Ayanda who laugh at my reserved handshake, giving me a big hug instead. They say they will definitely make it to camp, and spend the next hour driving around with us visiting other students in Mfuleni, joking and chatting. We go to see Anelisa, who seems to be between being girl and woman, self-conscious with a cheeky streak, making jokes while shyly laughing at those of others.

We surprise students Thando and Vusi by rocking up with our little crowd, merging perfectly with those already gathered in the room. A handful of young men chill around a shisha in the sweet mist of apple tobacco. Nelson takes up the hand puppet that’s laying around and together with Asisipho gives an improvised performance: it looks silly, and we can’t help but laugh.

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It’s getting late in the afternoon, and we still have one more township to visit, infamous Blikkiesdorp. An Afrikaans nickname that means “tin-can-town”: it was built in 2007 as a temporary relocation area. I wonder how long temporary is, and who were relocated and why? Questions I have not (yet) been able to find answers to, which, I have been told, is exemplary of the faulty provision of information concerning Cape Town’s policy on this particular township.

There are three students we want to visit here, but Blikkiesdorp is not the kind of place we can just cruise through. We need to team up with Beverly, mother of student Angeline and unofficial township mama, working relentlessly to make life in Blikkiesdorp a little better. We drive in through the one entry point of fenced-off Blikkiesdorp; I am struck by how desolate and strangely empty it appears, despite the rows of neatly aligned tin shacks. We struggle to find Beverly’s house, and our more experienced team members say that we cannot drive the same route twice because it would show we are lost, making us an easy target. We decide to ask a teenage girl in the street if she knows Beverly? “Auntie Beverly?! Ja, of course I know!”

Beverly greets us like an auntie indeed. Twinkle in her eyes, laughter and hugs for everyone. Her two grandmothers give us a similar warm welcome. With these powerful women in her life I’m not surprised that daughter Angeline is a saucy young lady. She plants herself on Myrna’s lap for lack of a chair and chats happily.

We ask Beverly if she can come with us to visit Tracey and Kenethea, the latter living only a few rows of shacks further down. “I don’t go there. That’s where the stabbers and shooters live. Got to take care of these ladies,” says Beverly pointing at me and Eva. Ten minutes later we are back in the car, going there where Beverly did not want to go. She is adamant about not leaving the car, so in front of Kenethea’s house we roll down the window and yell for her, asking her dad permission to take her for a drive. We pick up Tracey, and the seven of us huddle up in the car: the girls update us on their summer – some good, some bad things have happened, and we try and bring happiness by telling them how cool the camp will be.

Nelson fidgets behind the wheel: time to go. We drive back past kilometres of rickety shacks, making this a famous stretch of highway: it’s what tourists see when they drive from Cape Town International Airport to the cosmopolitan city centre. I wish they could see what I did today: that there is more to townships than what meets the eye. With an all too apparent hardship engrained in its narrative, it is easy to overlook how much joy and passion can be found there. I am happy that Ubuntu sees it, and grateful that these upbeat, talented youngsters were so generous with their hugs and smiles. I can’t wait to go to camp!

P1040179We are making this much-awaited camp happen on a small budget. If you feel you could contribute in terms of food, ideas, musical instruments, anything really, please get in touch!