The geography of apartheid – and its human consequences

Gang violence and bloodshed in some of the so-called Coloured (i.e. mixed-race, in South African parlance) townships on the Cape Flats, outside Cape Town, has become so bad that the army has been called in to patrol the area.  This will likely bring some short-term stability, but it won’t solve the bigger, longer-term problem.

It’s a particularly sad situation for me, because I was born and raised in Cape Town.  I used to travel through some of the townships there routinely, with my mother and my sisters, in the days before violence became endemic.  Many of the locations mentioned in an article in the Telegraph are part of my childhood memories . . . but those memories are no longer in touch with reality, it seems.

The Cape Flats, the sprawling area of townships including Manenberg south of Cape Town, have always been rough.

But over the past few years a drug-fueled crime wave has wrought carnage on a scale that residents, police officers, and even former gangsters liken to a war zone.

More than 2000 people have been killed in Cape Town’s poorest predominantly black and mixed race neighbourhoods over the past seven months. Almost half of those killings were gang related. There were 43 murders over the last weekend alone.

Last week, after a particularly horrific 24 hours in which 13 people were murdered, president Cyril Rhamaphosa announced he would send in the army.

. . .

South Africa’s gang culture began to form more than a century ago in colonial-era prisons.

But most locals trace the current crisis to 1966, when Apartheid authorities declared the city’s District Six a whites only area.

Over the next decade, tens of thousands of black and mixed-race families were moved into hastily built housing projects on a bleak coastal plain south of the city.

Poorly built, isolated, and with few facilities, the new townships on the Cape Flats could almost have been intentionally designed to breed unemployment and crime.

. . .

For kids born on the Flats, [a former gang leader] points out, there are few other options.

“Eighty to eighty five percent of all the people who live here are affiliated with the gangs one way or another,” he explained.

“You might not be in a gang, but if a family member is, then you’re connected. If you’ve got a kid in a gang, the mothers will hide the guns, or the drugs,” he said.

The townships are places of visible and astounding poverty.

Few adults are in full time employment, families of 20 people are crammed into one-bedroom homes, and the only play facilities for children in crumbling three-story apartment blocks of 60 households is a single rusting slide.

The threat of violence is ever present, the sound of gunfire heard on a near-nightly basis, and the overgrown playing fields are used not for football but as “battle grounds” where rag-tag teenage armies engage in deadly gunfights.

Like in a real warzone, the sides occasionally agree to “ceasefires” which inevitably break down. Unlike a conventional war zone, there are no frontlines, no rear areas, and no rules.

There’s more at the link.  It’s worth reading the article in full, if the subject interests you.  Their origins are different, but there are still many similarities between racially divided ghettos in many US cities, and the fruits of apartheid in South Africa.

Manenberg, Grassy Park, and many other Coloured suburbs were familiar to me, along with Black townships like Langa, Nyanga and Gugulethu.  Each suburb or township was racially segregated under apartheid, reserved for members of one racial or ethnic group alone.  That historical legacy of division persists to this day, and its poisonous fruit continues to cause ethnic strife between the suburbs and their resident gangs.  Here are two video reports, the first a year old, the second filmed just three days ago.  See for yourself.

It hurts to see the city of my youth in such desperate straits . . . but that’s reality.  As Heraclitus said, you cannot step twice into the same river.  I can’t bring back the Cape Town of my memories, and even if I could, it carried so much of the baggage of apartheid that it’s not worth bringing back.

I still have acquaintances who live in those townships.  I hear from them from time to time, and they confirm the tragedy of what’s going on there.  They’re desperate to get out, at almost any cost, but there’s no alternative available to them in South Africa, thanks to an economy that’s tottering into ruin and a government that’s corrupt, nepotistic and grossly ineffective.  Their despair is palpable.

It’s a very sad world, sometimes.



  1. That is a truly sad commentary on what has happened since apartheid… So much for improving people's lives…

  2. On the up side, at least the Cape Flats aren't a suburb of Chicago. If the government there ever gets organized, then the people there will be in REAL trouble.

  3. Is there any population derived from recently tribal peoples that isn't a shitshow?

    Seems to me that the only comparatively well-behaved human populations are those who have spent centuries and centuries living under conditions where violent thuggery only ever lead to getting executed or chased down and killed.

  4. Did your sisters make it out alive? I have read about that town for 20 years and the pure thuggery burns through even the NYT Sunday edition reporting.

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