Reaching a settlement
Cape Town, South Africa


I’m waiting in a bustling market square, sweating in the midday heat. Around me, stalls are selling plastic giraffes and T-shirts, and a group of refugees huddles by a church in a ramshackle tent town. They have protest signs referencing grievances I don’t understand. A few days ago, I met a local Cape Town resident for a beer and he immediately apologised for ‘those people’. It was an uncomfortable moment. Not because of the refugees, but because of my beer buddy’s desire to erase them. If he didn’t like them, he’d hate today’s trip around Khayelitsha, South Africa’s largest and fastest-growing township.

Tour leader Juma Mkwela spots me through the crowd: black T-shirt, sunburnt head (that’s me, not him). We get in his car and begin the drive to the township. It’s a 30-minute journey, just time to find out about his immigrant origin story.

“When I moved here from Zimbabwe, I had a job in construction, working for this man who would swear at me all the time. Then, during the Rugby World Cup, I walked past a friend who was selling rugby T-shirts. He gave me some stock and I made enough for one month’s salary in a day – around 9,000 rand, an amount I’d never had in my life. So, I thought, why am I working for that swearing man?”

Juma sent a polite text message to his impolite boss, saying that he would no longer be working with him, and so began his life as an immigrant entrepreneur in South Africa.

“I always wanted to have my own business. I briefly went back home to start something in Zimbabwe, but the economy wasn’t so good.”

This story first appeared in The Captivating Cape Town Issue, available in print and digital.

This story first appeared in The Captivating Cape Town Issue, available in print and digital.

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In fact, Zimbabwean hyperinflation at the time was so wildly out of control that Juma’s $10 bus fare in the morning had gone up by 50 per cent to $15 by the same evening. Long story short, he came back to South Africa.

“There was no money in the banks, so you’d go to a guy in the street. He’d sell you cash for your cheque, but you’d have to give him 50 per cent more. There was no medicine, no electricity, no water. I drank the dirtiest water. It’s lucky that I survived. So I went to Stellenbosch to pick grapes. It was fun. You’re paid by the bucket. So you run, run, run. Some people are relaxed, but I set myself targets. I made about 900 rand a week.”

It seems that T-shirts are the glory days. But South Africa doesn’t host a Rugby World Cup every year, so Juma transitioned to selling his own artwork on the streets, buying the materials on Monday, painting for a couple of days and then selling his work to anyone he could approach: an industrious, one-man factory line. This worked for a while, but then everything suddenly went wrong.

“There were xenophobic attacks and, sadly, I was one of the victims,” he says.

Juma breezes past this detail so quickly, I have to ask him to repeat it. The attacks, aimed at immigrants, happened in 2008 and left 62 people dead.

“I had to go and stay in a refugee camp for five months. While I was there, I tried to find the cause of these attacks. Perhaps it was a lack of education? Then, I moved back into the township community and started a project teaching kids to express themselves in art. I met a local artist, who invited me to work in his studio producing large-scale work. I learnt from all the different artists and started painting big murals.”

Nowadays, Juma runs street-art tours in Cape Town, as well as the township tour I’m experiencing today, and remains heavily involved with helping the township community.

In many ways, his is a typical hard-scrabble immigrant success story, but that belies the sheer difficulty of every step. The calm, matter-of-factness with which Juma recounts it shouldn’t undermine the achievement. I can’t help but think of the struggle in the UK to find Brits to fill fruit-picking jobs, now that immigration has dropped off. You’d trade a hundred of them for one Juma.

Khayelitsha is a township of just under 400,000 people. In Xhosa (pronounced with the distinctive click at the start), it means ‘our new home’. By the time we arrive there, it’s all you can see in any direction – a vast sea of squat shacks and arid terrain.

“Not everyone wants to go on township tours. They think that it’s like a zoo for black people,” says Juma, addressing my white-privilege qualms in a typically blunt fashion. “But I don’t believe in taking advantage of poverty. I go in and become part of the community and contribute. I create art and gardens. People get their houses painted and acquire a source of food. As a tourist, you get to help a family in need. You contribute something lasting. What you mustn’t ever do is just stare.”

The township is both exactly what you expect and something bizarrely different, by turns alien and jarringly familiar. Some distinctions: within Khayelitsha, there is the formal and the informal township. The formal township is built on legally purchased land. The informal is not. These are the tumbledown shacks most people picture (shown memorably in the dystopian sci-fi movie District 9). You can be surrounded by corrugated shacks, then walk for five minutes and be in an upwardly mobile area with coffee shops and restaurants.

We begin in the informal section at a small greenhouse, like any other on the street, with the exception of a large vegetable garden. A middle-aged woman in a pink housecoat greets us warmly and waves me into her garden. She speaks no English, so she does a lot of pointing and laughing, while Juma gently chides her for various minor gardening faux pas. But he is genuinely proud and the impact is plain to see.

“You can have a whole meal from here. Or maybe she wants tomatoes and her neighbour wants cabbage, so she goes over there and she trades. And, just like that, everybody is helping everybody.”

A short walk away and the walls become more colourful, with murals by Juma and his artist friends. It’s a collection of abstract coloured pieces, portraits with political statements and messages of inspiration. Zigzagging the narrow passageways between houses, we approach a young woman in a doorway.

“I said I’d help her paint her house,” says Juma, handing me a spray paint can. “We’ll do it like this one.” He points at a nearby house with a multi-coloured, geometric pattern.

We go to work graffitiing the woman’s house as she stands around joking with Juma, dogs wandering between our legs. After a while, we step back and assess our work.

“It’s okay,” he says of my effort, “I can fix it later.”

We break for coffee at a place that could easily have been beamed here from Shoreditch or Melbourne. Young people talk business over Macs and jazz plays on the sound system.

It would be tempting to stand outside of a township, picturing only misery inside – and, of course, the social problems are unmissable and serious – but to paint it in only one shade would be reductive and inaccurate.

We have lunch at 4Roomed ekasi Culture, a restaurant designed to evoke traditional ‘four-roomed homes’ where multiple black families would all share a house on the outskirts of the city. We have a delicious four-course meal of local dishes with a home-cooked feel.

“This is the first restaurant of its kind in Khayelitsha,” says Juma, “but we will see more places like this starting to grow now. There’s the coffee shop, which is bringing coffee culture and a lot of positivity to the area. We’ve got clothes shops opening up.”

Our last stop is a nightclub. It’s early still, but Juma just wants to show me the place – a vast space with an outdoor stage and a built-in kitchen.

“Friday and Saturday nights, this place gets really crazy,” he says. 

I can believe it. He buys me a beer, has a quick chat with the bar staff and then it’s back in the car. As Khayelitsha recedes behind us and my cold beer rests between my knees, Juma grows reflective.

“A drunk man once told me that it’s better for us here in the townships. We can do what we want here. We can slaughter a goat in the street and no one can tell us no. He was just a drunk, but maybe he had a point.”

I ask what the future holds. Will there be integration or will there always be this divide between the city and the township?

“The township will become the city. You want fine dining – we can do it here. You want bars – we have them here. You want co-working spaces – we have them. So it’s gonna be a shame for the city when everybody comes to Khayelitsha. There’ll be no one there, just empty offices.”


Photography by Martin Perry