Tag Archives: townships

University of Cape Town


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We spent two days with University of Cape Town (UCT) students, “dropping in” on their service learning course. The course is a 3-week elective open to multiple majors, but predominantly made up of engineering students. A group from Providence College (PC) in Rhode Island also joined the course for about two of the three weeks.

On Monday, our Rutgers groups (11 graduate students) were divided up among four groups of UCT and PC students. Each group went to a different site in the townships to learn more about a community organization and the struggle in the townships for residents to have their rights granted after Apartheid actually recognized. Several of the groups went to visit informal settlements (shacks that may or may not have water/electricity) or “backyarders” (shacks located in others’ backyards and rented by the tenant).

My group went to the Philippi Horticultural Area (PHA) to visit an activist group known as the PHA Food and Farming Campaign. This community group is made of farmers in a traditionally “colored” area. “Colored” is one of the four official recognized races during Apartheid–colored individuals were not allowed the full privileges of white citizens, but had more privileges than black South Africans.

South Africa is currently going through a very severe drought, but the PHA is located on an aquifer, making the farmlands there nearly drought resistant–which is fortunate, since the PHA supplys half of the produce sold and consumed in Cape Town.

What’s the problem? Most of the farmers are black or colored and most of the land (90%) is owned by white South Africans with large-scale farming operations. The issue here is two-fold: many of these white landowners are removed from the local community and some have sold their property off to major developers who want to built shopping centers, high-end housing (unaffordable to current residents), and a private prison.

These developers have to get the land re-zoned to use it for that purpose, but by law, it’s supposed to be used as farming land until it’s re-zoned. It’s currently sitting empty. The locals are trying with great difficulty to prevent these areas from being re-zoned. If this area is redeveloped, farming will have to move further out from the city and to less farm-able land. The increased transportation costs and the vulnerability to drought will increase the cost of the produce.

The second issue is that the PHA includes land that was promised to be redistributed after Apartheid. The process, however, includes so many road blocks that it is difficult for these local farmers to receive the land allotments that were promised to them as part of retribution for the horrors and forced removals during Apartheid.

The Food and Farming Campaign is fighting for a few things:

-Using due process to protest the re-zoning and development of farmland

-Making the city do the required environmental study of the aquifer and the impact of development on the environment

-Advocating that each farming family get 2 hectares of land to produce food for their own family and to sell the produce

-Get the PHA designated as preserved agricultural land

In addition to their goals above, the Food and Farming Campaign provides education and best practices support to fellow farmers. The PHA is teaming up with UCT to create a community soil lab so that farmers can organically maintain nutrient-rich soil and sustainable farms. The community also has an informal settlement and would like to be able to build permanent housing for its residents, as a community-driven effort.

On Wednesday, we joined the UCT and PC students for an on campus session of their course. We broke into groups that had a student who had gone to each of the different sites and talked about what we saw and learned. Many students in my group were international students (Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Mauritius) and several mentioned that they had never been to a township or knew that Cape Town also had poverty like they’d seen at home. UCT is the top ranked African university, so students come from all over Africa and are mostly graduates private schools.

After our group discussion, a synthesis of our “take aways,” and a brief presentation to the other groups, we reassembled as a large group and discussed a reading about border crossing, based on the U.S.-Mexico border experience in Tijuana. We talked about other ways you can cross borders without leaving your country–sometimes just by going to a rural area or an inner-city.

All in all, the extended experience with Cape Town students was an interesting way to learn more not only about poverty in the townships, but also about higher education in South Africa. Our group made a few friends from UCT who came to join us at our B-n-B last night for one of our groupmate’s birthdays.