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Ubomi Life in Imizamu Yethu Printable Version PRINTABLE VERSION
by Marcia C. Schenck, United States Aug 9, 2006
Culture , Poverty , Human Rights   Opinions
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South Africa Imporessions:

Life in Imizamo Yethu

On a sunny, warm January day my feet carry me over the gravel roads and muddy, stony paths of Imizamo Yethu. Imizamo Yethu, better known to the locals as Mandela Park, is the Township situated in the same valley as the individualistic Republic of Hout Bay, South Africa. This scenic valley, about 20 minutes by car from Cape Town, is a microcosm which mirrors the segregation within SA; the tragic legacy of Apartheid. There are three neatly separated areas that were previously divided according to race; Imizamo Yethu for blacks, the harbor region for colourds and everything else for white people. This segregation is nowadays determined by income thus preserving the conditions that used to be arranged for by the law not too long ago. What unites all of these areas is a stunning view on the aqua marine bay with its long, perfectly white beach and the surrounding mountains, accentuated by Chapman’s Peak drive winding above the sea battered cliffs, one of the world’s most famous scenic routes.
Today is a perfect day for the beach for the “other world”. A world that can afford to have cocktails that would pay a poor child’s school fees for an entire month. Yes, this day would be perfect indeed, but not in the reality surrounding me. The heat in between the shacks is almost unbearable while we steadily climb higher and higher up the mountain. At the bottom, close to the main road, new houses have been built by a rich Irish man, so I am told. A philanthropist, who one day decided to invest in this township and flew out prisoners to build the houses. Is that true? I don’t know, but does it matter? Fact is the houses have been built, complete with running water and sewerage. The school is not too far away, neither is the clinic and an NGO is working with youth from in need. Life on the lower part of the mountain is a lot better than in most townships, but the further my steps take me up the hill, the more my surroundings start to look like the stereotypical squatter camp. The shacks are constructed from corrugated iron, wood, rubber, plastic pieces, everything that you can possibly imagine. Up here there is no electricity, no running water and no sewerage. The lack of proper garbage disposal is a huge problem and so is such a vast number of people on a comparatively small piece of land. The municipality is trying to reduce some of the problems by setting up portable toilets. The inhabitants are doing their share by illegally connecting their shacks with the official electricity system which results in a tangled jungle of masts and cables wherever you walk. You have to test your dexterity more than once, whilst right in front of you, mothers with a child on their back, two holding their hands, and a water bucket on their head, twist between wires while climbing over rocks, trying not to slip on garbage, all the while chatting away happily to their neighbors.
Imizamo Yethu is still growing further and further up the hill. The reason for this indeterminate growth can be found in a combination of push and pull factors: This township is relatively attractive compared to others because the lower parts offer comparatively good living conditions. People who already live here encourage their relatives to follow suit because big cities such as Cape Town promise more jobs than the countryside. Unemployment is still one of South Africa’s main problems. This leads to urbanization and frequent migrations especially of the male population, but increasingly also the young female population. This influx puts too great a strain on the infrastructure of the township. Every time it rains the sewerage runs down the entire mountain onto the main road and into the river in the valley that then carries all the toxics straight into the sea. There are far too many children in the classrooms and simply not enough places in the crèche.
Many people like the young Vulokazi follow their husbands with their children in search of work. They do not speak English, have no formal education or other skills and no experience living in a city environment. Many of them grew up very traditionally and have thus almost no chance of surviving in such a tough environment. Vulokazi tells me, through a translator, that she is extremely thankful for every bit of advice she gets. She has visited a sewing course and can as a result sew clothes for her children also she has now applied for a child support grant from the government because neither she nor her husband are employed. They depend a lot on help from their neighbors, but because everybody knows they could be in the same position tomorrow, they share the little they have among each other. The more families I visit the more apparent the neighborhood watch becomes. Taking care of each others children is as natural as bringing over a plate of milie pap or a blanket to the person in need. People with English speaking skills will help the others to deal with official matters, and whoever got a good deal on firewood is willing to share. The community is a security net and family at the same time, although hostilities towards other tribes sometimes become apparent as well as a general sense of xenophobia against non South-Africans. Generally speaking though, even those sub groups have their communities to rely on. If there really is a need, there is almost always a relative from the countryside who is willing to come and stay with you. For Siphokazi an angel, in form of her sister, came to stay with her when she got weaker and weaker day by day and couldn’t cope with the children and the household anymore. Zuliswa has to battle alone, but she gets her medication together with food by community workers. Yet, what will become of her children after she has gone?

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Writer Profile
Marcia C. Schenck

I am a junior studying International Relations, History, and African Studies in the United States, Mount Holyoke College. I was born and raised in Germany and South Africa.
I love learning more about South Africa. I volunteered at a local NGO and interned with the Department of Social Services and Poverty Alleviation last summer. This summer I spent in Geneva at the International Labor Organization. I am passionate about travelling, reading, and writing.
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