Imizamo Yethu: Life in a township

2014-07-25T09:19:37+00:005 December 2013|People you meet, South Africa|

During a visit in South Africa earlier this year, I visited Imizamo Yethu, a township in Hout Bay Valley, a seaside suburb of Cape Town.

I was first in South Africa in 1993, just months before Nelson Mandela was sworn in as president. At that time, by chance, I met a man who ran tours in the SOuth WEst TOwnships near Johannesburg. I was of two minds about visiting Soweto. No denying I was curious. On the other hand, there’s something slightly voyeuristic about going to look at how people live.

But we spoke for a while, and when he heard I was Norwegian, he lit up. ‘You people did so much for our freedom,’ he said, with a bright, beaming smile. ‘You must come and see for yourself.’ How could I not…

There are huge differences between the two townships. With nearly 1 million dwellers, Soweto was, and is, South Africa’s largest township. Imizamo Yethu, on the other hand, is small. But no less interesting.

Imizamo Yethu


Imizamo Yethu township is located in the Hout Bay Valley, a seaside suburb of Cape Town, just a few kilometres from the city centre. The surroundings are very pretty. This township hails back to the final days of apartheid, and is an area where native Africans were allowed to build temporary homes. Many residents of Hout Bay either couldn’t afford – or were not allowed to – buy homes in Hout Bay. This lead many to build temporary homes on vacant land, often illegally and in conflict with their neighbours. At the cusp of the apartheid era, the local authorities stepped in and set aside land where the dwellers could set up their homes. Imizamo Yethu means ‘our common effort’ in the Xhosa language.

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As we get off the bus, we’re met by our guide, a beautiful, enterprising woman who lives in Imizamo Yethu. It’s a hot day, so we sit down for a chat and some water first. Next to us is an elderly lady, obviously out of sorts about something. She is responsible for the upbringing of her grandchildren, we learn. She worries she won’t be able to afford school uniforms for them.


In Imizamo Yethu, as in the rest of South Africa, school is free. As is text books. However, school uniforms are not, and they’re obligatory. A child showing up at school out of uniform will be sent home.

I come from a country where there are no school uniforms. And while I see their advantages, I cannot fathom that the price of a school uniform is the one thing standing in the way of a child going to school. If a school uniform is so important, shouldn’t the government provide that as well?


Imizamo Yethu consists of two very different parts. Towards the top of the village are the Irish houses, proper homes (built by Irish volunteers), with proper infrastructure. Further down are the tin shacks. Most of those living here are unofficial dwellers.


We’re taken along the narrow paths between tin shacks. Tin is not a good building material. In summer, it keeps the heat in and in winter, it keeps it out. A bad deal, all around.

In places, pieces of wood are laid haphazardly out as makeshift bridges. This is to prevent people from stepping in the black water that runs underneath, disease-ridden water. Even though I’m wearing trainers, I’m careful not to step in it. The thought of having to worry about my barefoot children running in this water is unbearable. My friend Ingrid is surprisingly cool about this. She has lived for weeks in a reservation in the American midwest; she has seen worse.

What’s within these barred walls?

The largest bar in town, that’s what.

Unemployment is at 40 %. And with it follows the usual problems: family violence and alcoholism. It’s perhaps not surprising that the richest man in town is the owner of the largest bar.

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There’s hope…



Looking at these kids, particularly this confident girl, I think:

This is Africa’s future. And the future looks bright.

Nelson Mandela, one of the most beautiful souls to ever walk the earth, left today.

As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.

Thanks for everything, Madiba.

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  1. Gil 7 December 2013 at 2015 - Reply

    I think that the bad reservations are in the American West not Mid-West.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 16 December 2013 at 1648 - Reply

      I think the one she stayed at is in the Dakotas.

  2. Gil 7 December 2013 at 2020 - Reply

    Got carried away and forgot the important stuff. Loved this post as it was real interesting and educational to me. I’ve always been amazed at no matter how poor some people are they make use of the most beautiful colors and the kids are smiling.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 16 December 2013 at 1649 - Reply

      That amazes me as well. Strong, resilient people.

  3. Mette 8 December 2013 at 1509 - Reply

    Great tribute to South Africa and Nelson Mandela.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 16 December 2013 at 1651 - Reply

      Thank you, Mette.

  4. Maria 8 December 2013 at 1701 - Reply

    Lovely tribute Sophie – this is one that will remain with me for quite a while.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 16 December 2013 at 1656 - Reply


  5. Marcia 9 December 2013 at 1437 - Reply

    Beautiful tribute, Sophie. Like you, I also have huge reservations about intruding on people but also, like you when I visited we were taken by someone who lived in the township. It made it feel less intrusive.

    Interestingly, I did a post on South Africa the night we got the news. Even though I expected it, I feel the loss deeply.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 16 December 2013 at 1657 - Reply

      A loss for the entire world.

  6. Dana Carmel @ Time Travel Plans 10 December 2013 at 0550 - Reply

    What a beautiful Mandela quote – the definition of forgiveness itself. We always hear about Soweto, but not much about Imizamo Yethu. Thanks for the insight!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 16 December 2013 at 1659 - Reply

      There are many townships around South Africa’s cities.

  7. Leigh 10 December 2013 at 2147 - Reply

    Hard to believe a man of such stature is gone. I’ve read his biographies and am so amazed at what he endured.

    Looks like a very tough life in the township and so hard to break the cycle of poverty. Great photos in this one Sophie.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 16 December 2013 at 1703 - Reply

      He really did three amazing things, didn’t he… – endure decades as a political prisoner, advocate reconciliation instead of revenge as a president, and after retiring, working tirelessly to stop epidemics. A remarkable man, and a true leader.

  8. Natasha von Geldern 13 December 2013 at 1515 - Reply

    Beautiful post Sophie! When I was in South Africa in 2003 I went to the Cape Flats township – I wanted to see the other side. It was fascinating, until I had my camera stolen at gunpoint, whereupon I had a very ‘rich’ experience spending three hours in the local police station! So no photos of the township, and no photos from the day before – visiting Robben Island. Ah well, travel is like that sometimes and I would certainly return to SA.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 16 December 2013 at 1704 - Reply

      A memorable trip in every sense, eh

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