I have never been in a South African taxi (see Instagram pictures for a description of this type of “taxi”). Born and raised in Johannesburg, I was blessed to have grown up in a privileged family. Although I led a sheltered life, I took pride in my knowledge of all the South African communities (privileged and not so privileged) and my awareness of the socio-economic landscape of the nation. Growing up with privilege meant that I was never forced to use public transportation on a daily basis. Thus, I had never used a taxi before. Sure, I had driven next to them, heard my family and friends rant about their dangerous driving style, and seen them weave through rush-hour traffic the way an ant navigates cake crumbs after a picnic, but I had never been in a taxi on South African roads.
Today I took a taxi from Cape Town (the urban sea-side tourist-trap) into Gugulethu (the main township on the outskirts of Cape Town on the way to the airport). I was traveling into Gugulethu to meet with the Community Action Trainers (CATs) from Sonke Gender Justice Network – the NGO I am working with in conjunction with the University of Cape Town. From their website: “Sonke strives to build a southern Africa in which men, women, youth, and children can enjoy equitable, healthy and happy relationships that contribute to the development of just and democratic societies. To achieve this, Sonke works to build government, civil society and citizen capacity to achieve gender equality, prevent gender-based violence and reduce the spread of HIV and the impact of AIDS.” More specifically, Sonke has pioneered a “One Man Can” program, advocating for men to become active in their communities to end violence against women and stop the spread of HIV/AIDS. Through “One Man Can,” CATs go out into the community (city clinics, health centers, and townships) and educate community members (specifically men) by explaining what men can do to 1) prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, and 2) stop violence against women (and partners). In Sonke’s words, this can be achieved by 1) knowing your HIV/AIDS status; 2) educating yourself on HIV/AIDS, testing, counseling or treatment; 3) protecting yourself and others by practicing safe sex, getting circumcised, and reducing your number of sexual partners; and 4) getting involved with proactive programs in the community to increase awareness about prevalent issues as shown above. These were the thoughts going through my head as I silently sat on the taxi to Gugulethu (you see, I was reading Sonke’s brochure).
Being in a taxi was an interesting experience. Firstly, we had to wait until all the seats were occupied in the 18-seater taxi: the taxi had to be full of passengers before we could pull out of the taxi rank. Once we were on the road, the taxi began weaving in and out of traffic and I began reflecting on how different it felt to be transported in a taxi (I was grateful that we were making good time on our almost 20km trip to the township) compared to driving next to a taxi (I was normally anxious about reckless taxi driving). The driver had Celine Dion’s 20-year old album playing in the taxi, except that Dion was singing with a South African accent…it seems that knock-offs are universal.
After waiting for the taxi to fill up (30mins) and then making our way into Gugulethu (20mins), we finally arrived at Sonke. You see, Duma, a CAT from Sonke, had made the trip from Gugulethu into Cape Town to fetch me and ride the taxi with me. It was not advisable that I ride the taxi alone when 1) I couldn’t speak a word of Xhosa, and 2) I was a female in an unfamiliar environment. Once at Sonke, our team of 8 CATs (5 women and 3 men) got into Sonke’s taxi and drove to Nyanga – the Cape Town township where we would be distributing condoms and spreading the word about “One Man Can.” We would also be distributing the South African Department of Health’s HIV/AIDS campaign “Choice Condoms” according to a national campaign whereby free condoms are provided to community members as part of the initiative to reduce HIV transmission in sexually active populations around the country. Today, we travelled into Nyanga with 36000 male condoms and 1000 female condoms.
The taxi turned into the main dirt road of the township with its music blaring – an active choice by the driver, who wanted to announce our arrival. As we drove along the dirt road, children came out of their homes and ran behind the taxi. Once the taxi came to a stop, the kids began dancing around the taxi, laughing as they moved their hips and heads to the beat of the South African hip-hop jingle. The 8 of us disembarked, loaded our arms with boxes of Choice condoms and began our duty.
We moved in a pack of 8, walking from door to door, offering the women and men inside their shacks and outside their shacks free condoms. Most of the people we encountered knew what male and female condoms were, by evidence of their asking us for them. They knew how to use condoms, and why condoms should be used – evidence of progress made in the last 10 years by national HIV/AIDS awareness programs. We moved as one group because none of us had been to Nyanga before. It was not unusual for CATs to go into communities that they were unfamiliar with. Despite this, there was also apprehension when walking into an unfamiliar area. Because the CATs could all speak Xhosa, they were able to speak to the community members and explain our intentions, thereby paving the way for the team. What’s more, we were working in a poorer part of the township: there were only shack houses around us, complimented by one street lamp and one tap that supplied clean water (contrasting other township areas where the South African government has implemented a 10-year roll out Reconstruction and Development Program to build brick houses, and provide electricity and clean tap water – locally known as RDP).
Still, the CATs were anxious about our walking door-to-door because they did not know how the community members were going to react to our arrival: would they want the condoms, would they be interested in hearing about what we had to say, would they shout at us for intruding on their property, would they chase us away out of uncertainty. Sonke advocates for condom usage always, even between a husband and wife, because there is an increasing number of spouses who contract HIV in extra-marital affairs. When a condom is used in a marriage, one spouse can be saved from contracting HIV even if the other spouse has an affair and contracts the virus. However, there is cultural tension introduced with condoms. Tanya, one of the CATs, explained to me that if a wife asks her husband to use a condom in their marriage, then it means that 1) she is cheating on her husband, or 2) she does not truly love him. Because of this cultural tension, condom distribution in smaller, more traditional communities (as are seen in most townships) is risky, because it is the distribution of a resource that contradicts traditional cultural beliefs.
Thankfully, there were no incidents when we were in Nyanga today. With one exception. There was a man who was sitting outside his orange/potato stall in a side alley in the township. He insisted on speaking to the only white (American) girl in our team and proceeded to ask her what he should do with the box of Choice condoms he had been handed. Janie (the American girl, MPH student from Brown University) responded that the man should distribute the condoms when he sells his produce and tell people about practicing safe sex. The man laughed at her, saying that when he packed up his cart and left for the day, he would not take the condoms with him because they were not his property. We did not know what he meant by this…perhaps he felt he did not own the condoms because they were from the Government, or because he did not pay for them. After a little more back-and-forth, he decided that he would distribute the condoms and spread the word about safe sex if we bought some oranges from his stall. We complied with his wishes, hoping he would stay true to his word.
After our conversation with the (somewhat) angsty man, we continued walking through the winding side paths between the silver, tin shacks. We had only 3 boxes of condoms between the 8 of us now, and we hoped that we had managed to cover most of the area. I was walking behind the group, watching my step so as to avoid the rubble, metal, glass and wire embedded or sticking out of the grey sand. I turned a corner, and looked up. In front of me, sprawled out as far as my eye could see were about 700 tin shacks, in a 5km radius around me. As I took in my surroundings, I saw women cautiously venturing out of their homes to ask for condoms. I was overwhelmed by the need in the area…not only for male and female condoms (both of which we had run out of), but also for primary health care, clean living conditions and clean water. It was hard to believe that 3km away, in Gugulethu, there were brick houses, roads full of cars, street lamps, and a functioning sewage system.
I was taken aback by the overwhelming need for resources in Nyanga. I had grown up in Johannesburg and frequently visited schools and orphanages in the surrounding townships (Soweto, Alex, etc), yet I had never seen conditions like those in Nyanga. The shack townships in Cape Town are the result of a political debacle in national government. You see, the cities of Johannesburg and Durban fall under the jurisdiction of the ANC (the liberal party that has been in office since the first democratic election in 1994), while the city of Cape Town falls under the jurisdiction of the DA (the conservative party that was in power during Apartheid). There are minimal shacks in Johannesburg and Durban (under the ANC), yet there is an overwhelming number of people living in shacks in Cape Town. This political issue is only further exacerbated by a large influx of illegal immigrants, foreigners (looking for employment in lucrative tourist trades in Cape Town), and family members of Cape Town locals. It is rumored that the DA will not provide better living conditions and resources for people living in townships because that portion of the population supports the ANC. I do not know how true this is…to my knowledge, the national budget has been allocated to RDP changes all over the country.
On the way back to the Sonke Center, the 8 of us sat in Sonke’s taxi, eating deliciously sweet oranges, letting the blaring South African dance-music wash over us. There was silence in the taxi – a kind of common shock…everyone was preoccupied with their thoughts, mulling over our time in the Nyanga township.
Click here for a video taken by Sasheenie of the streets of Nyanga, South Africa.