‘Township’ is a Planet for Aliens

If you only visit South African townships to confirm your prejudices and not to experience them the way they are, stay away.

Still from the fictional movie. "District 9."

A few days ago, Bizcommmunity — an online platform for writings about, amongst other things, content about media, PR and advertising (though you wouldn’t say by the 1996-era site design) in South Africa  — published an article riddled with stereotypes. “The township is no longer a foreign land far away and its story is no longer one of the haves and have-nots,” writes one Danette Breitenbach. But the narrative Ms Breitenbach weaves here is not hers alone.

Her opening sentence is an odd one: it attempts to debunk stereotypes about what she calls ‘the township’, as opposed to townships in plural form and not as one thing and yet she also propagates the stereotype. The latter part of that sentence is not at all incorrect, given of course that one is referring to townships in the sense of topography and not economy. Townships were designed as such that they are far away from cities and suburbs where white people lived during the Apartheid years. The other problematic issue here is the expression ‘The Township’. She quantifies a million people into a single place, as if, the township is a planet that only has one person. South Africa has many townships; yes they have similarities, a fact true for cities and suburbs, yet people talk of cities and suburbs and not the city or the suburb when referring to them.

The article was about findings by a company called Ask Afrika, which conducted research to understand township consumers. ‘Township consumers’ is another problematic wording. Many advertising agencies have held the view that there is one consumer living in townships, that people in the townships have the same buying habits. Findings by Ask Africa enlighten the advertising industry that there is actually no such thing. To conduct research to come to the realization that townships are as dynamic as cities and suburbs is redundant. When the Group Areas of 1950 became effective and forced removal became priority of the Apartheid government, the very people that were being moved were dynamic; to then investigate if they are dynamic in 2014 is ridiculous.

To begin with the thinking that townships need investigating to be understood is problematic.

“Township consumers are savvy in a different way in that when making a purchase, they look from a cultural perspective at what they buy,” writes Danette. WTF? She has clearly never lived in a township.

It is this systematic pigeon-holing of an entire community that is problematic.

But of course, the people who know that there is not one township and not one giant citizen roaming around there, cannot spend their time educating ignorant people like Danette and Ask Africa’s commercial director, Paida Mugudubi. Narratives about townships that only exist to correct wrongs that persist because of ignorance and nothing else are themselves doing townships a disservice. We should tell our own stories, our complexities instead.

There are places in townships that are interested in attracting people outside of townships. Branding themselves as ‘giving you the township experience’. But they always appear to miss the point. They always conform to the discomforts of the outsiders. The Department of Coffee in Khayelitsha is a perfect example of this. One of their monthly events in association with Metrorail is aimed at attracting outsiders to go to Khayelitsha and experience it. They are transported in special metrorail trains and not the commuter trains that people from Khayelitsha use. They also get police to guard and escort the visitors. How is this promoting Khayelitsha? It does not, being the short answer.

The solution is simple and perhaps, radical; it’s imbedded in Pharaohe Monch’s song “Simon says”, it is ‘get the fuck out”: “Get the fuck out” of the townships if you only visit them to confirm your prejudices and not to experience them the way they are, the way they have always been, dynamic and complex.

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