By Tatiana Darie  & Luke Brodarick

When Nelson Mandela was released from 27 years in prison in 1990, there was hope for the end to the struggle that so many were forced to live through in black townships in South Africa. With the fall of apartheid, the system designed to isolate the poor blacks from rich whites, there was hope for the start of a humane and dignified existence for everyone.

Monica Luningo remembers in detail the day she was allowed to vote in her country for the first time.  She was 45.

“We were so happy. I woke up at 4 a.m., I couldn’t wait,” said the 65-year old from Kaya Mandi, a township on the outskirts of Stellenbosch in the Western Cape.

The African National Congress, the liberation party of Nelson Mandela, has comfortably stayed in power since toppling the oppressive white rule in the first democratic election in 1994. The ANC is starting to lose backing across the country as it failed to live up to the ideals introduced almost two decades ago.

The party won  62 percent of the votes in last year’s election, down from 65 percent in 2009, according to the national election commission. Meanwhile, support for the leading opposition party shot up. The Democratic Alliance gained 22.2 percent of the vote in 2014, up from 16.6% at the last elections.

People are frustrated that despite the political change, little has been forthcoming. Disillusionment with the leadership is echoed across townships where too many voters still don’t have houses, nor jobs to earn an income and escape poverty. At 65, Monica lost hope of a better life but she’s not worried about herself, but about her children and grandchildren.

“Unless they live in the white areas. I don’t have hope,” she said. “I see people who don’t care about the poor people, a government who doesn’t care about the poor people.”

Monica is among the millions of people who live in South Africa’s perilous townships, whose views of the past, present and future are not terribly different. Among young and old, there is a deep sense of frustration and disappointment that leaves little incentive to battle the realities of post-apartheid South Africa. Many turn to crime, drugs and alcohol instead.

Kaya Mandi, where we met Monica, is a microcosm of township life in the new era after the fall of apartheid. Although it has a much smaller community and isn’t known as one of the centers of the liberation struggle like Soweto and other larger townships, Kaya Mandi has a special place in South Africa’s history.

While most townships here are generally pictured as slums – stuffed with informal settlements or shacks, with grim living conditions, rampant unemployment and deep poverty – in its early days, life in Kaya Mandi was more bearable and in many ways much better than in other places, hence its name, which translates from Xhosa as “nice house.”

A Short History

Like other black-only townships, Kaya Mandi was created in 1941 as an enclave of cheap labor on the periphery of white-dominated Stellenbosch, writes Stellenbosch University graduate student David Rock in one of the very few historical recollections of the place.

As the mining industry boomed in South Africa and the industrial expansion took off during World War II, the demand for workers broadened, and so did the need for housing. The heavy inflow of blacks into cities triggered a national debate on how to keep them far enough away from cities but close enough to provide cheap labor.

The white government –  led by the descendants of European settlers known as Afrikaners – called for stricter racial controls and introduced legislation that divided the population by race, reserving the best public facilities for whites and forcing blacks and the so-called “colored” people of mixed heritage to live in separate areas.

The African population was moved into townships, crowded living spaces on the edge of urban areas filled with rows of uniform houses that lacked basic infrastructure like sanitation, water or electricity. They were managed with a brutal policing system of passes and identity papers that determined where blacks could travel and work.

Kaya Mandi started with the construction of just 55 homes, including family houses, churches, a primary school and a sports field –  facilities that were nonexistent in most other townships. It was in part for this particular reason that Kaya Mandi was seen as a model township at the time and a “source of pride” for the white government, notes the Secretary of Native Affairs at the time in a 1948 interview.

As more people were migrating from the Eastern Cape in search of jobs, its population grew and the number of houses doubled by 1948, Rock writes. Under the apartheid regime, the Stellenbosch municipality enforced a quota system to manage the numbers of blacks in the township and enacted tighter restrictions, which included an attempt to remove all women who did not have a legitimate claim to be there. The goal was to keep Kaya Mandi as a place to house male workers only, who were needed for work in Stellenbosch.

“They allowed wives to stay for three months,” Monica recalled. “Even then, you could not stay in the hostel. You had to get a small family and get a small room to stay with the wife. They raided the houses during the night.”

Despite the political struggles, Kaya Mandi developed into a peaceful village, mainly dominated by the Xhosa – South Africans who immigrated from the Eastern Cape. Other parts of the country like Soweto, by contrast, were battered by violence during the 1940-50s. The inferior education, widespread poverty and sub-human living conditions endured by people in most townships has been the focus of rage against the apartheid system.

Kaya Mandi has also not been immune from the political upheavals, which severely disrupted the economy and fuelled a spike in crime levels, and alcohol and drug consumption in townships.

Struggling Townships

In the 21 years since black-majority rule began and democracy emerged in South Africa, its people have made progress. It has one of the most progressive and liberal constitutions in the world and many more have access to clean water and electricity.

And yet its apartheid legacy still remains as strong as ever in economic terms. Consider this staggering statistic: more than half of the country’s total income goes to the top 10 percent of earners while the bottom half get less than 8 percent, according to the World Bank.

Half of the country’s population live in townships and informal settlements, accounting for 38 percent of the working-age force yet 60 percent of its unemployed. The jobless rate hovers around 25 percent, with almost half of the young population out of work, according to most recent data from the World Bank.

Although the country has implemented programs such as the Black Economic Empowerment or BEE to redress the wrongs of the past and empower more black workers into the labor force, they failed to produce the needed results. Critics have accused the legislation as racist and inefficient, hindering South Africa’s economy and potential to grow.

Professor Harold Herman, dean emeritus of the Faculty of Education at University of the Western Cape, explains that the underlying reason for the employment struggle is the lack of good education. The impact of apartheid on black education was profound. The government segregated schools and imposed an inferior educational system for nonwhites, producing graduates who were not even able to read or count.

Herman is particularly passionate about the cause and notes that the fight against apartheid also transformed schools into a political struggle.

“It had a detrimental effect on discipline and on what we call the culture of teaching,” Herman said. “The schools in this area, some of them, are dysfunctional, meaning that the teachers and pupils are not productively busy so that they have the required literacy and numeracy, and that is why we have such high levels of illiteracy despite the fact that South Africa spends 23 percent of its budget on education.”

The skill gap and inability to earn an income gives way to crime and rising social tensions in townships.

“There is too much vandalism in Kaya Mandi, thefts and everything,” Monica said.  “It’s useless to report it to the police, they don’t know them, so you can only help yourself.”

Passive Attitudes

Besides the contracting economy and a dysfunctional and corrupt government that is not delivering effective public services, perhaps an even bigger problem is that many in poor communities have adopted a culture of waiting – for the government to build houses, create jobs and lift them out of poverty.

Is is particularly this passive attitude that many of the country’s thought leaders are trying to change. Professor Herman is one of them. He was an active voice in the anti-apartheid movement and is now an education leader at the University of Western Cape, where many visionaries from the Mandela administration were educated. He is also the founder of the United Nations Association of South Africa (UNASA), an organization that aims to promote socio-economic progress in South Africa through community engagement initiatives.

Herman leads and contributes to a number of projects at the Anglican Church, one of the first churches built in Kaya Mandi. One of them is the Living Spirit Project, an initiative run in collaboration with the Sustainability Institute at Stellenbosch University which consists of an ecologically-designed house and a permaculture garden.

Living Spirit Project

From the outside it looks more or less like a typical house but once you step in, you are looking at one the greenest structure in the country. The ecologically-designed house is mainly built from recycled materials such as clay, straw, recycled brick from the dump side and with donated window frames and doors, said Berry Wessels, the project’s coordinator and a doctoral candidate at Stellenbosch University.

It’s strategically oriented in a northerly direction to take advantage of the sun in the winter and shield the facade from the strong sun in the summer. Its roof is sloped so it can collect rainwater during the rainy season.

The house is also equipped with insulators and thermal mass to create better indoor living construction, and has a toilet and shower in it. Most importantly, its solar power system and energy-saving features allows residents to capitalize on the natural power of the sun, which will never run out and it’s free. South Africa is also known for its blackouts and energy issues.

Of course, the premise behind the project, Wessels said, is to teach people how to do these things themselves and upgrade their shacks and improve their living conditions.

In the ecologically-designed house at the Anglican Church we met Mandla Mbonjeni, a 35-year old who lives in the house and guards the church from theft and violence.

Manda, who prefers to be called by his first name, said he’d like to build a similar house for his fiancé and three boys, who live separately in the same township, but the problem is that infrastructure like the sanitation system belongs to the Stellenbosch municipality, and he’s not allowed to change it.

Mandla, who is unemployed, has also started his own non-profit to help the young people of Kaya Mandi to find jobs.

“I’ve decided to start this because we are all unemployed, almost all of us, and we’ve said ‘No man, let’s do something,’” he said. “The main objective is to decrease the unemployment rate and provide people with skills. We are planning to host some workshop and link to the well-established education institutions.”

On the side, he is also running his own soccer team of 16 players, which does not come without its own set of problems but at least, the kids are very engaged and very committed, he said. All these activities are keeping Mandla busy for now but he has not given up on finding a job. “I need to put something on the table, I’m struggling.”

In the meantime, he will continue to do community development and help the people of Kaya Mandi learn how to design and rebuild their homes. He is also coordinating other projects at the Anglican Church, including professor Herman’s permaculture garden – an initiative funded by UNASA to teach locals how to grow food in their small backyards.

“The idea is to use these things and mobilize the community through the groups and other people who come here to see what could be done on the properties of individual people,” Herman said. “Our people have developed a sense of dependency and they don’t always realize that with a small space in the back of my house I can grow my own fruit and veggies.”


If you haven’t heard about it before, it’s because sport-in-a-box was pioneered in South Africa. It’s an initiative that wants to improve the physical fitness of children at schools in poor townships, where sports is technically nonexistent.

“For example, when I was a teacher we had to do extracurricular activities, which include sports. I was a hockey couch although I never played hockey, I was a rugby couch because I played rugby, and I was a cricket couch,” Herman said. “Now the teachers don’t see that as part of their responsibilities for a wide variety of reasons. Teachers are demotivated by the situation, discipline has gotten bad in the school, the children don’t want to listen.”

So rather than waiting for things to be done the right way, the UNASA provides paid-for sports coaches to train school children.

“The idea is then when we finish one season of couching so the school will take it over, as it has to, “ Herman said. “We can’t be negative or dishearted because of the way the education system is unfolding.”

Education is one of the causes that professor Herman has dedicated this life and career to. Like Mandela, he believes that education is the most powerful weapon to change the world.

“That was my dream that every child could get a good education and that we could eliminate poverty from our society,” he said.

A Glimmer of Hope

Yet in the face of new challenges and a corrupt political system, some of those hopes and dreams have been shattered.

“We live in an unequal society so we have to change that,” Herman said. “So that was my dream that every child could get a good education and that we could eliminate poverty from our society. It’s not there yet and I don’t think it’s not going to be there in my lifetime.”

Professor Herman said he at least hopes that his grandchildren will reap the harvest of his hard work.

As for Monica, she also shares that hope. She is happy that her grandchildren chose to study marketing and tourism, professions that she thinks will open the door to better opportunities.

They are the future of South Africa – a South Africa that she hopes would be more caring of the people and fulfilling the dreams of many who spend their lifetimes fighting for change.

Photography by Luke Brodarick

This project is a collaboration between the University of Missouri School of Journalism 

and the Mayibuye archives at the University at Western Cape.


© 2019 Center for the Digital Globe