Magazine article International Wildlife

A Cabbage Grows in Langa

Magazine article International Wildlife

A Cabbage Grows in Langa

Article excerpt

If you want to prove you can bring greenery to South Africa's black townships, why not start with the worst location you can find?

When Thobeka Thamage chose the worst South African black township slum she could find - Langa, 25 kilometers (16 mi.) from Cape Town - as a place to grow trees and other plants, her reasoning seemed logical enough in theory. Her goal was twofold: to establish a model community-oriented center for the environment and eventually to help bring about the greening of all the country's black townships. "I figured that if I could make it work in Langa, I could make it work anywhere," she says.

But when she tried to find sponsors for her plan, most reacted as if Thamage was, well, out of her mind. To begin with, any South African township is already a desperate place, with unpaved streets, foul drainage, strewn garbage, burnt-out cars and dense brown air from coal fires for cooking. Homes are either monotonous rows of concrete housing or shanties made of corrugated iron sheets, wooden packing cases, plastic sheeting and whatever else comes to hand. There are very few trees and only rare, meager attempts at gardens.

This is the heritage of the country's recently abolished system of apartheid, a policy of discrimination and segregation that separated blacks and whites. The former white governments, whose administrators lived in the cities, saw the black townships merely as dormitories for labor brought by train to factories and mines fringing the white cities. Trees and parks were considered unnecessary - if considered at all. Into these bleak surroundings crept other blacks from the tribal lands, who built shanties.

The name Langa means "sun" in the Xhosa language. That Langa has its place in the sun cannot be denied. It lies hot, fetid, stinking, ugly, bleak, unshaded and to a great extent lawless. In winter it is cold and rain-swept, and the terrain floods, forcing its residents into further misery. In all seasons and weathers, the place has inadequate drainage and sewerage.

Not only that, Langa was built on a refuse dump, and it has never been a healthful place. The township has the highest tuberculosis rate in the world, and its residents believe firmly - if perhaps erroneously - that disease filters upwards from the filth beneath the ground to infect the population living above. "When we were sent to live on a rubbish dump, that indicated to us quite clearly what the white man thought of us," says Rufus Ngwenya, a longtime resident.

Thobeka Thamage was one of the relatively fortunate blacks under apartheid. She grew up on a mission station near the village of Liefeldt in the eastern province of South Africa and did well enough at high school in Heald Town near Fort Beaufort to get into Fort Hare University. Still, she felt so oppressed by apartheid in the way it restricted education that she withdrew from school in 1981 and left the country. With grants from the British Council and the Africa Educational Trust, she went to study environmental law at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. She went on to work as a researcher at the Environmental Law and Development Center in London.

In 1992, two years after the release of Nelson Mandela and the beginning of freedom and democracy in South Africa, Thamage returned to South Africa. For six months she worked for the Environment Monitoring Group, a nongovernmental organization funded by Dutch and Canadian sources, but finally broke away from it in some disillusionment.

"They were much involved in industrial environmental issues," Thamage says. "And I had no problem with that, but I was seeking a more holistic approach to environmental improvements in South Africa. There was too much emphasis on saving the white environment and too little care about the socioeconomic problems in the areas where blacks lived. I felt it was my dedication and my duty to begin work, with all I had learned and gained in experience, among my own people. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.