Deconstructing the Term "Township"

Programs for this blog post

Summer Global Internship

Authored By:

Cape Town Centre

Authored by Jordyn Hoff (she/her)

(Jordyn is a graduating junior at Arizona State University studying Nonprofit Leadership & Management. She is set to serve in the PeaceCorps after graduation as an HIV/AIDSLife Skills educator in Botswana. When she is not working, she enjoys reading and hiking.)

What is a township? I first learned I would be working in a "township" in Cape Town when I was in my internship placement interview. I was puzzled throughout the interview when the phrase kept coming up; I assumed it was just another word for a city or town. Little did I know there was so much history behind the term.

I got a brief overview of what it was by a quick Google search: a city of mainly black occupants created by the government to segregate black and white people. There is a stigma in South Africa regarding townships and the dangers behind living or visiting one. When it first arrived in Cape Town, I would tell locals I was working in the township of Langa. I would often get gasps and surprised faces. But I did not learn how those perceptions and beliefs affected the community until I entered my workplace.

Over the first few weeks of my internship, I learned much about how townships build community and break the stereotypes of what a township is. Langa is a place with a complex history – it is 100 years old this year – and it houses a beautiful culture. Art, music and community thrive in the township. 

At my workplace, the mission is to help build local entrepreneurs. With this, the goal is to make Langa a tourism-driven township. This destroys the negative stereotypes of the township and provides economic opportunities to the community. The non-profit organization where I work houses many programs for residents, like art classes, gardening, community training, and employment opportunities. 

Many of the residents of Langa are tired and angry with the stereotypes about townships. Sitting on community forums, I’ve heard what issues still linger in the community and how many obstacles residents face to reach their goals. The organization I have been working with channels that passion for doing better and makes it possible for people to improve their community positively.

When I return to the States, I will have a whole new definition of a township – completely different from what I thought when I left. Community is often very complex, and it takes time to develop sustainable community practices so everyone can grow together. However, I have seen firsthand how communities work together to improve their space. I will remember the kindness and welcoming spirit of all my co-workers and community members I met. Most importantly, I will remember the drive that this community has to be more than the label forced upon them.

There are terms and labels worldwide that relate to what South Africa calls a "township." For most the residents, they call it home. No labels or preconceived notions behind it. If you go to a foreign country for an internship, push your boundaries. Get to know the community you work in and see them as more than what the general public believes!