This morning we are heading to Mdantsane Village, and Craig is looking forward to the drive. “It’s really interesting,” Craig tells me. “You’ll get to see so many different kinds of places on the way.”
Informal settlements are like tent cities in Canada. They are illegal, mostly… in some rare cases people own the land but aren’t able to afford a house so they build a shack there. Generally, people are squatting. The informal settlements are groups of shacks made of tin and scrap wood, and are extremely crowded. There are also RDPs (Reconstruction and Development Program areas) which are government housing. The houses here are small but have basic amenities. In some areas you will see an RDP home with one or more shacks built adjacent to it. This is where people have attached illegal structures to an RDP home or plot so they can share the toilet and running water.
But what Craig is saying to me now is something different. “That was a black township and we’re coming up to a coloured township.” Of all the things I have had to try and understand about race and class since I arrived, the black/coloured distinction is the one that has surprised me most. “Coloured” refers to mixed race people, and their communities are separate from black communities and Afrikaans communities. I find the term “coloured” to be extremely distasteful – evocative of the language of slavery – but I am also aware that I am applying Canadian sensibilities to South African history and culture. It is one of the major challenges of being here and it is so tangled that I find myself avoiding writing about it, avoiding the political landmines…
With 2 million residents, Mdantsane is the second most populous place in South Africa after Soweto. The village is divided into areas, historically called Native Units (NUs). The term NU is now considered offensive so the areas have recently been officially renamed zones, but the roadsigns still say NU (as in NU 13 or NU 6, with an arrow) and our directions are to go to NU15. We are looking for a soccer field, where we will meet Craig’s friend Sandile.
Craig’s work sometimes takes him into the township but he’s not been to NU15 and we quickly become lost. The vibe in the village is electric: crowded, loud and bright. We pull into a gas station to fill up and ask for directions. Craig has become quite skilled in isiXhosa; I am impressed. As we leave, three little girls in bare feet spot the BMW and come to the window to ask for rands. Craig hands them some change.
We drive; we get lost. Craig pulls over to ask some women selling clothes at a crossroads for direction to NU15 and they point down the road the way we came. As Craig turns the car around I notice another stall at the roadside with an open fire and dozens of goat heads in a pile.
Eventually we surrender and call Sandile who meets us on the corner and jumps into the car to direct us to our destination: the incongruously-named Winter Rose Sports Club. He instructs Craig to drive inside the gates… then onto the playing field itself where a game is in progress (Sandile claims we are being stared at because we are the only white people but I have to wonder if piloting the BMW over the corner flag might contribute), and past the goal line of the adjacent field. We park behind Sandile’s car and get out.
Sandile coaches a men’s soccer team called the Mountain Birds. Knowing that I am interested in soccer, Craig has arranged for us to attend their game. When we arrive, they are warming up. Listen up, Sweet Cleats: we’ve got a new warm-up routine.
Sandile explains that he coaches both the Mountain Birds and an under-15 team. They have one set of kits, which are shared. After todays game, the jerseys will be given to the under-15s so they can wear them for their game the following day. As well, all players are responsible for providing their own cleats. One player doesn’t have any so he is warming up in his sandals; he’ll try and borrow boots from a player in the previous game when they finish.
I am frustrated because I know for a fact that many of my friends have closets full of unused soccer gear that would be happily donated and put to great use here, but the logistics (cost of shipping, hold-ups at Customs, packages arriving empty) of getting it to Mdantsane are prohibitive. Craig is going to carry back equipment after his trip home in December but that is hardly a sustainable or long-term solution.
The Mountain Birds are fast and the game is aggressive and fun to watch. At the first whistle Sandile transforms, shouting and waving his hands. “I am not yelling at them,” he turns to Craig and I. “I am encouraging them to play better.” Then he faces the field and begins yelling again. “They are good, Sandile,” Craig says. “You will win the championship.” We must leave early because we are off to Addo that afternoon. We shake hands with the players on the sidelines and the under-15s and hop into the BMW.