Cape Town: An Unforgettable Township Experience

It started with a pin. A small little piece of souvenir junk that is about an inch in diameter. I stepped into the Tourism Office in Simonstown to inquire about the post office location in order to mail some postcards. On a side table, I saw a Big Issue magazine with a free pin. I didn’t care about the magazine, but the pin had the Cape Town marketing logo on it, and I wanted it. I liked the bold, graphic stripes with the outline of Table Mountain on it. They were packaged together, so I swiped the magazine and left.

I arrived back at my hostel that evening, and took the pin out of the bag. I decided to just flip through the Big Issue and it had an A to Z guide to Cape Town. Under the Township heading, I read about Mzansi Restaurant in Langa Township. And that’s how it happened.

I had already been in Cape Town for about 10 days and was having a wonderful time. It is such a beautiful city, but I also knew that I had only seen a small portion of it. I had seen the sights of Table Mountain, Robben Island, and Cape of Good Hope. I had spent my afternoons down at the magnificent Waterfront. I had eaten some fantastic food at the Saturday market and tasted wine in Stellenbosch. But I didn’t feel like I had a very well-rounded perspective, and I had yet to have a discussion on apartheid with a local. I considered doing a township tour but had my hesitations. I didn’t want to be part of the mass of tourists bussed into a township looking at people and sights as if they were part of a zoo. Don’t get me wrong, not all of the tours are like this, but I just didn’t want to take my chances.

Dining Area

About Mzansi Restaurant
The restaurant is open seven days a week, given that there are at least six people signed up. It is located on Harlem Avenue, a street with a rich history and famous past residents. A visit to the restaurant includes a fantastic meal, entertainment from a local band, and a brief talk from the owner Nomonde about the township and the history of her family and restaurant.

I immediately knew this is what I had been looking for. Langa is the oldest black township in South Africa, and I wanted to go and hear another side. I had spoken to plenty of white South Africans about Apartheid and now it was time to get a perspective from those that suffered from it.

It was Friday. My flight was Monday. I emailed Nomonde to see if I could come over the weekend. She asked that I come Monday, since that was when she had a group scheduled. I told her that I would be flying out and was contacting her last minute because I just found out about her restaurant that day. She was excited, as I was the first person to contact her after reading about Mzansi in the Big Issue; so, she made an exception. I was going to meet with her and her family on Sunday. Since it was only me, there would not be a band, but I could dine on her delicious food and get a little education.

On Nomonde's balcony after lunch

Minibus to Langa
I am a huge proponent of public transport, and I didn’t want to take a taxi. Nomonde told me which minibus to board and where to get off. There was some confusion from the driver and he dropped me off about five blocks late. I called Nomonde, and she rushed to come get me. I stood at the traffic circle to wait for her. I watched the man in the middle of it trying to sell newspapers. I watched a BMW and two Mercedes cruise by in those 10 minutes. Am I really in Langa? As I stood there I heard a woman nearly a block away shout out my name. I crossed the traffic circle, and Nomonde ran over to greet me with a warm hug. We walked back to her house, stopping along the way at a local crafts center. When we got to her house, I was so impressed. The first floor had been converted entirely for her restaurant. She had an enclosed garage and a living room with four large dining tables. Upstairs she had more seating and a nice balcony.

Area for the band

Delicious Food
She said she had some last minute things to finish, so her son took me upstairs to the balcony. Nomonde came up a few minutes later with the food. There was baked chicken, beef, potato, sweet potato, a corn dish and broccoli and cauliflower with a cream sauce. Everything was so good!

As we ate, she told me more about apartheid in Langa. No one owned their homes- the government did. Blacks and coloreds were stripped of their citizenship. Many people were unemployed. She was in primary school one day, when there was a loud commotion outside. High school students were protesting. Being too young to realize the risk of this, she along with many other kids ran out the door to join them. Soon after, shots were fired and students were killed. Her cousin was arrested and sent to jail for three years. During that time she made occasional trips to the prison to visit her cousin. Little did she know that from these trips she would meet her future husband, a young man who was also imprisoned for protesting that same day.

View back to Cape Town

Starting a Restaurant
The rest is history in terms of her relationship- she married and had kids. However, they had a bumpy road ahead of them. When apartheid finally ended in 1994, they were given ownership of their homes. Nomonde and her family were living with her mother. She was working in a jewelry store, while her husband had difficulty finding employment. At the encouragement of her mother, she decided to open her restaurant. They started planning in 2005 and worked very hard at realizing her dream. Slowly, she was able to add on to her house to hold more people. And to this day, it’s still a work in progress. I visited on a Sunday and the following day she was to receive her first set of brochures and business cards for the restaurant. Out of about 200 applicants she was selected into a program at a nearby university that helps small businesses with everything from bookkeeping to creating a logo. The excitement in her voice was obvious.

Although she told me too many phenomenal stories to repeat here, one thing struck a cord with me. I was asking her about unemployment in Langa, which she estimated at about 50%. However, she spoke so positively, “The great thing is, you can do something for yourself. If you don’t have a job, you can sell bread in front of your house. During apartheid you weren’t allowed to sell anything. But now, you can sell things.” We lose our job in the U.S. and think life is over. Granted, most of us couldn’t pay our bills by selling a couple of pieces of bread a day, but the optimism is alive in Langa. It was a valuable lesson.

View down Harlem Avenue

Langa Township
We finished eating and she took me on a tour of Langa. I visited her church and learned more about education in Langa (which is severely lacking). We visited her friend who owns a bed and breakfast in the township. It was really nice and completely unexpected. If I weren’t flying out the following day, I would have definitely come back to stay. She showed me where the squatters live and I saw women cooking Smileys on the street (if you don’t know what a Smiley is, please click on the link to find out). Nomonde took me to a shop where I just had to purchase a shirt to remember my time in Langa.

It was so funny. We talked business and she was very open with me. It felt like we had known each other for ages. I asked her about the fancy cars in town that I had seen earlier. While some people have made it out of Langa and are enjoying their successes, neither of us could understand how one could drive a Mercedes right past squatters living in tin sheds. Nomonde is different. She told me that even if she were a millionaire, she would never leave Langa- she loves it here. It was touching to see how much she cared for her neighbors and her friends, when she herself is struggling to succeed. With the growth of her business, she is able to hire more waiters and more cooks to help out. Her success equates to more jobs in Langa.

Saying Goodbye
We finally arrived at the minibus station for me to head back to Cape Town. Nomonde got on to ride just back to her house. I pulled out money to pay for the meal, and she refused. At first, she wouldn’t take a penny from me. I was not about to let this lovely woman who had cooked an amazing meal, shared wonderful stories with me, and took me on a tour of town, just walk away without payment. She finally said I could pay a little something. I gave her money, but again she told me it was too much. I relented and gave her whatever she was willing to take. Not only that, she also gave me a skirt as a parting gift. I loved it.

The Best Langa Township Experience
Restaurants and fine food abound in Cape Town. But the food at Mzansi Restaurant is phenomenal. If you’re looking for good food AND an unforgettable cultural experience, you will be blown away. If you ever go to Cape Town, please visit my friend Nomonde. If you know someone going to Cape Town, please recommend it to them. Although her mother passed away just months before it opened in 2008, I know she would be very proud; Nomonde has all the right ingredients for a successful restaurant. It’s just a matter of people knowing about it.

Nomonde is active in her community and recently spoke at a press conference for the kick-off of the Harlem Avenue Residents Enterprise Association. You can read the article here.

11 thoughts on “Cape Town: An Unforgettable Township Experience

    • Public transportation in Cape Town is very safe (although I wouldn’t recommend it at night). I got on another time to go to a market. I had no idea where it was located and the conductor told me where to get off and directions to get to it.

  • Great stuff! I was only in Cape Town for a couple of days, including a World Cup game so it was a bit of a whirlwind tour of the usual sites. Like you, I have apprehensions about the township tours so didn’t do one and didn’t really have time, anyways.

    I had heard a traveller talking about staying in a township through Couchsurfing and that sounded more up my alley but it’ll all have to wait until next time, whenever that is. Your experience sounds like an amazing one and another thing on my list for when I return.

    As an aside, Big Issue is available in cities all over the world and goes to support homeless people. It’s a great read (especially for lefties like me) and usually full of great, off-beat tourist tips for the cities they’re sold in.

  • I really enjoyed this post, Laura. I’ve been considering spending a month in Cape Town and it’s writing like this that keeps it at the top of the list. Thanks!

    • Keith, You should definitely go to Cape Town. It’s truly one of my favorite places to date. It’s a beautiful country with great people. It deserves to be viewed in a positive light in the media and hopefully the World Cup helped do just that!

  • Wow… just wow. I am always a bit concerned when it comes to talking about sensitive issues with communities. I just don’t want to step on any toes. Thank you for being so courageous and sharing this with us!

    • Hey Erica, Completely understand where you’re coming from. But if I learned anything from travel, it’s that if we don’t talk about it, it won’t change. Take for example the AIDS epidemic in Africa… it’s so taboo to talk about it in most places, but it’s not going to change if we don’t. And in this case, South Africa is changing for the better so it’s important to note that too!

  • This is one of the experiences I still have to live. One great post Laura. I have a question thoug: townships do have a lot of bad press…did you feel uncomfortable at any time?

  • Lovely post (and photos) about one of my favorite towns in the world — and some areas that people normally don’t go to. Glad you had this experience and can’t wait to read more from you!

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