As South Africa thrashed England in the Rugby World Cup final in Japan on a Saturday in early November last year, a horde of cheering Bok supporters crammed into AA1, Asazani Street, Zwelihle, Hermanus, and nearly rocked the roof off when the final whistle blew.
The address belongs to Mkhuseli Koyana, a young tour guide who went into town some time ago to buy a couple of speakers and ended up winning what looks like the world’s biggest home-TV set in an in-store competition. It dominates the tiny, L-shaped, tin shack he shares with his wife Lisa and their two boys, Amith (5) and eight-month-old Mila.
Mkhuseli might be a little embarrassed by this large-screen monster, but his neighbours love it. Whenever there’s a sporting event, they come here to watch. Everything, it seems, is shared in this place (simply called ‘Zwe’ by the locals), where more than 25 000 people live in the middle of wealthy Hermanus.
My wife Jules and I take a ChillGuru bus tour and hop off in Zwelihle at Mkhuseli’s place, as arranged. We did the 90-minute ChillGuru orientation tour of Hermanus months ago, and were especially captivated by our brief glimpse of Zwelihle. So here we are, back again, with time on our hands and a superb guide in the form of Mr Koyana. Amith is at a nearby crèche, Mila is with a caregiver auntie, and Lisa is away studying management at Boland College.
Mkhuseli comes from Motherwell, Port Elizabeth, and Lisa is also an Eastern Caper, from Queenstown. “We met at a church in Hout Bay,” he says. “I was playing the keyboards for the choir and Lisa was the lead singer.”
We hit the streets for our walking tour and it’s soon evident that Mkhuseli is popular around here. Two silent friends of his trail along and watch our backs, but everyone we meet appears to be charmed by the fact that we hail from Cradock. No matter the skin colour or the circumstance, we have home-province status.
Wandering the maze of alleyways, we encounter the laundry ladies who fiercely guard the washing lines and a couple of guys building a room extension onto their shack. In a rare clearing, preparations are being made to brew some umqombothi, traditional beer. “We share everything,” says Mkhuseli. “The public toilets, the vehicle parking spaces, the water and the electricity – we have ways of living together.”
Overcrowding a challenge
A local builder will set you up in a shack for R3 500, and the informal housing section of Zwelihle is full of them, some an ambitious two-storeys high. Like slightly wonky, neglected movie sets, they look as if they might blow over in a gust of wind. Lured by jobs in the construction, tourism and fishing sectors around Hermanus, people stream into an already-burgeoning Zwelihle. Schools are overcrowded, says our guide, with more than 50 children in a class.
As he tells us this, we pass the rather impressive-looking Qhayiya Secondary School, but something seems wrong.
Small clutches of boys are trying to escape the school grounds, flinging themselves over the wall and hurtling down the road. We hear that a youth gang is disturbing the matriculants writing their exams. “There’s always something happening in Zwelihle,” Mkhuseli says ruefully, re-directing us away from the school precinct with a certain degree of skill.
The little container shops and their home-made signs offering haircuts, groceries, canned goods and takeaway meals attract our attention. We meet Andrew Jaffu, a Malawian tailor who, apart from repairing belts, shoes and jeans, can also run up a wedding dress on order. And during past xenophobia attacks on foreign Africans, when former customers stormed in, stole his fabric and broke his machines, what did he do? “I started up all over again.”
At a busy junction just up the road, we come across a group of old men watching sheep heads roast on the open fire in time for lunch. I inevitably go into a Smiley Photo Frenzy, while Jules finds refuge from the skaapkoppe in the Shweshwe shop of Lungiswa Magade, originally from Cofimvaba. “In our culture, if you are a wife living with your husband’s family, it is respectful to wear one of these traditional skirts,” she says. “If you live alone with him, you wear what you want.”
Shweshwe skirts are made up of panels – the larger the woman, the more panels needed. The smallest skirts made here take seven panels, whereas the large ladies require at least a dozen. “How many panels would you need for me?” Jules wants to know. Lungiswa sizes her up critically with a seasoned-seamstress eye. “About nine,” she says, and Jules is okay with that.
R2 for a vetkoek, R8 if you want chicken livers
We wander on to the Motho ka Batho Spaza Shop & Take Aways. There we meet Teresia Tsilo and her daughter Alicia, who is deftly flipping golden brown vetkoeks in sizzling oil. Although they sell the regulation Nik Naks, fizzy drinks and Russian sausages, their vetkoeks are most sought-after. Two bucks gets you a gewone vetkoek, eight Rand a generous filling of chicken livers with it.
At the wire-meshed till, Teresia is chatting away with her customers, but she’s also egging on Alicia to get ready for the oncoming swarm of hungry schoolchildren. She’s from Mount Fletcher, has been here since 2006 and knows exactly what her customers like to eat.
After a quick photo of Alicia and her 13-month-old granddaughter Keitumetse, Mkhuseli leads us to up to two shack-covered koppies, one called Dubai, the other bearing the ironic name of Marikana. From the top of Marikana, we have a view of Walker Bay (with a hint of whale tail in the distance), as well as the expensive neighbouring suburbs of Hermanus in the distance, and a sea of shack roofs in the foreground.
We walk on to the Zwelihle Youth Café at the old RDP Centre, where it suddenly feels like we’ve strolled into an oasis of happiness, promise and a healthy crop of fine-looking carrots. Fikiswa Ngaye, a bustling woman with emphatic eyebrows, takes us around to meet the various entrepreneurs, one at a time.
A green space, somewhere beautiful
We tarry in the township and are a bit late, and there’s a rush to show us everything before the lunchtime queue lines up and it’s all hands on deck. Trevor Nkoyi, in charge of the large vegetable garden, is dreamily euphoric about his edibles as he points out strawberries growing from drainpipes, flowering borage, red peppers, kale, sweet potato and a bunch of delicious crops right down to my all-time favourite, the humble cabbage.
“We want to have a green space, somewhere beautiful,” says Trevor. “Many people are separated from Nature, and here we let them reconnect and develop a relationship with Nature. Here they can start eating a healthy something, straight from the soil. This brings life into Zwelihle, into an area where the soil was once dead. It is an opportunity to do something positive, something good.”
That’s what happens when you spend your days working in a veggie garden. Suddenly your world is green and everything is possible. Some of the produce from the garden goes into the meals created by chief cook Cynthia Ndabane, for their soup kitchen that feeds more than more 40 very hungry mouths on-site every weekday. The centre also lets the needy ones
take home containers of nourishment for their families.
We meet Magdalena Ponoane, who uses recycled materials and loslappies to make shopping bags and crochet hats, and Mardee Cita, who gives art classes to children. And here, in another hut, is Leeroy Kaizer the baker. He’s about to ice a batch of cupcakes as part of his daily catering business.
Overseeing operations is William Ntebe, who with his wife Fikiswa established the Zwelihle Youth Café here in September 2018. With very little outside funding, they have created a space for skills entrepreneurs and the youth of Zwelihle. “Each enterprise covers its own costs,” says William. “And part of the deal is they must help out at the centre.”
Then lunchtime is announced and a cluster of elderly Zwelihle people line up for their meal at the kitchen door, under the benevolent gaze of Mr Nkoyi and Mrs Ndabane, who grow and cook with lots of love. And perhaps a pinch of kitchen magic from somewhere deep in Xhosa country.