Travel like a local in Langa
Robert Peters for Cape Town Tourism
We are always on the lookout for authentic experiences. The word ‘authentic’ obviously means different things to different people, but generally I like to think if you are sincerely welcomed into a community and their homes, invited to eat their food and immerse yourself in their culture, then you are dealing with genuine authenticity.
Globally, more and more people are looking for authentic travel experiences, which allow them to see the city like a local would, by seeking out tours and activities that allow them to travel and experience the neighbourhoods like the locals do.
Ubizo Events and Tours is a tour operator specialising in tours that encapsulate the locals’ lives, focussing on the township of Langa, which was established in 1927 in terms of the 1923 Urban Area Act and one of the oldest of its kind in South Africa. It was also a focal area for much of the resistance against the apartheid government and as such has a rich – if often turbulent – history.
Led by Ubizo’s founder, Sabu Siyaka, our tour of the area started at Cape Town Station with the group travelling by train to Langa. The train ride certainly adds authenticity to the tour as the bulk of the Langa workforce travels to and from work this way. The addition of the train is a calculated move by Sabu, who reasons that to truly understand the people of Langa, you need to get as close to their daily routine as you can. He is also a keen observer of people and regaled us with stories of the unique and entertaining characters working the carriages – from fruit sellers to busking musicians.
The trip is a short one – with just four stops and taking roughly 15 minutes – and is followed by a walk through the neighbourhood towards the first stop on the tour, Mzansi’s.
Ubizo will soon be offering a bicycling option and visitors can also opt to bus or drive into Langa for the tour, but the train trip is a welcome addition in my view. I did ask Sabu how unplanned stoppages will affect tours – there are two train tours every day – and he informed me that a bus will be on standby in case of such an occurrence.
Langa is more built-up than most would imagine, but the level of poverty is hard to ignore. There is a fairly large section of informal housing and it is a stark reminder of the country’s dark past. But what is also immediately evident is the warmth and sense of community in the neighbourhood. Nowhere is this more apparent than at Mzansi’s, which is run by Sabu’s parents, Nomonde and Ace.
“My mother makes the food, my dad gets down and my brother washes the dishes,” laughs Sabu as he takes us on a tour of the restaurant, which was an old family house before being turned into a restaurant seven years ago.
Lunch is a traditional Xhosa home-cooked meal, including local staples like samp, creamed spinach and beef stew. Dessert is local favourite malva pudding. It is a proper local meal and delicious. An in-house marimba band provides the tunes and atmosphere throughout, but the best part comes after lunch when Nomonde and Ace interact with guests. Nomonde with a brief history of the restaurant, Langa and the backstory to how she met Ace, who in turn teaches guests the ‘Pata Pata’ dance made famous by legendary local singer Miriam Makeba. The dancing is followed by a jam session on the marimba drums, which is always good fun.
Lunch is followed by a tour of the neighbourhood, where we are joined on by a bundle of fur known simply as ‘Fluffy’, who clearly knows the way as he takes point immediately. A neighbourhood favourite, Fluffy is a rockstar here and is mobbed by the young kids as we arrive at our first stop, the local Catholic School down the way from Mzansi’s. The poor little guy left soon after – probably in fear of his life – but it was pretty cool knowing that we had just been mixing it up with a local legend.
The tour incorporates, among other things, the church, the Langa Sports Field – which has produced some national sportsmen and no doubt will produce many more – the Arts and Culture Centre, Gugas’Thebe, the Dompas Museum and a visit to a local sangoma, before moving on to Gugulethu where you visit the Gughulethu Seven and Amy Biel Memorial, before wrapping things up with a meal at Mzoli’s - if on a weekend tour – or back at Mzansi’s during the week.
Walking the streets it is hard to ignore the poverty, but is also heartening to see the work being done in terms of upliftment by locals. The sense of pride and community in Langa is immediately evident and as Sabu leads us through the neighbourhood, filling us in on local history and trivia, it is clear that those who ‘make it’ are generally more interested in giving back than getting out. If you take anything away from a tour of Langa, let it be that.