Hope slowly rises under African skies

In the Xhosa language, Langa literally means "the sun" – an optimistic label for a township originally built on top of a garbage dump. Most of the few white visitors who come here see Langa Township from the safety of a tour bus. But for more than two-thirds of South Africa's population – its black and mixed-race citizens – townships like this one are a daily reminder of the segregation and poverty that is the legacy of 46 years of apartheid.

For me and seven other writers, a visit to this township, 16 miles inland from spectacular Cape Town, is a reality check. After 12 days of safaris and visits to wealthy sections of South Africa, it would be easy to believe the whole nation is like that.

Our first impression of the township is of squalor and despair. But we soon find out that appearances are deceiving.

Langa spreads out across the Cape Flats in mostly overcrowded single-story dwellings, ranging from shantytown shacks to well-kept bungalows. We begin our tour in what is called the "Beverly Hills" section. Neat brick homes with manicured lawns lie close together on either side of a paved road.

As we make our way on foot farther into the town, the neighborhoods gradually evolve.

New two-story apartment houses fill the spot left vacant after a fire raged through a neighborhood of wooden shacks in 2000, leaving thousands homeless.

The brightly painted apartment buildings are crowded – sometimes housing six to a room – yet some inhabitants greet us with laughter as our group surrounds them, taking pictures as if at a press conference.

We end our walking tour at shacks huddled along dirt roads and fashioned out of spare building materials – wood, metal, plastic tarps – clearly the poorest section. Few trees offer shade from the baking sun. A line of curious children comes over to greet us, posing for photographs with pride.

Although poverty and crime are still problems in an area beset by crushing unemployment, a feeling of community exists, and an easygoing warmth welcomes us. We are touched by the openness of the people, their willingness to invite us into their homes. Touring Langa with a local guide opens up trust and ensures that our money goes to the community.

We notice that creative entrepreneurs have opened businesses such as restaurants inside their homes. Women make crafts – beaded bracelets, curios made of tin cans, recycled plastic bags for floor mats – to sell to tourists.

Our final stop is at the Zimase Community School. Because we are journalists, our guide asks the principal whether the school choir might sing for us. Scores of high schoolers line up wearing their blue and gold uniforms. Their voices soar as they dance to the rhythm of their songs. We are moved by their talent and joy.

Nations struggle to recover from their mistakes. South Africa is slowly righting itself after decades of forced apartheid. Eight years after Nelson Mandela was elected the first black South African president, his country is still looking for a way back from separation.

Listening to the hopeful voices of the Zimase student choir, somehow I feel that they will find a way.

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