Ron and Creddy Hart, from Downton, near Salisbury, had the unusual experience for two white people of spending two months in a black township in South Africa. Ron, a retired Anglican priest, and Creddy, a retired nurse and church worker who was born in South Africa but grew up in Wales, were both on placement with USPG’s Journey With Us programme.
Despite the ongoing legacy of Apartheid and the many struggles in the country, we found the people we spent time with in South Africa to be a loving Christian community from whom we received great deal.
The black township of Ikageng consists of long roads of gated and fenced plots, each of which had once contained a small two-bedroom house provided by the government at the time of forced relocations.
Some of these houses were still in use, some had been replaced with larger houses, some had been extended with corrugated iron rooms or outbuildings, some had been fallen into decay and been replaced with corrugated iron shacks.
Beyond these rows of houses were the ‘extension’ areas, where more small government houses had been built, now mixed in with make-shift shacks, and beyond this was a vast area of informal poorer housing, which offered shelter from the rain but no protection from the cold.
The overall impression, to us, was of a remarkably classless society in which people with nothing lived alongside those with cars and well-equipped kitchens, sometimes in the same street. For me, seeing this highlighted the extent to which the rich and poor in my home country seldom meet as equals.
People mixed freely with their neighbours, helping one another out, and going to church together. We found it to be a loving community where mutual respect is highly valued and practised. Indeed, on the back of a hearse, we saw the words ‘Everybody is somebody’.
The Ikageng Township was established as part of the enforced resettlement programme under Apartheid. As part of this programme, ‘coloureds’, Asians and the black Bantu people were each relocated to separate but adjacent areas. The coloureds and Asians mostly found themselves in larger houses, though many in the Asian communities lost their business in the process. The black Bantu people, however, found themselves in smaller houses in the less well-appointed area of Ikageng, which ironically means ‘build it yourself’ in Afrikaans.
Furthermore, different pay scales were introduced for the different groups, which made life difficult for those who already had little, which mostly meant the blacks. Under relocation, all people had access to water, electricity and sewerage services, but this continued only for as long as people could pay.
The nearest shopping centre to Ikageng is called Ikageng Gate, which is a reference to a gate that once spanned the road, which was used by the police as a checkpoint. To the deliberate humiliation of the people of Ikageng, the authorities had decorated the gate with pictures of baboons, a comment on how they saw the inhabitants. The gate has long gone, but the painful memories remain.
For our placement, our host Bishop Stephen Diseko invited us to simply live in the township and participate in the life of the church. The bishop wanted us to simply be ourselves – an opportunity we embraced and found it to be a great spiritual blessing.
I regularly undertook prayer walks, during which I had a great sense of God’s love permeating every space and every encounter with people who had become special to us. People greeted us with a hug and a smile. I found Ikageng to be a very Christian community, with so many churches (probably over a hundred) and great respect for clergy. ‘Hello, Father,’ people said and, sometimes, ‘Come and pray for us’. Creddy also got to know our neighbours well.
I prayed with men in the local pub, Creddy baked a cake for the pub staff, and we prayed with a man who told us he was an alcoholic. On a street corner, we met a group of young people huddled over a pot in which they were cooking a pig’s head. They were unemployed and felt discouraged, but it was such a privilege to spend time with them, and before I left I was able to pray with them for a sense of worth and dignity in spite of their problems.
About 30 children lived on our street. They frequently played outside – an old shopping trolley or an old tyre provided them with hours of fun – and were always in and out of each other’s homes. In time, we started running regular play sessions on our stoop for up to 20 children. They loved colouring books and singing. We also held a children’s party, which was attended by more than two dozen children, plus parents and neighbours, who joined in the balloon relay and enjoyed eating ice cream.
We joined the local library. We patronised the local tailor: a Malawian working in the garage next to his house. We shopped at the local stores, where money and goods pass through a hole in a security screen. And we joined Fr Aaron and his colleagues from the Cathedral of the Resurrection in taking communion to the sick in both comfortable homes and in tiny shacks where there was barely space to sit. We also attended funerals, weddings and many church services.
What struck us most about church was the singing, which we found deeply moving. Everyone sang loudly, moving their bodies and harmonising, creating a rich texture of sound within frequently complex rhythms. It was singing that comes from a deep place.
I had the privilege of preaching and celebrating at the cathedral a number of times, and at two of the outstations. One of these outstations was in a poorer part of Ikageng, where the people had built a church and were furnishing it with a view to achieving parish church status. The other outstation was in a village that consisted of no more than tin shacks and a few sheep, but where we received a very warm welcome.
Outside of our immediate experience in Ikageng, we were always aware that there is political unrest in South Africa and that the people are struggling. The newspapers were full of articles about alleged government corruption and protests about the lack of service delivery, which sometimes escalate into looting.
There was a spate of violence directed at children and young girls, with numerous horrific deaths, with people left struggling to understand the reasons. Perhaps people’s frustration at their poverty is being expressed in violent anger? We also heard about a looming drought in Cape Town, where reservoirs were depleted.
And, as a subplot, arguments raged in the media about a text sent by a prominent politician who said colonialism wasn’t all bad and had left a legacy of education and medical care. In response, those under the African Renaissance banner said there had been plenty of knowledge and wisdom in South Africa prior to the colonists.
With all of these matters, we kept out of any arguments but we were always keen to listen and understand, and we found people happy to explain their point of view and well informed. The desire to be a Rainbow nation remains, but the gross economic inequalities remain too, and the poorest lack even the basics of life.
Looking back over our time there, I would say we found a spiritual home among people who were loving and who were articulately and wholeheartedly Christian.
It was fascinating to be the only white people living in a township of 100,000 people, and to have opportunities to minister on the streets in a way which doesn’t easily happen in UK.
Our understanding was enhanced by sharing in a different cultural perspective. For example, we noticed how death is marked so fully and reverently through moving and lengthy funerals.
Above all, having no set agenda gave us unhurried time to be with God and with people, and we had a deep sense of God’s love and presence which we will carry with us into the future.
We were sad to leave Ikageng and remain truly grateful to USPG for making this experience possible, and also to Bishop Stephen and the Diocese of Matlosane for inviting us and looking after us.