Paying tribute to 50 years of Mdantsane

Thursday, September 26, 2013

One of South Africa’s most popular townships is celebrating 50 years of existence this year.

The township of Mdantsane, situated between East London and King William's Town, has its roots in the apartheid era and is reputed to be the second largest township in South Africa, after Soweto.

More than 400 000 people are said to be residing in this vibrant township.

SAnews visited Mdantsane this week to learn about its heritage, well-known vibrant street culture, fashion, music and food as well as speak to the first family of this massive township who share their story.

After being formed through Apartheid’s forced removals from other parts of the Eastern Cape, Mdantsane became the epitome of poverty, unemployment, crime and drug abuse.

But thanks to the endurance of its people, today the township boasts one of the most vibrant and fastest growing economies in the province. Even though most people in Mdantsane survive below the living wage, the area is said to be experiencing a significant growth in its middle class.

According to locals, the township also lacks an adequate economic and social infrastructure for an urban area of its size.

The population of the area is predominantly Xhosa and the language spoken in Mdantsane is isiXhosa.

Vibrant township life

The township is divided into 18 zones also known as native units. The zones are named numerically in the chronological order of their establishment. The central market, in N.U.2 (Native Unit 2) district is called "The Hi-way". It is here that most activities, like trading, occur. In Hi-way, a visitor can buy anything from traditionally hand-made shoes, to a hurriedly made ‘bunny chow’ and chicken feet served with pap or home-made bread. Here many informal traders sell their wares on the streets and it is also the location of the main taxi rank. In recent years, a popular place to socialise has been Man’s Buy & Braai place where local youngsters and visitors gather for a braai, music and drink.

Named after the first black nurse in South Africa, the Cecilia Makhiwane Hospital continues to provide healthcare services for thousands of residents here.

Politically, Mdantsane produced stalwarts like Thozamile Gqweta, who founded the South African Allied Workers' Union (Saawu) in the Eastern Cape in 1978.

In 1983, communities from East London and Mdantsane, a township outside East London, embarked on a boycott to protest an unannounced five cent increase in bus fares.

The boycott against the bus service started in July 1983 and culminated on 4 August in what was later called the Egerton massacre, which claimed 11 lives, with a further 36 commuters injured.

The massacre took place at Egerton Railway Station outside Mdantsane when police officials from the apartheid bantustan of Ciskei shot and beat residents.

Sporting activities

In the sporting arena, Mdantsane is known as the home of boxing, with boxing world champions like Happyboy Mgxaji, Welcome Ncita and Vuyani Bungu, to mention just a few, hailing from the area.

The ordinary people of Mdantsane are the daily heroes of this township. They are the people who work tirelessly every day and send out messages of courage and endurance, something that makes the township what it is.

“We were very young when we moved into our first house in Mdantsane. Our parents were among the first families to move in here and during those times it was not easy to grow up in Mdantsane,” remembers Thandekile Tukutese.

He is the son of Nogesi and Bomkazi Tukutese. It is believed they are the first couple to have been moved to Mdantsane in 1962 as part of the government's policies to provide living space for cheap African labour. Both Nogesi and Bomkazi passed away last year.

When the family arrived, South Africa was still a deeply divided nation and townships like Mdantsane were regarded by the apartheid government as dumping sites.

“They brought us here to perish. Their plan was to destroy us and it never worked. We grew up to be this strong and vibrant community you see today.”

Thandekile says while there was a perception of a growing crime rate in Mdansane which is affecting the township tourism numbers, he still believes it is very safe for visitors.

“One thing we respect here in Mdansane is the visitors. When you are a visitor here, people treat you like royal because we believe in the value that tourists bring to Mdansane.

According to Statistics South Africa, the area still has a very high unemployment rate.

Urban renewal programmes

It’s believed the advent of the Mdantsane Urban Renewal initiative will see the middle class grow rapidly. It is aimed at speeding up service delivery and improving the quality of life, fight poverty and under-development of communities living in eight identified townships.

The opening of the multimillion-rand Mdantsane City mall, one of the largest shopping malls in the Eastern Cape, in April 2008, is also believed to have heralded a new era for the township. It transformed the area from a dormitory housing development to a self-contained suburb with its own amenities and entertainment facilities. 

People like Thandekile believed that what started as a dumping site in Mdantsane 50 years ago, has turned into a thriving township, one that remains rich with South African culture and heritage.

“We have our challenges but we are strong people, proud of our past and confident of our future,” he says. –

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