Interpreting the essential words that help explain the world.

Street Smart

Why South Africa’s formerly segregated townships are still central to its imagination.

(Musonda Kabwe for Foreign Policy)
(Musonda Kabwe for Foreign Policy)

“You need to see my friend’s gun,” Mophethe Thebe said in a gas station parking lot in Soweto, the famous swath of townships southwest of Johannesburg. He promised this was a good way to understand the meaning of a South African word coined more than a half-century ago: ekasi. Today, the word—sometimes rendered as kasi—serves as the name for bars and restaurants, finds its way into hip-hop lyrics, and makes up the moniker for one of Johannesburg’s top radio stations. But ekasi’s ubiquity isn’t simply cultural; its fluid definition mirrors political debates about South Africa’s future.

Technically, ekasi is just the Zulu term for “township,” a segregated neighborhood where black people were forced to live under apartheid. But it also functions the way the word “soul” or “home-cooked” does in front of “food” in American vernacular. The word suggests authentic, real, and the heart of black South Africa.

At its heart are paradoxes. It’s a term of affection, even as it connotes the negative, even shameful, sides of contemporary black South African life; in this way, it works a little like the English word “ghetto.” Ekasi represents the swagger and boastful flamboyance that often accompany the crime that plagues contemporary South African townships—whether the sleekness of Thebe’s friend’s gun or the weekly party where his other friends do wheelies in the Audis they’ve stolen from richer, white neighborhoods.

Another paradox emerges from ekasi’s origin. It originated from a word in Afrikaans, the language of the largely Dutch-descended white minority that ran apartheid South Africa until the arrival of majority rule in 1994. From the start of the 20th century, when the first segregated townships were formed, speakers of Afrikaans tended to refer to any given one of them simply as a “location,” or lokasie. A form of this word was eventually adopted into Zulu.

Older black South Africans, those who were adults during the late stages of apartheid, didn’t hear ekasi uttered as much by their own peers. In that period, ekasi was associated with those who were considered “relaxed”—a pejorative for black people who didn’t seem to care enough about the liberation struggle. Using the term was associated with seeking favor with the Afrikaner oppressors.

The hatred bottled up in such language choices was unleashed in the 1976 Soweto uprising, a huge protest against the forcible use of Afrikaans in schools that helped hasten apartheid’s unraveling. When apartheid did end in the early 1990s, one of the main promises made by the country’s new leaders was that black South Africans would finally be able to get out of the townships—or that they would be transformed into more livable places.

Yet South Africa’s first black democratic leaders, wary of repeating the failures of previous post-colonial African presidents, focused less on transforming the lives of the country’s poorest citizens than on keeping life relatively easy for the wealthy whites who lived in leafy suburbs far from the townships. The measure of black success became making it in the white world: acquiring a corporate or cushy government job, speaking in a so-called “posh” or English accent, even eating organic salads instead of kota—a quarter loaf of white bread stuffed with processed meat and cheese, French fries, and sometimes a hot dog—in other words, what black South Africans ate when they didn’t have the money or time for anything else.

But few black South Africans were fully able to make this transition. Around half of the country’s black adults still live in townships today, and a quarter of South Africans, virtually all of them black, live in conditions that meet the United Nations’ threshold for extreme poverty. It was partly in response to this failed transition that the word previously associated with oppression began to make its way into young people’s vocabulary as a celebratory, even defiant, slang term. “Living ekasi meant everything” to him growing up, Thebe said. “The way we love. The way we talk. The way we dress. You have lived under harsh circumstances. You have survived.”

The power of this cultural ideal, at once transgressive and backward looking, becomes especially clear at a secondary school in a township near Johannesburg called Tsakane. Marooned 30 miles southeast of the city’s business center, the school is encircled by mine dumps and fields of cattle; many of the school’s 10th-grade students live in corrugated aluminum shacks. This is an NGO-run school for aspirational kids, all of whom aim to get away from ekasi life—to a reputable university in Cape Town or Johannesburg or an Ivy League school in the United States.

Yet when asked to talk about the clothing style implied by the word ekasi, a few students screamed with excitement, pumped their fists, and stood up to describe it: Converse shoes, Dickies pants, a leather jacket, gold chain, tattoo, and a chiskop—a shaved shiny bald head. Their parents, they said, frowned on such “criminal” outfits, but the students exhibited the joy of explaining something that was already theirs, not simply a dream.

Meanwhile, even wealthier black South Africans have discovered that moving into the formerly white space of elite society comes with unexpected losses. Some have found that white neighbors or bosses still view them with distrust no matter how culturally acceptable they have become; at least in the ekasi, they had felt as if they belonged.

And so, for black South Africans across the social spectrum, township experiences once considered purely tragic began to feel noble, even cool: the vibrant street life created by the lack of transport, the kindness often generated by mutual want, the hustling and crime necessitated by the lack of opportunities and the enduring racism, and, increasingly, the contempt directed at them by many of the wealthiest black elites.

A quarter-century after apartheid’s end, South African politics and society are still driven by a sense of being stuck within a binary.

A quarter-century after apartheid’s end, South African politics and society are still driven by a sense of being stuck within a binary: follow a Western, consumerist, so-called white development and cultural path or turn away from that toward something more just, inclusive, and authentic. But there are fears around the latter route, a suspicion that black South Africans’ truest identity is a reaction to their centuries of oppression and that the black experience might still be dangerous to embrace—a resistance that has anger at its heart.

This tension warps South African political debates. Focused steps in the direction of land redistribution, affirmative action, and changes to the Western-focused education system are clearly necessary to make the post-apartheid society more sustainable and fair. There remains an anxiety, however, that such policies would be motivated less by a desire to improve the lives of all citizens than to destroy the privileges of the advantaged and would thus represent giving in to the dark side of ekasi—a hunger for money, a tolerance for disorder, a taste for destruction—that lurks behind its nostalgic, affectionate connotations. One boy at the school in Tsakane, the far-flung township, said he wondered whether the way he and his friends used ekasi kept black South African culture alive but then added, “It’s also pushing us back.”

“If I pulled a gun on you now, it’s ekasi,” he said, smiling. “But it’s also the dumbest thing.”

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of Foreign Policy magazine.

Eve Fairbanks, a writer living in Johannesburg, is at work on a book about South Africa.