How Ayanda Cuba creates space by bridging gaps between people

Happyplaces stories (video)

When I knew I was going to Cape Town, I asked some people who I should meet. Marizanne Knoesen suggested that it would be cool if I would speak to Ayanda to get a sense of township space. I looked him up and sent him a direct message via Instagram. After a while, he replied, we moved our conversation to Whatsapp and set up a meeting. He also proposed that I should meet a friend he wanted to introduce me to. Ayanda told me that his friend is currently building a recreation hub in the TR section’s informal community, which is all about creating a safe space for kids. That I would also love his story and the work he’s doing. Perfect.

In early May, I drove to our meeting point, The Bandwidth Barn at Lookout Hill in Khayelitsha. To be prepared properly, I had checked all the cameras’ batteries the night before and replaced them with freshly charged new ones. So, early in the morning, I drove 30 kilometres from Cape Town down the N2. Unfortunately, the Google navigation stopped giving me useful clues to navigate through Khayelitsha’s sea of glittering, makeshift houses made of sheets of corrugated metal. Khayelitsha is said to be the largest and fastest-growing township in South Africa, on the Cape Flats in the City of Cape Town. Khayelitsha is huge; the area covers over 43 square kilometres, making it very easy to get lost as a first-time visitor since because it doesn’t have the signage that formal settlements have. Nevertheless, I continued my trip based on the directions Ayanda had given me, and eventually, I found the building I recognised the building from a photo I found on the internet.

Inside the building, I found Ayanda in conversation with someone else. It turned out they also just met since they both had an appointment with someone but did not know what the other looked like, a funny side effect of these blind date meetings. So after they finished their spontaneous encounter, we met.

Ayanda took me to his friend Aphiwe’s place in the TR section of Khayelitsha. We drove through the busy streets, took a left, then a right, drove into a street, reversed the car, drove back a little bit, and arrived. On one of the walls across the street, written in playful typography, it read ‘Tembisa Ratanga’.

After all the kindnesses of getting to know each other, we got ready to start recording Ayanda and Aphiwe’s stories and take some pictures. But unfortunately, it soon became apparent that I had carefully replaced the batteries I had put in for the cameras the day before with the empty ones before I left Cape Town. Oops.

I asked if both men still had time, and luckily they did, so I drove back to Cape Town and back to Khayelitsha with all the batteries I could find. The second time into the area was a bit more challenging, as Aphiwe’s shack was in the middle of Khayelitsha. But being blessed with a surprisingly well-functioning racing pigeon sense of direction and a little help from the live sharing of our locations via Whatsapp, I found the place again. And, Ayanda was already on the lookout for me because, apparently, I had taken quite a detour. Oh well. We replaced the camera batteries and then finally recorded their stories.

Ayanda Cuba is a connector, a fourth-generation designer, entrepreneur and serial collaborator. His mind is his greatest asset, as shown by various academic awards, including student of the year at Learn to Earn. As the co-founder of ABCD Concepts, based in the heart of Khayelitsha, he believes in using his creativity to create sustainable solutions for the communities around him. Its mission is to represent the cultural experiences while fostering a learning opportunity for people and businesses within local communities through physical activities. He aims to bridge the cultural, social, and communication gap between people.

This transcript is edited for clarity and length.

Space to explore

‘Igama lam ngu,’ which means ‘my name is’ Ayanda Cuba, like the small Cuban island. I’m from Cape Town, from the township called Khayelitsha. I was born in the Eastern Cape in Gqeberha, which used to be called Port Elisabeth. My parents migrated to different parts of the city, and we ended up in this beautiful area called Khayelitsha.

People see townships as very ‘dark’ communities, as places where you can’t go on your own unless you know someone. There is always this stigma. So I try to create space for people to come, and with me as a friend, really explore.

I’m a tour guide, community activist, and someone who believes that we can own our spaces. A lot of the work I do is trying to make people feel like they can belong anywhere in the world, specifically in any township. We curate tours that allow people to immerse themselves in our culture, heritage, and, most importantly, our spaces. Because I grew up in a township, I always thought there is a lot that we can show the world and that there is also a lot of who we are that the world could embrace. However, people see townships as very ‘dark’ communities, as places where you can’t go on your own unless you know someone. There is always this stigma. So I try to create space for people to come, and with me as a friend, really explore. This way, we demystify much of what they have been told. And with one of my friends, we set up projects that teach young kids to be positive role models and give them space to grow and be positive citizens in our society.

Room for a big boom

Khayelitsha is Cape Town’s largest township. It was established in the 1980s, in 1983, to be specific. It is part of a movement to enable the black citizens of South Africa to have their small piece of the pie of our country. When South Africa was established as a society, black people as a majority never really had any claim outside their main homelands. And for Xhosa-speaking people like me, that would have been the Eastern Cape. When they came to the Western Cape looking for jobs, better schooling, or better service delivery, many people were placed in townships because that was their section. When more and more people started coming to the city, there was more room to expand to this side of the city. If you’re someone who has never been to South Africa, Cape Town is located on the southern tip of South Africa. Khayelitsha is located in the South East of Cape Town. The migration moved from Langa, Nyanga, Gugulethu, Crossroads, and Khayelitsha. The name is beautiful; it means ‘a new home’ in Xhosa.

It is not that people are not doing anything. There is a big boom of entrepreneurs. Young people are doing amazing things, just like me. Trying to create space in the community where they can change the society as a whole.

There is a debate about how many people are living here. In 2011 it was about 500,000 people. If you ask a local today, they’ll say over two million. As a sceptic, we might have doubled the number. I don’t believe we have tripled the number yet. So I think it is around 1.2 to 1.5 million people, based on the growth rate we have experienced over the past years. I have some statistics to prove that. We have 68 schools, three police stations and a fourth one is about to be built. We have one major hospital that services the public and private sectors. We have four major clinics and six railway lines from Mandalay, Site C (also known as Nolungile), Nonqubela, Khayelitsha, Kuyasa and Chris Hani. And we have one of the city’s largest taxi organisations, Codeta. They take more than 60,000 people from this community to different parts of the city.

These indicators should prove that Khayelitsha is really big and houses a huge number of people. We’re faced with a high unemployment rate; many people living in Khayelitsha are under 24. So we have a lot of dependencies as well. Kids are still going to school; others are still toddlers. That raises our unemployment rate. But some people are employed, so it is not that people are not doing anything. There is a big boom of entrepreneurs. Young people are doing amazing things, just like me. Trying to create space in the community where they can change the society as a whole.

Transformative space

I see Khayelitsha as a vibrant township. I see where I grew up as a very transformative space. Funny enough, a couple created the first four-star hotel in the township last year. They created a space in the hotel market with an hotel in a township, which is great! To be two minutes away from that is very inspirational. It changes the way people look at townships. No one would ever think to find a four-star hotel in a township, but now we have one.

Right now, as you can see behind me, I’m in a space from Aphiwe. He creates the safe space ‘Tembisa Ratanga’ in one of the informal communities, that was built in 1992. He tries to create a community centre for the kids where they can play and feel safe because, unfortunately, for this specific area, it is very overcrowded. He and his wife decided to open up their space for the kids in the community. There are no public parks. There are no places where kids can go to play. Also, since the township is so close to the main road, it is easy for kids to get knocked over by a car. But, due to what they created, kids can now come over to play after school. So I’m here to help and facilitate all these things happening in my community.

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Marcel Kampman

Marcel Kampman

Founder of Happykamping & Happyplaces Project, author, sensemaker