[City Editor] Niq Mhlongo’s township etiquette—an irreverent guide to Soweto, my hood

Forget about Vilakazi Street, Soweto is deeper than that. When you get off the taxi and you’re a smoker, buy a cigarette loose from any vendor on the street. You can even ask one from a stranger. When you light your cigarette, a stranger is likely to say ‘skuif’. This means let’s share, please. What you do is to smoke half of your cigarette before passing it to the total stranger. If you want, you can take a fresh piece from your packet and give it to the stranger. Whatever the case may be, you can’t ignore a stranger once they say ‘skuif’. While smoking, a conversation is bound to start because you can’t just look at the stranger with those confused eyes of yours. You may learn a lot from your chat: about a planned party, a car hijack, a funeral, who is HIV-positive, who slept with whom, or where to buy a car part that’s giving your car a problem, cheaper. That’s what communalism is all about here.

Do not use a bus tour to come to Soweto. Buses are meant for tourists. We township people hate it when people watch us from the bus and take pictures of us as if we were animals in the zoo. Maybe you can do it along the gentrified Vilakazi Street, but not in the real Soweto.

When you ask me to take you to a shebeen to drink a beer you must know that you’re the buyer. Also remember that not everyone drinks at your slow pace here. Just make sure me and my friends are always refilled. When the beer is finished you don’t have to ask me whether you should buy more. Just stand up and buy at the counter. If it’s a decent pub, just call the waiter to refill every ten minutes. The table must always be full of bottles. Another thing, most people prefer sharing a ngudu—that’s a 750ml—and drinking out of the bottle. You may find this very unhealthy, but if you do it people will praise you for being one of them, especially if you don’t wipe the mouth of the bottle before a toothless uncle passes it to you. Don’t judge people if they keep expecting you to refill.

Avoid talking politics if you can. Very few people like that topic because in Soweto people are divided between EFF and ANC. If you insist on that topic you may make DA supporters shy as many still have to come out of the closet. The other concern is that you may be risking a very loud debate that may lead to a fist fight. Here in the township we love our soccer, music, and our celebrities, such as Kelly Khumalo, Khanyi Mbau, Cassper Nyovest, AKA, and everyone that appears on TV. You’ll also be accepted immediately if you show interest in domestic soccer and not English Premier League or Spanish La Liga. This doesn’t mean we don’t know Messi, Ramos or Pogba, but Chiefs, Pirates and Sundowns are part of our daily lives.

When it comes to music, we enjoy playing it loud. If you have sensitive ears don’t bother coming here. House music is our most popular music. If you’re older you may not differentiate between our slow jam, deep house or gqom. But we have a dance move for every different song and genre. We can do idibala and vosho dances to your delight. All you must know is that we are a dancing community, and by dance I mean real dance. Not your ballet. Whoever came with the nonsense that black people cannot dance because we are flat-footed was completely wrong. Come to Soweto, we will show you that we dance and run better than our arch-footed fellow humans. If you feel you cannot compete with the pace of our dancing, you’re more than welcome to do your boere-vastrap-langarm dance and dance ahead of the beats.

Don’t get me wrong, we also love our hip-hop and what we call Afro-soul music by Nathi, Mafikizolo, Thandiswa Mazwai and others. Jazz music is for the older generation, though. It’s always played on Sundays.

Most white friends have a tendency to bring flowers as a gift when visiting us in the township. This is unacceptable. Where do you expect me to put your flowers in a four-roomed house that I share with ten people? Do you think I can eat the flowers? To most of us your bunch of flowers that you think are beautiful smell like our grandmother’s snuff. Imagine putting your roses in our four-roomed house and causing everyone to sneeze. It is better you come with meat for everyone to braai, or a case of beer for everyone to drink. Another tendency white people have is pretending they don’t like meat a lot. They will only eat one piece. Please stop that. You make us feel like carnivores.

When you visit me in my township, know that you’re not visiting just me. We black people live a very communal life. You can never have me all by yourself. So, when I talk about my mother, father, brother and sister I’m not only referring to the biological side of things. Someone who is more or less the same age as my mother is my mother, same as my brother, sister, and father. So, unlike you they don’t have to get an invitation card before they visit my home. When these extended families of mine come to me unannounced, we must make sure they’re well fed. We don’t want them to talk badly about us in the future, or bewitch us. So when we buy meat and beer for a braai, we include their ghosts in our minds just in case they arrive unannounced. So, please buy more than R300 worth of meat and not just one steak. Please don’t forget a packet of cigarettes for my friends and uncles that are unemployed. Also, you must take note of the fact one of my uncles is likely to call you at the corner and ask for three rands for a loose cigarette. We call him a tollgate.

Most importantly, please stop calling my mother or brother by their first names. It’s disrespectful. Be attentive to how I address everyone and start calling them the way I call them. If I say mama, you also call them mama, not Khanyi. That’s why I’ll never introduce my mother as Khanyi or Joyce to you. Another thing, if you’re my white friend: do not get overexcited and ask me to give you an African name. We will only give it to you if we like you. We don’t just give these names, you earn them, especially from your deeds.

If you use a car remember not to pimp it too much. It will attract thugs who might hijack you for your rims or music. But don’t close your windows while driving inside our township. It means that you’re already assuming that we are thugs. You may fasten your seatbelt if you’re a driver although most township people don’t do this. Don’t be alarmed by people drinking and smoking, playing music loud, or talking on their cellphones while driving. Just know you’re not one of them. You yourself can only do these things when you’re in the company of locals because only they know how to talk to traffic cops.

VW Polo, Golf, Toyota Fortuner, Ford Ranger: these are targets for car hijackers and thieves. A Toyota Fortuner’s engine fits on the commercial Toyota Quantum minibus taxi and that’s why it is popular. A Quantum minibus taxi that runs on a Toyota Fortuner SUV engine is durable. Remember, taxis have to run seven days a week and their engines get tired quickly. SUVs have high specs and durability, that’s why their diffs and other parts are used for taxis. VW Polo and Polo Vivo are the first and second best selling cars in South Africa, meanwhile.

Are you interested in dating a girl or guy in the township? It would be safe if you visited them during the day. The night is not recommended. As I said earlier, township people are very communal. During the day the street is watched like hawks. Should anyone one try to harm you, you’ll hear the word ‘vimba’ being shouted. This means don’t let the culprit out of sight. We’re going to moer that person because he robbed someone on our street. But the nights have no guarantee.

Don’t carry more than R300 in your pocket. Most places use a card swiping machine and there are malls everywhere. Make sure you have a little change in case uncle asks for R10 to buy some loose cigarettes.

The most popular name you’ll hear people say is ‘uncle’. He’s not necessarily a biological uncle. This may be a generic name to refer to that man who comes drunk as you’re sitting on the chair outside. He doesn’t care who you are, but will interrupt your conversation to tell you his story. If you’re white he may tell you how he used to work or have a girlfriend ‘at the kitchens’, or white man’s suburbs. He doesn’t care whether you’re a South African or not. This is not to offend you, but to let you know that he knows white people better than others from the time of apartheid. He may even try to speak in Afrikaans because all whites are supposed to speak Afrikaans. Five minutes into the conversation he will ask for a cigarette because all white people smoke anyway. If you don’t have then he will ask for R5 to go and get the cigarette at the nearest spaza shop. But before he leaves he will have to finish the alcohol that he has been drinking. If he doesn’t have a bottle yet, he will drink yours and then leave. That’s when aunty will chastise him for lack of respect, and because you’re white and new, you’ll say sorry on his behalf. From there uncle will go and come back very fast to tell you more of his ‘kitchen memoirs’ at the suburbs before you were born. That’s how you become friends with uncles.

Lastly, just remember that you’re visiting a place full of unemployed people. We don’t even know the statistics because people don’t want to be counted during the census. We’re not cows or goats, why count us. But when you’re driving around the township during the week and see a street with lots of people, including young children: that’s a sign that that particular part of the township has the highest unemployment rate. If you see women on the street corner, you must know they’re waiting for the Chinese van to play the fafi game called M’China. If you see lots of young women in a particular house, you must know they’re gambling with cards. That particular house is called a casino in the township. If you see young boys and girls loitering in the park during the week when others are at school, you must know they’re on a cheap drug called nyaope.

You must know your township etiquette.

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