Cape Town’s townships were once referred to as “apartheid’s dumping ground”. Today, 22 years into democracy, the stories usually told of these spaces speak of poverty, rampant crime and socioeconomic marginalization.
But Tony Elvin, the charismatic founder of Ikhaya Le Langa, has a very different view. “When I first discovered Langa, not only was it not what I was told in terms of supposedly being a sad and fearful place,” he says, “It was the place where I found a community still intact. There’s an energy and a spirit that is in Langa, and if we can capture that, it’s like gold.”
Seated in the café at his headquarters in a repurposed Langa primary school, Elvin uses a detailed and dog-eared map of Cape Town to introduce what his NGO is trying to achieve in Cape Town’s oldest black township.
What the map reveals is surprising and powerful: Langa does not sit on the isolated peripheries of the metropolis where common lore has long positioned it, but right at its pulsing heart.
As a black Londoner living in Langa, Elvin admits that he’s used to surprising people. Before he moved here permanently in 2010, the long-neglected Langa community’s interaction with the rest of the world had been limited to occasional groups of white tourists passing through on a quick “poverty safari”, as Tony disdainfully calls the archetypal township tour, before heading back to their cushy city hotels.
Through the ongoing development of the so-called Langa Quarter, Elvin hopes to emphatically change that trend.
“The aim is to create an aspirational cool place, not just for tourists, to create a new place in Cape Town where Capetonians can also go, not only for a history lesson, but to listen to some great jazz, see some great art, chill out and have a great time. I want the Langa Quarter to be to Cape Town what the French Quarter is to New Orleans,” says Elvin.
The Langa Quarter is the pilot model of a concept that Elvin has dubbed the “Social Enterprise Precinct”. The idea, he says, is to overlay the social enterprise principles of “people, planet and profit” onto particular neighborhoods, and to thereby create “viable, sustainable spaces where investment will flourish, and the poverty will then take care of itself.”
Elvin has considerable experience doing this in Cape Town, having first come here as a social enterprise consultant for celebrity chef Jamie Oliver in 2004. Elvin soon fell in love with the city and went on to set up his own social enterprise consultancy firm in the center of Cape Town, where he came into contact with a number of young township-based social entrepreneurs.
“I became aware that there was a lot more I wanted to do in Cape Town, and particularly in the townships,” says Elvin.
He concedes that he still “wasn’t quite sure” what he was setting out to achieve when he moved from his luxurious Hout Bay residence into the township to start Ikhaya Le Langa.
“Even today, I sometimes describe it all as being at sea, in the middle of a storm, in a boat that I’m still building, without knowing what shape it will take, and I’m not sure what direction I’m headed in either. It’s still new, this approach.”
But Elvin can already boast a number of successes, including the Langa Quarter Homestay Hotel, where visitors are fed and accommodated in the home of a Langa resident. Since its inception a little over a year ago, this initiative has contributed more than R100,000 (roughly $6,400) to the 15 households currently involved – a considerable amount of money in an area where the majority earn less than R4,000 (roughly $250) a month.
Then there’s the annual, and increasingly well-attended, Uplifting Langa Through Reachable Art (ULTRA) street art event, which this year drew talented artists from across the Langa community and far beyond; world-renowned French street artist Jace stayed in Langa for a week as the event’s artist in residence.
Other fledgling ventures – including a media, graphics and advertising studio, an online shop for local artisans and designers, and a new restaurant – have drawn support from multinational companies, including Amazon and Ikea.
But take a walk with Elvin through the intricate crisscrossing streets of the quarter and it’s evident that he’s not resting on his laurels. He talks incessantly, throwing out countless ideas and plans for improving everything that he passes.
The effusive greetings he receives from the local residents along the way pay testament to the time he has invested in gaining their trust, and ensuring that they will be a central part of every step of this process.
“Above all, I’m focused on how the wonderful, cool transformation of Langa can positively influence the community and what is the opportunity to drive change. Langa deserves to be shown some love.”
It’s also clear that Elvin feels more than just a philanthropic affinity for Langa.
“I love living in Langa. I’ve got friends here, I love the noise of Langa, I like the people that you walk around and see every day – it’s really very charming. After six years, Langa’s my home.”
With so much still in the pipeline, Elvin is not looking to uproot himself anytime soon.
“The Langa Quarter is far from a finished product, but we are at a stage where we can invite people in and, critically, they can stay,” he says. “So that’s a stake in the ground and we will grow from that, and more and more people will benefit from that. Essentially what we’ve done already is create hope.”