At night, silence and darkness descend on Khayelitsha, a township outside Cape Town. But about a quarter-mile down Spine Road, a major thoroughfare, bare wooden structures twinkle blue and yellow lights that vibrate with the electronic beats of the wildly popular South African-style emapiano.
Several Mercedes Benz and BMWs are among the cars parked along the road, while smoke billows from the grills of dozens of food vendors. Some sell alcohol from the trunk of their cars, while others set up hawkers outside clubs.
On a recent evening, Nesedo Silas, 36 — looking office-ready with a sweater around his neck and thick clear-framed glasses — stood shoulder-to-shoulder with a crowd inside a club looking for a hookah in one eye. The burning mist of
“People used to go to the city,” he said, referring to Cape Town, for the good times. But now, he said, there are many establishments in the township, which has a population of 450,000, whose owners “know what it is we love, we want.”
Townships in South Africa were born out of racist apartheid-era social engineering, which excluded non-white citizens from economic opportunities and infrastructure. That legacy is still felt today in the poverty and crime that plague many townships.
In recent years, however, Khayelitsha’s nightlife scene has grown enormously, with restaurants and clubs springing up, particularly along Spine Road. All the activities have helped ease concerns about violent crime being encountered in night-time venues in the township, and have attracted more local black professionals such as Mr. Silas, who works in insurance. He and others are rejecting the velvet ropes of the big city of Cape Town – with its traffic, expensive drinks and white population – for nightlife they believe better suits their culture and tastes.
“I can’t relate to that – it’s white music,” Mr Silas said of the Cape Town establishments.
Although many towns under apartheid lacked basic services such as running water and electricity, many who grew up in them found comfort in long periods of gathering, socializing and celebrating.
After the country’s transition to multiracial democracy in 1994 created more economic opportunities for Black South Africans, recreational possibilities in the township became increasingly sophisticated. This is evident across the country; Clubs in Soweto, near Johannesburg, and Umlazi, near the coastal city of Durban, are some of the hottest in the country.
“This township comes with a special kind of freedom,” said Zinhale Makadi, chief executive of Max’s Lifestyle Village in Umalazi, a sprawling venue that includes a restaurant, nightclub, carwash and salon.
Khayelitsha was built in 1983 by the apartheid government to relieve the overcrowded settlements surrounding it. It is now the second largest black township in South Africa.
The origins of its flourishing nightlife scene date back to 2007, when a local businessman, Bulelani Skaap, better known as Ace, opened the nightclub Quays around the corner from Spine Road. Over the years, other establishments popped up nearby, attracting the luxury car set.
Spine Road developed into a casual hub of evening activity. Revelers parked their cars on the side of the road and grilled meat and drank.
Fikile Makuliwe, a 31-year-old native of Khayelitsha, saw an opportunity.
About four years ago, while studying engineering in college, he started setting up a gazebo with comfy chairs, hookah pipes and a cellphone charging station along the spine road every weekend. Mr Makuliwe said he hoped the comfortable setup, which he broke down at the end of each evening, would attract revelers looking for an experience that felt VIP.
After saving money from this venture and an engineering apprenticeship, Mr Makuliwe opened Ocean Kanda in late 2020, which sells sushi and other seafood by day, and features ear-splitting DJs by night.
“There’s no place like this,” said Thando Mpushe, a 35-year-old professional opera singer, standing on a high platform in the VIP section of Ocean Kanda.
Ocean Kanda’s long, boxy structure, built with exposed logs and a corrugated tin roof, looks more beach shack than ritzy club.
But it was one of many establishments opened during the pandemic — some without the city’s blessing — that helped make Spine Road a hub of activity.
“It has now gone further than expected,” said Ndithini Tyhido, president of the Khayelitsha Development Forum. “Look at the clothes they wear, the cars they drive, the types of drinks they drink.”
Despite the best efforts by some establishments to try to exude a luxurious aura – with plush sofas, and names like “Paris Lifestyle” – the atmosphere along Spine Road remains decidedly working class.
Nestled amidst a neighborhood of tightly packed bungalows, the corridor is lined with several slapdash sheds that play music and serve drinks. Hundreds of people hang around the cars, and as the night progresses, intoxicated stragglers stumble along the dirt paths or fall into the street.
For some, Khayelitsha’s booming nightlife is a testament to the hustle and bustle of people in a country where almost a third of the population is unemployed, and where many are constrained by systemic barriers – such as difficulties obtaining bank loans and the historic shortage of stable, affordable housing.
Tera, a 36-year-old former restaurant manager, used to sell liquor from his compact Hatchery Renault on Spine Road. Last March — without permission from the city, he said — he put together a tin shack about the size of a classroom across the street, and hung lights on a wall in the shape of letters bearing the name of his new establishment: R Lounge. .
Thera, who asked that his last name be withheld for fear of getting into trouble, said he was motivated by hunger and poverty. “What we are doing is illegal. “We’ll try to make as much money as we can.”
Khayelitsha’s intrepid nightlife entrepreneurs are also forced to keep an eye on crime.
As of last September, the Western Cape province had recorded 571 incidents of mass shootings over a three-year period, mostly in townships near Cape Town. There were 130 murders in Khayelitsha during three months last year, the highest in the country.
Malibongwe Dadase, who last October opened Dades’ Shisnyama, a restaurant and lounge in the seclusion and darkness a five-minute drive from Spine Road, said that although the violence disappointed some customers, she hoped businesses like hers would continue to do so. Attendance can help deter crime.
“I was like, ‘Okay, that’s okay, let me take a risk,'” Mr. Dadase, 42, said of his decision to open up. “Fear can limit your dreams.”
Community leaders said that in some ways, the booming nightlife has created pockets of safety.
Murder and some other violent crimes don’t usually happen along Spine Road, possibly with the crowds acting as a deterrent, said Lunga Guza, head of the area’s Community Police Forum, a residents’ group that works with the police. But gender-based violence has occurred, he said, and traffic and drug addiction can be a nuisance.
Another possible crime prevention measure is the so-called security fee. Gangs in Khayelitsha are notorious for forcing business owners to pay for “protection” or face potentially fatal consequences. Although the gang’s efforts are considered illegal extortion, locals say they can keep serious criminals away. But all the nightlife owners refused to pay such fee.
Several years ago, Sbongile Matyi and his family moved to a house they bought in the suburbs of Kuils River because they felt it was safer than Khayelitsha, where they grew up. On a recent evening, 34-year-old Mr. Mati was smoking a hookah pipe at Oshan Kanda.
He said that in his new suburb, which has many more white residents than in Khayelitsha, he sometimes felt judged. Once a neighbor asked how he could afford a house in Cuilles River, said Mr. Matti, who is black and works in law enforcement. He doesn’t want to deal with that type of attitude when he’s trying to relax and have a good time.
“The reason I come back here: The people, they value me, they respect me,” he said.
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