A Vibrant Nightlife Scene Booms in South Africa’s Townships

At night, quiet and darkness shroud much of Khayelitsha, a township outside of Cape Town. But along a roughly quarter-mile stretch of Spine Road, a major thoroughfare, blue-and-yellow lights glow from bare wooden structures that vibrate with the electronic beats of the wildly popular South African genre amapiano.

Several Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs are among cars parked along the road, while smoke wafts from the grills of dozens of food vendors. Some people sell alcohol from the trunks of their cars, while others peddle joints outside the clubs.

On a recent evening, 36-year-old Ncedo Silas — looking ready for the office with a sweater zipped to his neck and thick clear-framed glasses — bobbed inside one of the clubs with a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd basking in an eye-burning haze of hookah.

“People used to go to town,” he said, referring to Cape Town, for a good time. But now, he added, there are numerous establishments in the township, population 450,000, whose owners “know what it is that we love, we want.”

Townships in South Africa were born of racist apartheid-era social engineering that kept nonwhite citizens segregated from economic opportunities and basic infrastructure. That legacy continues to be felt in the poverty and crime that afflicts many townships.

In recent years, though, Khayelitsha’s nightlife scene has grown immensely, with restaurants and clubs cropping up, particularly along Spine Road. All the activity has helped to temper concerns about encountering violent crime at nighttime venues in the township, and attracted more local Black professionals like Mr. Silas, who works in insurance. He and others are rejecting the velvet ropes of the larger city of Cape Town — with its traffic, expensive drinks and whiter 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 Cape Town establishments.

Although many townships under apartheid lacked basic services like running water and electricity, many people who grew up in them have long found comfort in gathering, socializing and celebrating in them.

After the country’s transition to multiracial democracy in 1994 led to greater economic opportunities for Black South Africans, the entertainment possibilities in townships became increasingly sophisticated. That’s evident nationwide; clubs in Soweto, near Johannesburg, and Umlazi, near the coastal city of Durban, are among the hottest in the country.

“The township comes with a certain kind of freedom,” said Zinhle Mqadi, the chief executive of Max’s Lifestyle Village in Umlazi, a sprawling venue that includes a restaurant, nightclub, carwash and salon.

Khayelitsha was created in 1983 by the apartheid government to relieve overcrowded settlements nearby. It is now South Africa’s second largest Black township.

The origins of its booming nightlife scene date to 2007, when a local businessman, Bulelani Skaap, better known as Ace, opened the nightclub KwaAce, around the corner from Spine Road. Over the years, other establishments popped up nearby, attracting the luxury car set.

Spine Road grew into a casual hub of evening activity. Revelers parked their cars along the side of the road, and grilled meat and drank.

Fikile Makuliwe, a 31-year-old Khayelitsha native, saw opportunity.

About four years ago, while studying engineering in college, he began setting up a gazebo along Spine Road every weekend with comfortable chairs, hookah pipes and a cellphone charging station. 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 V.I.P.

After saving money from this venture and an engineering apprenticeship, Mr. Makuliwe in late 2020 opened Ocean Canda, which sells sushi and other seafood by day and features D.J.s spinning ear-splitting beats by night.

“There’s no place like this place,” said Thando Mpushe, a 35-year-old professional opera singer, standing on the elevated platform that is Ocean Canda’s V.I.P. section.

Ocean Canda’s tall, boxy structure, framed with exposed logs and a corrugated tin roof, feels more beachfront shack than ritzy club.

But it was one of several establishments opened during the pandemic — some without the city’s blessing — that helped make Spine Road a hive of activity.

“It has now outgrown what would have been expected,” said Ndithini Tyhido, the chairman of the Khayelitsha Development Forum, adding that Spine Road has attracted an influx of working professionals, some from Cape Town and surrounding suburbs. “Look at the clothes they wear, the cars they drive, the types of drinks they are having.”

Despite the best efforts of some establishments to try to exude an upscale aura — with plush sofas, and names like “Paris Lifestyle” — the atmosphere along Spine Road remains decidedly working class.

Wedged between neighborhoods of tightly packed bungalows, the corridor features several slapdash sheds playing music and serving drinks. Hundreds of people hang around cars, and as the night progresses, drunken stragglers stumble along dirt paths or collapse in the street.

To some, Khayelitsha’s flourishing nightlife is a testament to the hustle and ingenuity of people in a country where about a third of the population is unemployed, and where many are constrained by systemic barriers — like difficulties getting bank loans and a historic lack of stable, affordable housing.

Thera, a 36-year-old former restaurant manager, used to sell liquor on Spine Road out of his compact hatched Renault. Last March — without permission from the city, he said — he put together a tin shack about the size of a classroom on the street, and strung 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 in trouble, said he was motivated by hunger and poverty. “What we are doing is illegal,” he said. “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.

Through last September, Western Cape Province recorded 571 mass shootings over a three-year period, most of them occurring in the townships near Cape Town. There were 130 murders in Khayelitsha over a three-month span last year, among the most in the country.

Malibongwe Dadase, who last October opened Dadase’s Shisanyama, a restaurant and lounge a lonely and dark five-minute drive from Spine Road, said that although the violence deterred some customers, he hoped the presence of businesses like his could help thwart crime.

“I was like, ‘OK, it’s fine, let me take a risk,’” Mr. Dadase, 42, said of his decision to open. “Fear can limit your dreams.”

In some ways, the booming nightlife has created pockets of safety, community leaders said.

Murders and some other violent crimes generally don’t occur along Spine Road, possibly because the crowds act as a deterrent, said Lunga Guza, the head of the area’s Community Police Forum, a residents group that works with the police. But there has been gender-based violence, he said, and the traffic and drunkenness can be a nuisance.

Another possible crime prevention measure is so-called protection fees. Gangs in Khayelitsha are notorious for forcing business owners to pay for “protection,” or face potentially fatal consequences. Although the gangs’ efforts are considered illegal extortion, locals say they can keep serious criminals away. But all of the nightlife owners interviewed denied having paid such fees.

Several years ago, Sbongile Matyi and his family moved into a home they bought in the suburb of Kuils River because they felt it was safer than Khayelitsha, where he grew up. Yet here was Mr. Matyi, 34, on a recent evening sucking on a hookah pipe in Ocean Canda.

In his new suburb, which has many more white residents than Khayelitsha, he sometimes felt judged, he said. A neighbor once asked how he could afford to buy a home in Kuils River, said Mr. Matyi, who is Black and works in law enforcement. He doesn’t want to have to deal with that type of attitude when he is trying to relax and have a good time.

“The reason I come back here: People, they value me, they respect me,” he said.

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