Cape Town - When Cape Town scooped the best city in the world award in the UK Telegraph Travel Awards last month, more traditional reasons for the thumbs up included the wine, the pristine beaches, the Big 5 and how many rands could be bought with a pound sterling.
But also on the list was the Langa Quarter, with the Telegraph writing that the area had become “one of the city’s most exciting districts, which is a testament to the creative and entrepreneurial talent of its residents”.
“As well as jovial locals, the Langa Quarter abounds with colourful street art, late-night jazz bars and cosy cafés,” it said.
The driving force behind the initiative is former Londoner Tony Elvin, who says he has big, bold and sexy plans for Cape Town’s oldest township.
Elvin, who worked with Jamie Oliver at the London restaurant, Fifteen, and later set up a scholarship whereby chefs from South Africa were brought over to be trained there, first visited Cape Town in 2004.
“I was only here for two weeks, but felt quite emotional leaving.”
He moved to Cape Town a few years later and lived in upmarket Ruyteplaats in Hout Bay, where friends warned him not to go into the townships and never to make eye contact with those standing at the traffic lights.
He set up a consulting business from “a beautiful office” in Heritage Square, but it was meeting two entrepreneurs from Langa that ignited his passion for the area where he now lives.
“Langa was the most exciting place. The people, the location, the history, the culture, the jazz – all of it.”
Not that there weren’t challenges.
He recalls how strange he found what he called “human safaris”, where “big coaches would drive through and tourists would take photographs out the window”.
Elvin set up a non-profit organisation, Ikhaya le Langa, in an old disused primary school, which he is turning in a centre for enterprise and social development.
The lead project is the Langa Quarter and the idea is to make the area “clean, green and safe” to attract investment and create employment opportunities for locals.
One of these is the Langa Quarter’s Homestay Hotel, which is a 44-bedroom “hotel” with rooms in homes dotted around the area.
“Tourists are not going to stay in a township, but if they Google and read that it is actually a 44-bedroom hotel, they will immediately see it differently.”
Elvin said that since April last year, 160 people had booked, bringing in more than R150 000 for 20 families involved – “most of them just a gogo with two bedrooms”.
One of those involved is Nombulelo Mzizi, who runs the Sicamba B&B and is part of the home-stay project in the Langa Quarter.
Her house at 9 Harlem Street is a striking lime green and inside the rooms are ready for guests. “I started hosting exchange students in 2005, but business was slow.”
When the expected tourist boom during the 2010 World Cup didn’t materialise, Mzizi was a bit disillusioned, but says things have now started to pick up again with business from the home-stays.
Mzizi says she has local guests, mostly from world of mouth, as well as international guests. She also cooks on request.
Elvin believes Langa has the potential to be a sought-after destination not only for tourists, but Capetonians as well.
“I want them to come and listen to jazz and experience different food and have a good time.”
He says the location is perfect – “seconds off the Uber corridor”.
“I want the Langa Quarter to be to Cape Town what the French Quarter is to New Orleans,” he explains.
Elvin’s plans don’t just include Langa, but the neighbouring suburbs of Pinelands and Athlone. “These are three significant suburbs right next to each other, but separated but what I call a ‘Berlin Wall’. They are so closely linked but separated by fear.”
The idea, he says, is to change that and for people to start re-imagining the city.
Helen Bamford, Cape Argus