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If you want to prove you can bring greenery to South Africa's black townships, why not start with the worst location you can find?
When Thobeka Thamage chose the worst South African black township slum she could find - Langa, 25 kilometers (16 mi.) from Cape Town - as a place to grow trees and other plants, her reasoning seemed logical enough in theory. Her goal was twofold: to establish a model community-oriented center for the environment and eventually to help bring about the greening of all the country's black townships. "I figured that if I could make it work in Langa, I could make it work anywhere," she says.
But when she tried to find sponsors for her plan, most reacted as if Thamage was, well, out of her mind. To begin with, any South African township is already a desperate place, with unpaved streets, foul drainage, strewn garbage, burnt-out cars and dense brown air from coal fires for cooking. Homes are either monotonous rows of concrete housing or shanties made of corrugated iron sheets, wooden packing cases, plastic sheeting and whatever else comes to hand. There are very few trees and only rare, meager attempts at gardens.
This is the heritage of the country's recently abolished system of apartheid, a policy of discrimination and segregation that separated blacks and whites. The former white governments, whose administrators lived in the cities, saw the black townships merely as dormitories for labor brought by train to factories and mines fringing the white cities. Trees and parks were considered unnecessary - if considered at all. Into these bleak surroundings crept other blacks from …