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Finding her African identity in a township

Published on 30th June 2014

In a search for her own identity, Toni finally found her South African father she didn’t know for 39 years. But it was the beginning of a heart-breaking story about losing everything, ending up in a township, far away from her children, with no job, no food, no home. Still, she looks back on the years with no regrets.

“It’s weird being back. Everything looks the same. It’s still dirty, trash everywhere, barefoot children running around,” says the now 49-year-old half Danish, half South African, Toni Manong.

Toni walks down a street of Gugulethu, a township located 15 km from Cape Town. She enters a small backyard shack. Newspapers and foam are squeezed into the worst holes of the ceiling. It hasn’t stopped the bad rain from scattering puddles throughout the cold room.

For three years, Toni lived in a so-called township, the name given to the underdeveloped, segregated areas in South Africa where black and colored people were forced to move during apartheid. The transition to democracy in 1994 did not put an end to the townships. On the contrary, the areas struggle with a high level of poverty and crime rates. And they are still segregated.

“It’s strange to think that I could manage to stay here. Especially when I compare it to how I was raised. Where can you find this in Denmark?” Toni asks. “It’s impossible.”

For the first 42 years of her life, Toni lived in the safe and wealthy environment of Denmark. But her desire to find her identity led her on an unexpected journey and a life of miserable conditions, separated from her children for five years.

Never knowing her roots

She was born Toni Gandrup Vang in Denmark in 1964. Her mother couldn’t take care of her, so she grew up with her grandparents in Frederica in central Denmark.

Toni never knew her dad. She had no idea that he was a political refugee from South Africa, who fought against the apartheid regime for about half a century. But with her darker skin and curly hear she knew she was different.

“I was frustrated and distraught over not knowing where I belonged. All my childhood I was bullied because of my look. I felt different,” Toni recalls.

But she had hope. When she was seven, her grandfather gave her a court document regarding child support from the year Toni was born. The court never found her father. He had long since left the country, knowing nothing about Toni’s existence.

“The document was all I had,” Toni explains. “There was no number, no pictures, no address. It didn’t even say from which country he was. The only thing it said was that I might be his child and that he was of African descent.” 

It also said his name, Johannes Teko Ohille Manong.

“I kept it for all these years. I knew that one day, the name would be used to find my father,” Toni says.

Finding her long gone father

It turned out to be a many-year search. Even with help from family members, friends, embassies, and the Red Cross, she never managed to find him.

In her late 20s, she met a friend from Ghana, who suggested she might be Ghanaian. In desperate hope, Toni posted an ad in a Ghanaian newspaper. It prompted 1,300 responses, but no one actually knew her father.

Until the age of 39, she had no trace of her father, but in 2004 Toni received a call from a person she had contacted many times. It was the producer of the Danish TV-show Traceless, who wanted to make a show about Toni.

“At that time I had no idea they had already found him,” Toni explains.

She didn’t know until several months later sitting in the TV studio following a screen with the reporter’s journey in the search for Johannes Manong. 

“The next moment he was walking into the TV studio. It was so unrealistic; I had found what I had been looking for, for 39 years. Suddenly he was in my arms. I was stunned,” Toni recalls.

Though they had never known each other, they had much in common.

“By look and personality I am just like my father. Music is the best I know; my father was a jazz musician. I have a degree in the building industry, the same did he. It’s a little wonder that two people can be so attached without knowing anything about each other,” she says.

Toni didn’t just find her father. She found a huge extended family in South Africa with a harsh life story.

Johannes Manong, who called himself Joe, was born 1936 and grew up in a poor family that due to the establishment of the apartheid regime in 1948 struggled to make ends meet. Johannes became politically active in Nelson Mandela’s liberation party, the ANC – the African National Congress
– which since 1960 had been banned by the regime. The fight for freedom sent Johannes to prison several times, before he at last was forced underground and left the country in 1963 with the mission of opening the ANC in the United Kingdom.

“My dad was like Mandela. He fought for justice for blacks, but he always said: ‘We must change ourselves as well’.” Toni smiles of the memory of her father. 

“I am very proud of him. I have a good feeling every time I say dad.” 

Following the South African dream 

At the time she found her father in 2004, Toni had a Danish husband and two boys of six and nine years old. Shortly after the TV show they all went together on a three months’ vacation to South Africa to visit the whole family. 

“It was a fantastic trip. But when we came back to Denmark we had to make a decision. Now what?,” Toni explains. 

After several years of deliberation the family finally sold their house in Denmark, packed everything and moved to Cape Town in 2007. They were now close to Toni’s father and the Manong family, and Toni easily found a job. But their marriage soon broke down, and they divorced in 2009. Her ex-husband and their two children returned to Denmark. 

“Suddenly everything went completely downhill for me,” Toni says. Her father died unexpectedly of a heart attack the following year. 

“It was ugly, and completely blew me away. I had six years with him. It’s a short period when you’ve been looking for someone for 39. But I feel very lucky I got to meet him,“ she says, as tears roll down her cheek. 

“I missed my dad and my two boys terribly much. None of them were there. I lost the desire to do anything.”Toni thought about going back to Denmark.

But, she explains, that was not what she actually wanted. 

“I have never felt at home in Denmark. Never. All my life I had tried to find own identity, and I wasn’t done yet,” she says. 

Becoming a township resident

Toni walks out of the small backyard shack in Gugulethu, to the toilet and bath that she had been using while living in the township. Both are outside, only hidden by wooden planks. The bath is nothing but a big bucket where Toni had to bring in hot and cold water. 

“I sometimes had to use newspapers if I couldn’t afford toilet paper,” she adds.

At the time of her father’s death, Toni had a job at an online casino. But the job was hard on her, and by the end of 2011 she decided to quit. Without job and income, she had no other choice than moving to a family member in Gugulethu.

“Living in a township was harsh. In the beginning I hated it. I grew up in Denmark with all the benefits, comforts, and privileges. In the township there’s nothing. And I suddenly realized, I’m not black. Again I felt different,” she says and continues: 

“The township smell is rotten, smoky, and dirty. People don’t know what hygiene means. They don’t know the difference on yours and mine. I have got pretty much everything stolen, I have been attacked, I’ve heard gunshots almost every night. People ask for money every single day.” 

But Toni had nothing to give. And not being able to pay rent, her housing situation was not easy. After a couple of months she was kicked out of the family house, and has since lived eight places in Gugulethu and Nyanga. The two adjacent townships are both on the list of the ten most violent areas of South Africa. 

“I have lived and slept on the streets, I’ve looked in trash cans for food, I’ve asked people if I could get a little change,” Toni says. “I felt incredibly lonely.” 

She hadn’t seen her kids for almost three years, but could not afford going to Denmark, so she went to the Danish embassy. They offered her help, but only with a one-way ticket. Toni said no. Her biggest wish was to see her children again, but she wouldn’t move permanently back to Denmark. 

“The difference between me and people in the townships is that I have a different attitude to life. I will not give up. Something inside me said: ‘Toni, you’ve never been like that. You have always been a very strong woman.’ I had to find another solution. I had to find something to do, even if it wasn’t paid.“ 

Toni found work at different human rights organizations helping people in township, but all jobs were either unpaid or paid very little. She then started volunteering at the ANC office in Nyanga, just like her dad had done. The ANC was unbanned in 1990 and is today South Africa’s governing political party. It was from the local ANC office, Toni got her first own place to live, in the backyard shack. 

The beauty of township life 

“Toni my friend,” a young guy shouts from a window of a house. Olwethu Zondani was a fellow volunteer at the ANC, and one of Toni’s many friends in Gugulethu. 

“I haven’t seen you for long time, where have you been?” Olwethu asks.

Looking back at her three years in a township, she has no doubt that some things must change within the townships before conditions can improve. 

“In the townships you are not allowed to dream and think big. People would laugh at you. They continue to talk about what happened 20 years ago during apartheid. I agree that they need help and support from the government to improve their living situation. But they also must change themselves and learn to manage their own lives,” she says. 

According to Toni, many people stay in the township because it’s cheap, convenient and what they are used to.“It was scary, even for me, to move away and find out that there is something called rent, water, phone and internet. All these things you are not just given in the real world.” 

When asked if her years in the township is mostly a positive or negative memory, Toni’s answer is clear:“Positive, definitely. It’s for sure a place I’ll come back,” she says, and continues: 

“I am glad that I have lived here, and I don’t regret anything. It has made me another person. The townships are a part of my identity. I have proven that no matter how far you fall you can get back on track. I would do it again if I had to, because it has taught me to appreciate life.” 

She is now back in South Africa and expects to stay there for many more years – at least as many as she lived in Denmark. Because in South Africa there is room for diversity, whereas in Denmark it’s hard to stand out, Toni explains: 

“Down here, people often say 'Denmark must surely be a great country to grow up in.’ My answer is no, not always. I had my own apartheid in Denmark.” 

Toni hopes she will be able to see her boys more often in the future. Her big dream is to make a film about her and her father’s lives. She has already made an informal agreement with a South African production company. 

“South Africa is my home,” Toni says. “I am much more in balance here. I think there was a purpose with all of this. I feel I have to follow my father’s footsteps to find my true identity. I know how it is to be Danish, now I‘m finding out what it means to be African.”