It could only be the can-do spirit of South Africans that took what most people consider to be one of our country’s failings, and turned it into something positive. Township tourism, which took off after our first post-Apartheid elections in 1994, is becoming increasingly more popular, as visitors to the country look for a more ‘authentic’ experience, away from game reserves, Table Mountain, and the usual breathtaking scenery.
The idea is pretty much self-explanatory; visitors are taken on guided tours through South Africa’s townships – historically marginalised communities where non-whites were forced to live during the separatist Apartheid regime. The sprawling, densely overpopulated and poverty-stricken settlements are still home to the majority of South Africa’s people, and are a far cry from the usual shiny commercial tourist hubs such as the V&A Waterfront …
Of the vast number of townships across South Africa, a handful are tourist-friendly, due to their proximity to cities and established infrastructure. These include Soweto (South Africa’s largest township) in Johannesburg, and Langa (the oldest), Khayelitsha (second largest) and Gugulethu (a shortened version of igugu lethu, which is Xhosa for our pride) in Cape Town.
Most tours include guided walks through sections of the low-cost housing and shacks, as well as visits to places of interest, including township schools and sites dedicated to people and events pivotal in the struggle against Apartheid.
As you mosey along, check out the local craft stalls for souvenirs, and, if you can stomach it, you could sample a ‘smiley’ – a boiled sheep’s head, the cooking process having stretched back its gums to give the somewhat macabre impression that it’s smiling. Chances are you’ll also run across a sangoma or traditional healer, whose mystical powers and potions guarantee cures for everything from impotence to Aids – which are taken very seriously by some of the local people.
Though there is criticism of township tourism as being voyeuristic, the upshot is that it brings a portion of South Africa’s lucrative tourism sector to the poorest of its people. Local restaurants, bars and craftsmen benefit financially from the tours, and there are even a few guesthouses riding the wave, for the more intrepid traveller who fancies an overnight stay.
Possibly more important than the economic benefits however, is that this brand of tourism opens visitor’s eyes to the reality of the living conditions of much of our population, and the urgent need for its amelioration. At the same time, it shows them a place not just full of poverty and strife, but also full of energy, culture and hope for the future.
But it’s not all warm and fuzzy. South Africa is still struggling with a serious crime problem, and tourists need to be forewarned about the possible danger involved. Though incidents are few and far between, and in general the communities jealously guard the safety of this enterprise that benefits them so much, it nonetheless pays to be cautious.
Aim to take a morning or early afternoon tour, avoid visiting the shebeens (local bars where alcohol was sold illegally) after dark and, most importantly, DO NOT visit the townships on your own – make use of one of the many tour operators and guides available.