When planning holidays to South Africa we are often asked whether an inclusion of a township tour is recommended. Recently this question became more frequent following the 2010 Soccer World Cup, when TV correspondents often reported from townships showing jubilant scenes of tourists celebrating with local fans. Many people who have undertaken these tours would recommend them and argue that they provide a real insight into how the majority of South Africans actually live. As well as this, many famous townships, such as Soweto, really assist the tourist in further understanding the South African freedom struggle and provide the focal point of black urban culture.
Whilst on the surface this may appear to provide a valuable cultural exchange, others may argue: where do you draw the line between tourism and voyeurism? What benefit do these often ‘awkward tours provide to you as the tourist as well as to the inhabitants of these townships?
Townships are urban residential areas that were set aside for non-white people during South Africa's policy of Apartheid (1948 - 1994). Usually based in the outskirts of a city center, they often lack basic facilities like electricity and running water. Although the policy of Apartheid is no longer in place, most South Africans continue to live in these areas. A whole culture has developed in the townships over and above traditional African culture. This includes an influence on music, dancing, dress and speech. Democracy has brought great changes to these townships and now you may see newly built roads and magnificent brick homes where shacks once stood. Cozy suburbia is juxtaposed with grim shacks. This interesting dichotomy has challenged many pre-conceived notions of a South African township.
Tours to townships usually include: visits to national heritage sites; stops at restaurants or shebeens (local drinking holes) and opportunities for shopping and interaction with the locals, often in private homes. The guides are typically members of the community who desire to share their experience and surroundings with others. Proponents of these tours argue that well run tours enable tourists to meet residents and gain an insight in this completely different environment. Many emerge saying that for all the hardship they encountered, a profound sense of hope appears to prevail. Tourists hope that the right tour will put money into pockets that need it - community tourism in action. In addition to tours being moving they can also be highly entertaining which is what you want as a tourist, is it not?
Many of us cringe at touristy ‘cultural tours and their peculiar social interactions. It is perhaps these previous experiences that put many of us off visiting a township. We fear rubbernecking voyeurism and exploitation. We will likely be able to provide little valuable assistance to these people and what value is there in reminding ourselves of this sad reality while on vacation? Whilst there are no guarantees that township tours will be devoid of these uncomfortable situations, perhaps the way to justify your decision is to ask yourself whether these feelings are outweighed by what you may learn. Will you know more by the end than before you started? Is knowledge better than ignorance?
Should you wish to partake in a township tour there are many available in Cape Town, Johannesburg, Durban and Port Elizabeth. Mahlatini can recommend which townships are best and which companies will provide you with reputable and safe tours. We support companies that take in small groups and have their roots in the township. This way you get closer in and know that the money you are spending on the trip is going into the community. If you wish to take things a step further you may also wish to take a tour that includes an overnight stay, thereby giving yourself the opportunity to sample the vibrant social scene and thrumming nightlife.