The Cultural Value of South Africa's Township Tours

The Cultural Value of Township Tours in South Africa
Alistair Berg/ Getty Images

There were four of us on the trip. Me – brought up in Zimbabwe and in and out of Africa throughout adulthood; my sister, who had grown up on the continent but hadn’t visited South Africa since the fall of apartheid; her husband, who had never been to Africa before; and their 12-year-old son. We were in Cape Town, and I was extremely keen to take them on a tour of the local informal settlements, or townships.

Pros and Cons

My usual three-day introduction to Cape Town includes one day devoted to a township tour and a visit to Robben Island, a second day spent exploring Cape Dutch history and the Cape Malay Quarter of Bo-Kaap, and a third day dedicated to visiting Table Mountain and the Cape Peninsula. In this way, I feel that my guests get a relatively balanced picture of the area and its extraordinary cultural heritage.

On the first day, the discussion between myself and my family got fairly intense. My sister, Penny, was worried that township tours were voyeuristic at best, and racially insensitive at worst. She was of the opinion that they served little purpose other than allowing rich white folks in minivans to swoop in and look at poor black folks, take their pictures and move on.

My brother-in-law, Dennis, was worried that the poverty within the township would be too upsetting for his son. On the other hand, I felt that it was terribly important for my nephew to see and understand something of this side of Africa. I thought he was quite old enough and tough enough to cope - and anyway, as I had taken the tour before, I knew that the story was far from being all doom and gloom.

Apartheid Laws

In the end, my insistence won out and we signed up for the tour. We started at the District Six Museum, where we learned about the history of the Cape Coloured people, who were forcibly ejected from the centre of the city under the Group Areas Act of 1950. The Act was one of the most notorious of the apartheid era, preventing the intermingling of whites and non-whites by assigning specific residential areas to different ethnic groups. 

Next, we visited the old workers' hostels at Langa township. During apartheid, the Pass Laws forced men to leave their families at home while they came into the cities to work. The hostels at Langa were built as dormitories for single men with twelve men sharing a rudimentary kitchen and bathroom. When the Pass Laws were repealed, families flocked to the city to join their husbands and fathers in the hostels, leading to incredibly cramped living conditions. 

Suddenly, instead of having twelve men sharing a kitchen and toilet, twelve families had to survive using the same facilities. Shanties sprang up on every available patch of ground to cope with the overflow, and the area quickly became a slum. We met some of the families living there today, including a woman running a shebeen (illegal pub) out of a plastic-and-cardboard shanty. When we got back on the bus, we were all humbled into silence by the area's incredible poverty. 

Planning and Plumbing

The Cape Town township of Crossroads became an international symbol of apartheid repression in 1986, when images of its residents being forcibly removed were broadcasted across the world's television screens. Expecting to see the same degree of misery that I remembered from those desperate images, our visit there was perhaps the biggest surprise of the day. Crossroads had crossroads. It had been planned and laid out, with plumbing and lighting, a road grid and building plots.

Some of the houses were very humble, but others were relatively fancy, with wrought-iron gates and gravel paths. It was here that we first heard about government plans to give people a plot and a toilet and let them build their own house around it. It seemed like a good starter pack for someone with nothing. At the local nursery school, my nephew disappeared into a giggling heap of children, shrieks of laughter echoing off the corrugated iron roof.

They didn’t take us into Khayelitsha, the township to which many of Crossroads' residents were relocated. At that time, it was a shanty town a million strong with only one formal shop. Things have improved greatly since then, but there’s still a long way to go. Progress is being made, however, and by the end of a long day of overwhelming sensations, my sister summed up the experience saying, “It was extraordinary. For all the hardship, I felt a real sense of hope.”

A Cultural Revolution

That day with my family was a few years ago and things since then have moved on dramatically. For me, the most hopeful moment came a while later in another township – Johannesburg's Soweto. I found myself in Soweto’s very first coffee bar – pink walls, pink formica tables and a proudly owned cappuccino machine – having long and serious chats about how the local residents could draw tourism into the area.

Now, Soweto has a tourist office, a university and a symphony orchestra. There are jazz nights and township B&Bs. The Langa hostels are being converted into homes. Look carefully and what seems to be a tatty shanty may well be a computer training school or an electronics workshop. Take a township tour. It will help you understand. The right tour will put money into pockets that need it. It is a profoundly moving and entertaining experience. It’s worth it.

NB: If you do choose to take a township tour, look for a company that accepts small groups only and that has its roots in the township. That way, you have a more truthful and authentic experience, and know that the money you are spending on the trip is going directly to the community.

This article was updated by Jessica Macdonald on September 18th 2016.