Also known as locations, townships are South Africa's version of the informal settlements found in many countries with a high level of poverty. During apartheid, black, colored and Indian residents living in Cape Town's city center were forcibly evicted and made to move into segregated townships on the periphery. Today, visitors can learn about the settlements' history and how things have changed since by taking a township tour.
Is it Moral?
Many visitors find the idea of a township tour uncomfortable, believing them to be voyeuristic at best and racially insensitive at worst. For those that have never experienced them, the concept seems to involve little more than encouraging rich white folks in minivans to swoop in and look at poor black folks, take their pictures and move on.
However, the reality is a little different. Township tours are perhaps the only way that first world visitors can begin to appreciate the hardships that South Africa's poorer residents have to contend with. They promote education and an increased sense of empathy between people of all cultures and colors; which, in South Africa especially, is never a bad thing. Many visitors end up with a very different perspective after witnessing the hope, hard work and entrepreneurship that exists in the townships.
Is it Safe?
Other people worry about the safety of a taking a township tour; after all, visitors to South Africa are repeatedly warned not to explore informal settlements on their own. However, reputable tour operators (read their website and TripAdvisor reviews carefully) use guides that have grown up in the township and have strong ties to the community. They know which places are safe to visit and which are not. In addition, tours directly benefit the township residents – either with donations to community initiatives or by bringing business to their shops, restaurants and taverns – so the incentive to welcome and protect visitors is considerable.
What to Expect
Many Cape Town township tours start at the District Six Museum. Here, you'll discover the story of District Six, an impoverished area of the city center that saw its (mainly) colored residents evicted when it was declared a whites-only zone 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. Most of the people of color who were evicted from Cape Town city center were relocated to townships on the Cape Flats.
This is where you'll head next. Different tours visit different townships – perhaps yours will take you to Langa, Khayelitsha, Gugulethu or Crossroads. Wherever you go, the experience differs slightly. In Langa, for example, you may visit old workers hostels, where rural men lived dormitory style after the Pass Laws forced them to leave their families at home and come into the city to find work. When the Pass Laws were repealed, the families flocked to the city to join their husbands and fathers in the hostels, leading to incredibly cramped living conditions.
Signs of Hope
In all of Cape Town's townships, there are signs that although residents still live in poverty, things are improving. Crossroads became an international symbol of apartheid brutality in 1986, when images of its residents being forcibly removed were broadcasted across the world's television screens. Today, Crossroads has crossroads. It has been planned and laid out, with plumbing and lighting, a road grid and building plots. Khayelitsha, Cape Town's largest township, now has its own central business district and an array of community projects including a canoe club and cycle club.
In all of the townships, a strange mix of building styles can be seen. Some houses are still little more than makeshift shelters made from sheets of corrugated iron. Others are sturdy brick homes built as part of government-funded social housing projects; and every now and then, you'll see the statement-making house of a resident who has earned enough to afford wrought-iron gates and gravel pathways. Your township tour will give you the chance to talk to residents about their past and aspirations for the future – perhaps during a visit to a local school, or over a drink in a shebeen or a meal at a bustling street-side restaurant.
A Cultural Revolution
The signs of cultural recovery and rebirth are evident in townships all across South Africa, not just in Cape Town. Johannesburg's Soweto is home to artisan coffee shops, a university, a symphony orchestra, theaters and art galleries. There are jazz nights and township B&Bs. 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.
This article was updated by Jessica Macdonald on June 12 2019.