Township Tourism in South Africa
Visitors to South Africa can enjoy a wide variety of tours and safaris - viewingeverything from whales to the Big Five, touring wine farms and engaging in a spectacular range of adventure, sport and leisure activities.
Something that is unique to the country however is the emergence of the 'Township Tour'. Townships are the informal settlement residential areas of South Africa which developed over the apartheid era. Since the dawn of democracy in 1994 township tourism has grown as locals and visitors alike began to flock to these previously 'no-go' areas (at least for 'whites') to see how the other half live.
In fact the majority of township tourists are foreigners as locals have grown up with a fear of entering the settlements - a deep-rooted fear that has been hard to overcome.
Today Township Tourism is massive - a multi-million rand business which saw close on 320 000 foreigners pouring into settlements throughout the country last year. According to Cape Town's tourist office more than 80 percent of its 250 licensed tour operators offer these "cultural experiences."
So what can one expect to see and experience when embarking on a township tour in Soweto, Johannesburg or Langa, Cape Town?
Traditional healers (sangomas) who offer herbal cures for everything from sexual problems to flu to HIV / AIDS.
Sites of historical interest - for example in Soweto you can drive by homes previously lived in by ex-President Nelson Mandela and Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu, as well as monuments to heroes of 'The Struggle' (against apartheid).
'Spazas' - local stores - and other businesses run in the townships. The inventiveness of the local businessmen and women is inspirational and many have achieved quite phenomenal success. Here you will find everything from B&B's where some tourists stay at overnight as part of the experience, to car mechanics, to general produce stores to Laundromats. Considering the fact that water and power resources are often limited if not entirely absent it is remarkable what can be achieved when entrepreneurial spirits meet problems which would have lesser individuals giving up at the first hurdle.
Unusual foods may be on offer - don't be too surprised to find sheep's head on the menu at a local eatery!
Shebeens - township bars - are often the highlight of the township tour. Try home-brewed beer or enjoy a 'quart' of Castle or Lion - South African Brewery's finest.
Some people find the concept of touring through a residential area uncomfortable - it has been said that it is demeaning to have bus-loads of tourist gawping at people who are trying to live their private lives as if they were animals in a zoo. However, the economical advantages to the local communities are enormous and these tours keep many township businesses afloat. The warm, friendly welcome that visitors receive from the majority of the local residents seems to indicate that they are happy to see new faces passing through - especially when money is being spent.
Recently there has been an unfortunate spate of crime aimed directly at tourist groups visiting townships - largely a matter of theft. While this is concerning, the local Tourism boards are at pains to point out that crime affects the whole of South Africa and that these incidences are the exception when it comes to safety in the townships.
Generally, Township Tourism is seen as a positive addition to the economy as well as a diverse cultural experience for visitors who may want to see more than beaches and shopping malls while visiting the country.
Now if we can just get more "previously advantaged" South Africans into the townships.
Township Tourism in South Africa
By: Jonathan Sullivan