There were four of us on the trip. Me – brought up in Zimbabwe and in and out of Africa as an adult writing about it; my sister, who had grown up in Africa but hadn’t been back for many years and hadn’t been in 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. I was extremely keen to take them on a township tour.
Pros and Cons
My usual three-day introduction to Cape Town includes a day doing the township tour and Robben Island, a day doing Cape Dutch history and Bo-Kaap, the Cape Malay Quarter, and a day to do Table Mountain and the peninsula. That way you get a relatively balanced picture of the area and its extraordinary cultural heritage.
On this particular day, the discussion got fairly intense. Penny was worried that township tours were simply voyeuristic. Rich white folks in mini-buses swooping in to look at poor black folks, take their pictures and move on. Dennis was worried that the poverty would be too upsetting for his son. I felt that it was terribly important for my nephew in particular to see and understand something of this side of Africa. Looking at African urban poverty on TV is nothing like experiencing it firsthand, even on a coach tour. I thought he was quite old enough and tough enough to cope. And anyway, I had been in before, I knew the story was far from being all doom and gloom.
We started at the District Six Museum, learning the history of how the Cape ‘Coloured’ community was forcibly ejected from the centre of the city under the Group Areas Act. It was then off to Langa where we visited the workers’ hostels. Under the apartheid regime, the Pass Laws forced the men to leave their families at home when they came to the cities to work. The hostels here had originally been built as dormitories for single men with 12 men, 4 to a room, sharing a rudimentary kitchen and bathroom. The real problem came, ironically, with the repeal of the Pass Laws as their families flooded into the cities. Suddenly instead of having 12 men sharing a kitchen and toilet, you had 12 families, shanties sprang up on every available patch of ground and the area became a slum as the facilities were overloaded and simply couldn’t cope. We met some of the families living there, including a woman running a shebeen (illegal drinking den) out of a plastic and cardboard shanty. Everyone was very quiet when we got back onto the mini-bus.
Planning by plumbing
Crossroads became an international symbol of apartheid repression when TV pictures of the bulldozers moving in flashed across the world. Expecting to see the same degree of misery that I remembered from those desperate images, it 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 some were really quite fancy, with wrought iron gates and gravel paths. It was here that we first heard about the 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 – at that point a shanty town a million strong with only one formal shop. Things have improved greatly since then, but there’s a long way to go.
By the end of a long day of overwhelming sensations, my sister was the one to sum it all up “It was extraordinary. For all the hardship, I felt a real sense of hope.”
The Capuccino Revolution
That day with my family was a few years ago and things have moved on dramatically. For me, my most hopeful moment came a while later in another ‘township’ – 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 they 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 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.
If doing a township tour, look for a company that takes in small groups and has its roots in the township. That way you get closer in and know that the money you are spending on the trip is going into the community.