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"While living in Cape Town last year to work on an ethnography of museums and contemporary cultural politics, I went on a number of township tours. They were not part of my research plan, but came about as I searched for ways in which Cape Town exhibited recent history, including that of the struggle against apartheid, since there was little space in the establishment museums dedicated to this. My hope that township tours might offer an alternative way of viewing Cape Town was also shaped by my awareness of how segregated the city continues to be. . ." (jbv)

vol 14 no 4

Township tours: Packaging the new South Africa
Shelley R Butler

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 14 No 4, August 1999
Page 24



Shelley Ruth Butler is a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology at York University. She is interested in hearing about readers' experiences of township tours and can be reached by email at: sbutler@yorku.ca.

While living in Cape Town last year to work on an ethnography of museums and contemporary cultural politics, I went on a number of township tours. They were not part of my research plan, but came about as I searched for ways in which Cape Town exhibited recent history, including that of the struggle against apartheid, since there was little space in the establishment museums dedicated to this. My hope that township tours might offer an alternative way of viewing Cape Town was also shaped by my awareness of how segregated the city continues to be. The legacy of apartheid legislation and urban planning is compounded by ongoing economic inequities and a poor public transit system. While black South Africans commute to Cape Town to work, most are strangers to its museums. And white South Africans, as well as tourists visiting the city, stay largely in white areas, allowing them to proclaim Cape Town a European city. They would hardly take seriously the comment that one person said to me: "The real growth of the city is out there, not in the city centre."

I take this comment seriously. Would township tours offer alternative perspectives on the city? Certainly this is their premise and promise. As a brochure for One City Tours states: "Do the right thing ... Get the full picture." Or, as the Cape Team Tours brochure notes: "A tour to the townships will result in an understanding of the evolution of the Mother City. It will also give one insight into the ethnic character of the city. We will visit the most devastating example of forced removals in Cape Town (District 6) and move on to the townships of the Cape Flats were we meet the children of the areas, enjoy refreshments at a spaza (township shop), visit a shebeen (tavern), photograph the "khayas" (township houses) and visit the open-air meat market of Nyanga. This cultural tour will enrich one's thinking and create a better understanding of the Mother City." Similarly, the Lonely Planet guide to South Africa, an authoritative source for alternative travellers, states that visiting a township is necessary in order to gain "any kind of appreciation for South African reality." This genre of alternative tourism developed from practices of taking visiting anti-apartheid activists, foreign funders, VIP's, and more recently, city planners, to see the townships. Now, the tours attract a variety of foreigners, but very few South Africans, a point I will return to below.

Certainly township tours take people beyond conventional monument tourism and mainstream museum routes. But what is the "reality" that they present? Answers to this questions can be found in the subtext of many tour operators' brochures. All of the tours promise tourists interaction with township residents. For instance, a brochure for Jimmy's Face to Face Tours, a company based in Johannesburg, promises an "intimate voyage of discovery." However, the majority of the visitors' interaction is only with the guide and other visitors on the tour. Visually, the brochures focus on images of traditionally dressed, or poor, but colourful and smiling, African children and women; clearly what is being offered is an unintimidating, apolitical image of cultural and class difference.

This is an important clue to the tours' strategies, since despite variations amongst different companies, township tours consistently situate the tourist as hero, as concerned witness, as empathetic global citizen, and so on. In an outrageous moment with Legend Tours in Cape Town, a guide encouraged his guests by exclaiming, "You are the salvation of black people."

Revolving around the needs of the guests - tourism is, after all, about consumer choices - tours begin with clients being picked up at their hotels and guest houses, or at the downtown South African Tourism Board office. The cost for a tour that lasts between three and four hours is usually between R100 and R140, a fee that is clearly geared toward foreigners (similarly, a full fare to Robben Island is R100). Tour groups consist of about six to eight people, who travel together in a marked or unmarked combi. Sometimes a guide uses a small microphone, which adds to the voyeuristic atmosphere.

To their credit, the tours do teach visitors to read the local landscape differently. One points out the proximity of a Dutch Reformed Church to the South African Cultural History Museum, which was formerly a slave lodge. Another points to parallel pedestrian bridges, one covered and one exposed, which served different groups of people during the height of apartheid. Most tours also point out absences, such as the absence of basic services and infrastructure in informal settlements.

All use the remarkable District Six Museum, housed in the Buitenkant Methodist Church on the edge of the razed community. The museum is a convenient place to orient visitors to the history and legacy of forced removals. Using original street signs, maps, photographs, and newspaper clippings, the museum documents in intimate detail the life of a culturally diverse, densely populated community before it was declared a whites-only area in 1966. To visit this not-for-profit community-oriented museum, the guides pay only R3 per guest. A deal.

Next, it is on to the townships, where emphasis is typically placed on apartheid's legacy of divide and rule policies, the exploitation of migrant labourers, influx control, the current housing crisis, and development projects. Along the way, guests may gain a vague sense of the violence of the South African government and security forces under apartheid. Individual sites might be noted, such as Crossroads, or the road in Athlone where the 1985 "Trojan Horse incident" occurred, in which police hiding in the back of a van opened fire on some 200 people. But brief acknowledgement of isolated sites is quite a different approach to retelling history than a more detailed discussion of political events, community organizing and popular resistance.

There are a number of ways that guides (consciously or not) make their narratives light and oriented toward the tourists' own experience. A slave auction block is likened to Sotheby's; the size of a shack is said to be comparable to a tourist's apartment; strategies of divide and rule are described by using sports metaphors. Or, attention is diverted to the exotic - see the smileys, the painted white faces, the singing, and so on. In the case of a white tour operator, a discussion of the death of American Amy Biehl allows the guide to focus on what she sees as her role in providing for the safety of tourists in this "dangerous" place. Some guides focus on providing contact with locals. Most, I think, are sincere in these efforts. The result is usually to shake the hand of a teacher or resident, or to buy children some candy (a predictable scene on one tour).

It is not uncommon for tourists to wonder about the issue of voyeurism - even the Lonely Planet guide raises it. Is it alright to take photos, ask the tourists who are armed with masses of high tech equipment? On one tour, when I was without a camera, the guide said, "Oh you're not a tourist. You don't have a camera." And on a tour in Soweto, a man ran beside the combi, laughing and snapping an imaginary camera at us. Tourists are an odd species! Photographing and documenting poverty has its roots in the British tradition of slummer journalism, which reflected a bourgeois fascination with the underside of urban culture. Vivian Bickford-Smith describes a similar phenomenon in Cape Town, when the Cape Argus ran a series in 1893 on "Unexplored Cape Town," focusing on poor whites.

In response to the issues of voyeurism and the commodification of poverty, tour operators usually stress that they work hard to maintain good relations with the people and organizations that they visit. I was impressed with one guide who brought copies of photos taken by previous tourists to give to the people who were the objects of the shots. While tourists take photos, they are also encouraged to make donations to projects that they visit; this amounts to a sort of liberal charity, which allows tourists to focus on reciprocity and good will, rather than inequality and privilege. Again, this fits with tourism's priority of keeping its paying customers happy, as opposed to offering critical pedagogy. It also amounts to trickle-down economics, where tour operators gain the lion's share of the money that tourists spend. Indeed, few (if any) employment or economic opportunities are generated for people in the communities tours visit. The little money which trickles down flows in predictable and particular routes. For instance, the Mail and Guardian reported last year that while over a thousand tourists visit Soweto daily, tour operators take them to only fifteen shebeens, a incredibly small number when you consider that there are some 5600 shebeens in the area.

Despite the many limitations, problems, and contradictions associated with township tours, it is important to acknowledge that marginalized communities want tourists and their money. The movement of tourists into townships has also been associated with a broader renaissance, where local entrepreneurs develop new services for tourists and for a growing local middle class. But, there were also rumours in Cape Town of a tour group having been stopped and turned back by angry community leaders. Students at the Robben Island Training Programme also spoke of going on a tour where local residents had not been informed about what was happening. The potential for exploitation and disregard is great.

However, I would not want to write off township tours completely. Tour operators of varying backgrounds express disappointment that most white South Africans are reluctant to visit a township. As one person said, "South Africans don't go on tour, and South Africans don't know what's going on." Another commented during a tour, that white South Africans are "comfortable with their privileges and do not want to see." At least township tours create possibilities for alternative ways of understanding and seeing the city. Disengagement is by no means a preferable stance.

Significantly, some of the most progressive voices in museums in Cape Town are articulating the need for heritage sites to work together to create alternative routes into Cape Town's cultural and political history. This logic of moving through space to explore history is similar to that of the township tours. But as new cultural centres and commemorative sites are developed in previously disadvantaged areas, communities should gain greater power over the way in which their stories are produced and consumed.

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