Township tourism: cultural immersion or poverty tourism?

 While travelling, we have all come across possibilities to visit the “other” side of a country - to see, for example, what the REAL Africa is like. As I have found from working and living in South Africa for the last 11 years, this subject comes up with many of our volunteers. It remains an ongoing discussion and should be addressed on an ongoing basis. What is ethical and responsible when dealing with tours or experiences of this nature? A big question indeed – and no one answer completely covers it. I will share my opinion, however, of how I see this kind of tourism.

 

For some visitors, these kinds of experiences are a hugely attractive opportunity to see a side of South Africa that represents everyday life for so many in this country. For others, this is frowned upon as “poverty tourism”, and is something they feel should not not be done, as this is (in their eyes) abusing poverty for one’s own pleasure.

 

My experiences are that township tours or township-based experiences like volunteering -  either done by walking with a tour guide, cycling through Soweto or volunteering at a project in a township setting -  is a very sensitive but incredibly valuable experience for all involved, when done with real focus and clear guidelines.

 

The first mistake many make is assuming that we go into a poor urban area (called a township in South Africa) to gawk at poverty and how sad the lives of these people are. This is a rookie mistake, I have learned over the years, because it is actually often the other way around; the visitors are the attraction and are greeted, invited and welcomed by many. They do not get many white visitors in their community and are neglected and ignored by most of society. Before you get offended -  we have no issues of calling things as they are in SA in terms of colour; you are either black, white or coloured.

 

South Africa has a turbulent past -  huge challenges with race inequality, racism, socio-economic inequality and an increasingly unstable political environment. The people most affected in these hard times are obviously the poor, meaning mostly black people; because although we do have white poverty (and it is growing rapidly), this is hardly the reality for most white South Africans. The reality remains that most poor communities in South Africa are of colour, and the communities living in townships will therefore be mostly black or coloured - depending on where you are in this vast country.

 

Most foreign visitors have limited insight and knowledge of the diversity of South Africa; and are conditioned by the media, travel guides and the corporate tourism companies dictating for the bulk of our visiting tourists what should or shouldn’t be included in their itinerary. So when you go and visit a township (with the right provider), you as a visitor can actually see how at least 70% of South Africans live. The perception that this is dangerous and you are in danger of getting mugged, raped and murdered is only strengthened by the general opinion of (mostly) white South Africans; townships is too dangerous to vist and you must stay away from them. This opinion, however, is not the reality, and if you ask people with that opinion if they have ever actually been to any of the townships, you will most probably get a negative answer. There are many strong opinions being freely shared, but few of those are based on reality - but rather on historical perceptions, prejudice and flat-out racism. 

 

My reality and experience is that we never have had issues with safety, when taking visitors around and showing them the township. Of the thousands of visitors we have had over these past 11 years as Khaya Volunteer Projects, we have had only a handful of small incidents when we visited the township - incidents that could have happened anywhere and didn’t involve physical threats or any injuries.

 

Taking the number of visitors in account and the less positive experiences encountered, we can conclude that it is only a very small percentage of the bigger picture. The biggest safety issues, which are fortunately limited in Port Elizabeth, are experienced in the much nicer and more affluent areas, such as at the beachfront or in the historical centre. The big cities of  Cape Town, Johannesburg and Pretoria will increase your chances of becoming a victim of crime, so we are happy to live in relatively quiet and easygoing Port Elizabeth. Having said this, it doesn’t mean you can start driving around and visit any township you come across - there are some clear rules you should keep in mind before participating in any such experience.

 

  1. Ask yourself who will benefit from your visit. Is this a big corporate tourism company who makes all the money, or do they have a social responsibility policy? Check with them what they actually offer, because an authentic experience will need to have a strong component of benefit to the local community.
  2. Ask who the tour guide is and who is supported by the provider in that community. Is your guide a local from this community or background, or just another staff member driving you around?
  3. What kind of tour will it be - will you be walking, driving around in a bus, will you visit a school just to take pictures, or are you actually contributing something? Ask yourself what the bigger picture of your experience is. As long as all stakeholders in this process (the tour operator/provider, the community and the projects you visit, and you as the customer of course) get something positive out of the experience, it can be done sustainably and responsibly. Only when all stakeholders have a clear advantage from these kinds of experiences will it be successful, in my opinion.
  4. How authentic will the visit be? I personally know of highly reputable companies who claim all kinds of ethical policies - but in reality they just drive you through the township in an air-conditioned van, stop at a souvenir shop where they dictate prices, and their so-called “trust” is solely funded by the donations of their customers. This is not my idea of what ethical and responsible township tourism should be, as authenticity play a part. Township tours or community service tours are too sensitive to get involved in mass tourism, and groups larger than 10 people are already a crowd that is too big - so make sure you question numbers and how big the group will be. If you relate this to volunteering, you should not go to a project where 20 volunteers all work at the same day-care centre every day.
  5. Think about how tours are being offered; is this focused on cultural immersion or is poverty used as the drawing card? There has to be a foundation of mutual respect and consistency of support provided to schools or non-profit projects being visited. Your visit or stay should not interfere with the normal running of any program and schools should provide lessons to their learners, not shut down because 20 camera-wielding visitors want the best angles for their loudly clicking cameras.
  6. Picture-taking policies are quite important, and are the responsibility of any provider of such experiences. They should promote a policy of how to deal with taking pictures sensitively, as well as handing out gift or donations. Think about this before you make the mistake of experiencing your stay through a square screen and disrespecting a local community by making them the object of your picture-taking. Taking pictures is fine, but ask and think consciously about how you would feel if a group of people came to your neighborhood and started using you as their new photo-project subject. You will see that many people in the township love having pictures taken, and even pose in the street and ask to have their picture taken. This does not mean you have no restriction and you still need to ask before you take their picture.

Visiting a township in South Africa as a day tourist or volunteer can be hugely rewarding, and the highlight of many during their holidays or travels - but we all have the responsibility to be critical and aware of how we do this to benefit those who are being visited in their communities.

Izizwe Projects (www.izizweprojects.co.za), which is one of our volunteering projects in Port Elizabeth, provides township tours to visitors as a form of fundraising. All income made from walking tours goes into this non-profit and partially funds their sports, community and education programs. So if you have an interest to add this to your bucket list; find a provider who is in this for the right reasons, and adds value to the community you will be visiting.

 

See you in Africa.

Martijn

 

 

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