Township Tours…

May 26, 2010

Ok, I’m just going to say it… Township tours really freak me out! I used to be more torn about it; on the one hand I was seriously disturbed by the patronizing and intrusive edge they have to them, but on the other hand I could see how it’s good to bring money, jobs and positive attention to the townships. And I believe when they are tastefully done, through community participation and inclusion, they can expose tourists, who might have otherwise been shielded from the poverty that affects the majority of South Africans, to the bigger picture of the realities in South Africa. But that is if they are tastefully done.

All too often they remind me of some weird kind of urban safari. One day I was walking in Site C, Khayelitsha, and I rounded a corner to see the tiny township street flooded with white, camera-wielding foreigners, all snapping away, maybe trying to capture that perfect “smiling-with-a-random-black-kid” photo for their Facebook profile pictures. As I approached them they looked at me in shock and annoyance; I don’t think I have ever been glared at so intensely by any other group of people in my entire life! They thought they had paid for the right to be the only white people in the township and I was ruining that magical ideal for them!

As I walked by, I cringed at the incredibly loud ignorant comments made by the tourists (comments that would really insult a resident), them posing with random children they have never seen before and will never see again, them speaking down at the people of Site C as if they were not on the same plane of intelligence, and so on and so forth. The whole scene made me sick to my stomach.

As the FIFA World Cup approaches, and the entire world will be on South Africa’s doorstep, I can’t help but think about things like township tours. I want all the tourists to experience the fullness of South Africa. I want people to be able to experience the amazing culture in the townships, and also not be shielded from poverty, but I do not want it at the expense or exploitation of people. Let’s look at it in another way… Can you imagine the reaction of residence of Bishops Court or Constantia if tour companies began doing tours through their neighborhoods; neighborhoods which were also established and enabled through Apartheid with potentially just as much interest as the ones on the other end of the socio-economic spectrum.

Imagine a tour bus stopping on a street in Bishop’s Court, followed by a bunch of foreigners flooding out of it, filling the street; stopping little white kids riding their bikes past so they can get a picture with them, taking pictures as the fancy cars drive by, climbing up the tall barrier walls to get pictures of the large mansions and yards, and making comments like, “Man, can you believe people still live like this?!” I do not think the Bishops Court residents would be all that happy about it. I don’t think those tours would last that long.

So yeah, I just wanted to get that off my chest. I guess it’s not the township tours per say that bother me. It’s probably, more specifically, the township tours that are done distastefully that bother me to the core of my being.