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May 10, 2012

Township tourism – what’s in a name?

Browse any tourism website and you will find that the same words are widely used: sustainable, projects, reality, authentic, real lives, genuine, crafts, meeting the locals, engagement, helping communities etc. We were intrigued, and wondered what this said about the rest of the destination – that it is fake?

Local barbershop at a resident's home

People have been visiting impoverished areas of cities since the late 18th century, when "gentlemen of means" travelled the distances from one suburb to another to see how the locals lived. They wrote in their journals about the living conditions, the smell and of children left to fend for themselves while adults worked in nearby factories, farms or docks.

What is not recorded, however, is what the locals thought of these visitors poking about in their homes and neighbourhoods.

This is the way of the world today, and tourists pay good money to experience favela tourism in Rio, slum tourism in Delhi, hutong trips in Beijing and township tourism in South Africa.

People visit townships for a variety of reasons. For us, it was to reacquaint ourselves with what Cape Town has to offer the visitor. In our roles as UK and US representatives for Cape Town Tourism, we were invited to explore the "Unexpected Cape Town", and experiencing the townships formed a key part of this brief.

Many people were removed from Distric Six to the Cape Flats

We had a full itinerary through which to work our way and were already overwhelmed with new experiences. On our first evening in Cape Town, accompanied by Micael from CoffeeBeans Routes, we headed to dine with Sheila and listen to Cape Town jazz at her home in Gugulethu. This was all about access and experiencing new things – surely this is exactly what travel is all about?

The second stop on our jazz safari was to a music club with the unfortunate name of 021 Swingers, so we were apprehensive about what lay in store – but it was only more jazz. We knew we weren’t among many locals, considering the number of locals compared with that of tourists and the fact that the band leader opened the set by welcoming visitors from Germany, American and England.

Sandile Mdekazi creates mosaics in his studio

The flavours and fabric of Cape Town were slowly being revealed. Beneath the smart exterior of a busy, cosmopolitan city we discovered the many layers that have gone into the making a modern city and its people.

Our next stop on the unexpected was a walking tour with Deon, our guide on the Sex and Slaves in the City. A number of buildings used by the slaves and their masters can still be visited, including the Slave Lodge, St Stephens, Slave Church Museum and Slave school. Perhaps too much to see in only two hours, as it certainly left us wanting more.

It was time to return to the cobbled Bo-Kaap streets as we had an important lesson: cooking a Cape Malay curry. We left there with recipes and spices to recreate the masterpiece at home.

It’s a pity we weren’t able to visit the fascinating District Six Museum, established in 1994, which highlights the memories, experiences and history of those involved in the forced removals between 1966 and 1980 when 60 000 local residents were removed to an area now known as the Cape Flats. It would have given greater context and depth than listening to information from the backseat of a tourist bus.

Guga S’Thebe Arts and Cultural Centre in Langa

The Guga S’Thebe Arts and Cultural Centre in Langa is carefully decorated with ceramic murals and within we found artists creating ceramics, water colours and textiles. We visited Sandile Mdekazi’s mosaic studio, and watched him work on new pieces to be sold in the cultural centre and, he hoped, further afield.

We drove around mostly, while Deon [Gurling], our photographer, hopped in and out of the bus to take photographs. And we watched as women prepared offal for the cooking pots at the roadside. We didn’t get out as they were working and it felt too intrusive – besides they didn’t need us getting in the way. Local involvement was minimal.

By now we were getting hungry, and it was time to visit a restaurant that has appeared in the media around the world – Mzoli’s. This is an experience that is at the coal-face – nothing extra is added for you just because you are a tourist. This is township life and it represents a local place to eat, with the locals, and to pretend for a moment you are a local.

Mzoli's place is a popular destination for hungry locals

Mzoli Ngcawuzele is the co-founder of the Go Glam in Gugulethu wine festival – an event that aims to bring together wine famers, retailers, celebrities and festival attendees. This could potentially be rich pickings for the wine producers and retailers, but what of the locals?

Township tourism in South Africa is surely a sector with huge growth potential but somehow seems hindered by a lack of innovation, transparency and wider local Cape Town involvement. This blog is not intended to offer solutions, but to share our professional experience, and to perhaps start a debate amongst those businesses involved in this sector.

All images by Deon Gurling/Cape Town Tourism

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