I first encountered the idea of township tourism when I went to Cape Town in 2016. I spotted it between the seal island boat rides and hiking trails in a tourism brochure. My first reaction was shock. I was like, “What? How is this a thing?” because my initial picture of it was as something highly exploitative where wealthier people and tourists from overseas were entering townships and ogling the people and their way of life.
When I first thought of writing this, I knew I had to do my research but I was adamant that there was something wrong with it. Whether it be the language used to describe these tours or the fact that the same situation would never occur in reverse – like cycling groups from Gugulethu touring Clifton and snapping pictures of residents. Although this is true as proven by two photographers who toured Camps Bay and the negative reactions of the people they tried taking pictures of.
However, as I went deeper into the story, I found a different side, as one often does. There is a side to this tourism that benefits the people in the communities they visit. In some cases, it provides jobs in the form of local people as guides and artwork displays like the Township Art Galleries (TAG) that have been established in Langa and Alexandra. There is still a fine line here as this all needs to take place on the community’s terms. According to Loyiso Trunce, a writer in Masiphumelele, it also needs to be engaged and interactional.
This makes me question whether tourism is the right word after all as it can be described as the activity of travelling to a place purely for pleasure. This can often mean taking pictures from behind the window of an air-conditioned vehicle. Whereas, the beneficial and engaged interactions that are being advocated for include walking or cycling around, meeting the community members and experiencing their home life with their permission. It includes asking permission to take photos too. ‘Tourism’, although a problematic term, is a fast-growing industry in South Africa and some say that it needs to develop in areas beyond the traditional routes in order for groups that are historically disadvantaged to take part and benefit.
However, I still question whether it is right. It needs to be asked who benefits when going on a tour, a company or the people you meet. A major reason tourists give when going on these tours is to experience the other side of South Africa. But for whose gain? It needs to be asked whether it is focused on cultural exchange rather than poverty as a draw card in a voyeuristic exhibition. People who decide to engage with a community in this way need to know why they are doing it because it is still an odd thing to go into an area just because it is disadvantaged when you would not necessarily do the same thing with a wealthy suburb.
I cannot give a concrete answer because there seems to be a great deal of good being done by bringing revenue into the eateries, art galleries and employment sector within these communities. But, there is still the distinct weirdness about the concept of township tours. Even if all the boxes are checked for ethics, it is only the permission and opinions of those living in the communities that counts.