Reflections on Race

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Homes in the informal settlement in the township

I’m feeling very conflicted about what I’m coming to lean about tourism in the townships. I still feel that it’s wrong somehow and I can’t shake that. But all of the people that I’m working with are telling me how good it can be for the community. Everyone seems to be in agreement that the stereotypical notion of tourists embarking on a bus and riding throughout the township with their noses pressed against the glass is wrong. Several people have made reference to the zoo analogy. And yet it seems that everyone feels they are involved in some other form of tourism – that they are doing it properly and in a way that is good for the community.

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A rooftop garden. Income generation, nutrition, and education all rolled into one, funded by the NGO that is funded by tourism.

Prior to living in South Africa I had never really given much thought to the concept of race. Maybe more than most privileged white people in Southern Ontario, maybe less. Here it seems to be all I think about. Why oh why did I spend so much time reading about postcolonial theory and not a word of critical race theory (that was for Rich 😉 )? Not that CRT would really help me wrap my head around the complexities of race here. I could live here a lifetime and never really understand, not from a white person’s perspective nor from a black person’s. So comes the question that I’ve begun to ask in my research: Is township tourism good or bad for racial relations in South Africa?

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Tourists and seniors interacting with one another at the seniors’ center in the township, also funded by the NGO

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The man I met with yesterday, who is a tour guide with an NGO that uses tourism to fund dozens of community development initiatives in several townships, believes that the answer is an unqualified Yes. The tours bring people together to share their humanity and learn about one another. This value is so central to what they do in his organization that over the holidays in June and December when many, many people return to visit family in the Eastern Cape, they don’t run any tours at all. Their tours are not about shacks and squalor, but about people learning about one another.

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A tourist from France with the daughter of one of the tour guides. He told me that he always brings the tourists to see his home because they are curious about what it is like to live in a shack.

Another tour guide told me that while his tours do not directly support the community, many people who learn about the township through the tour will return as volunteers or will start NGOs or will make donations to the community. One German couple sent back many thousands (if not millions) of rands to transform the tinshack educare (pre-school) center into a multi-story facility that would not be out of place in my home community in Guelph. And who can forget the ‘sheeps’ head lady‘?

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Her life and the lives of hundreds of others are changed for the better in a very real way because of tourism. So why is there still a bug in my butt about it?

I ask about dependency. What does it do to a community to embrace tourism because the white people who come might give them stuff? I’m told that people believe that since the tourists are in a position to help, and they want to, why shouldn’t they?

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A tourist wanted to help out after visiting the seniors’ center. He contracted another organization in the township to make blankets for all of the seniors to help them through the coming winter.

And yet…

I went to the Africa Day celebration at Amazink yesterday. My friend Bongani led the singing of the national anthem, because his “friends from team Canada”  were present 🙂 And there were lots of speeches, lots of which I didn’t understand. But again the anger shone through, loud and clear. The anger and pain of the elders as they spoke about their horrific experiences under apartheid. And I mean horrific – reading about it in no way prepares you to hear firsthand about what people had to endure. And the young people are angry about the lack of change that they see having been accomplished since 1994. In these black spaces I truly feel that no matter what is being said or presented or even believed, learning about the Other will not be enough to undo the damage that has been done here. The distrust and the hurt just run too deep.

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My neighbour the barber. He was given a donation from a tourist to buy the shipping container that now houses his barbershop

I’ll keep digging at it. As I said to my friend yesterday, if these things were simple or painless they wouldn’t make much of a study. I feel that my head and my heart and my imagination are hardly big enough to contain all that I am learning and struggling to understand here, but I’ll keep at it.

Coming home is going to be very difficult.

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*As before, please be aware that all of the photos published on this page were taken by the study participants, and the participants and the people who appear in the photos have given full informed consent to have their photos published and used for the purposes of this study. I would respectfully ask that other people not reproduce these photos for other purposes.

9 thoughts on “Reflections on Race

  1. What this says to me is that these people have given up on their own government and countrymen to fix the wrong of the townships.
    Now tourism gives them hope that resources will flow into their community and from the sound of it, that’s exactly what they’re experiencing.
    That’s where the real shame is – not in the tourism itself, but the hope it brings because their own government gives them none.

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    • I agree. It must be very different in the country now than it was 20 years ago. I feel like then people were so hopeful for the future, and now the government is so corrupt and people really don’t have any faith. That being said, I do see a massive push to build new houses and replace the shacks. It will be interesting to watch what happens politically here, even over the next year or so. I think a massive change is in the works, but it’s hard to tell what direction that will pull the country in. xoxox

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      • I hope you’re right and the direction is positive Megs.
        There are days when I believe in the general goodness and kindness of man to do the right thing, and other days … well, not so much.

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  2. Hey Meghan….your thoughts occasionally twist my brain up as well and I am a mere observer of your experience. With regard to your latest post, I have two thoughts to share with you….I have no idea if they will add to your burden or alleviate it…they are only thoughts…neither of them are mine but both left a huge impression on me.
    “People think that one person cannot make a difference but one person is the only thing that every did” (that’s paraphrasing some wise person thus the quotation marks”!)
    The second was my Dad…Many many years ago (over a cocktail sometime I will tell you what precipitated the question!) I asked him why he had never talked about the difference between blacks and whites…my Dad said “there is no difference so therefore there was nothing to talk about”
    Regards, Wendy

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    • Hi Wendy, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts! I think I would have liked your Dad from the sounds of it 🙂 And I agree with him 100%. Where I see there having been created a difference is in one race having been subjugated and told they are less to such a degree that they begin to internalize that and enact it themselves. And it’s not just me speculating on that – many people have told me about this here from their own perspectives, and it has been written about extensively. And it is shit. One last anecdote – I was out with my friend for a ‘real’ township experience the other day and it was quite loud where we were. My friend kept leaning over to speak into my ear, but whenever he would catch himself putting his hand on my back, as one does naturally when speaking in a person’s ear, he would flinch away and apologize. I’m beginning to understand that this is one aspect of life that some forms of tourism may have on changing things here, in bringing people together and breaking down some of those barriers. Maybe. xox

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    • And your quote puts me in mind of Margaret Mead’s:”Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has” 🙂

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    • I have noticed that as well, extending even to newcomers from other parts of South Africa. Thanks for sharing the page – community gardens and food initiatives are among my favourites 🙂

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  3. Pingback: A note on methodology | Mis Tourist

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