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 ūüėČ )? 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 ūüôā 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.

Reflections on Township Tourism III

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I have finally begun collecting some data from my participants (yay!), and¬†as expected (once again) nothing has gone as expected. I thought that I was being clear in asking participants in the study if they would take pictures in the community, with the cameras that were given (and once again, many many thanks to all you beautiful folks who donated¬†your cameras!!!), of what tourism¬†is and what tourism¬†could¬†or¬†ought¬† to be. I’ve left the question deliberately open-ended in order to allow for a multiplicity of responses and perspectives that I could not have anticipated as an outsider to the community.

The first woman I met with arranged for me to speak with several people in the community who had experiences with tourists, including the ‘sheeps’ head lady,’ a man who sells arts and crafts to the tourists, and someone who lives in one of the old residences. She also brought along her friend to photograph¬†me¬†as we made our way through the township. Hm. I was really just going there to give¬†her¬†a camera, but we can roll with this.

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The ‘sheeps’ head lady’ tending her fire

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Interviewing the ‘sheeps’ head lady.’ She told me that a couple from ‘Swederland,’ a couple that she does not remember meeting, decided to pay the school fees¬†for her two children after having met her on a tour. Her children have been attending private school now since 2011.

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The front room of the apartment of the man who sells arts and crafts to the tourists is crammed to the ceiling with his wares.

The second man I spoke with took it upon himself to conduct a full community survey. I really hope he didn’t think I asked him to do all that work, but awesome! He conducted interviews with dozens of people around town, and sent out opinion polls on Facebook and What’s App that buzzed with responses the entire time we spoke. He¬†had even typed and printed out four pages of responses from the interviews that he conducted in the community! Again, really not what I was anticipating, but so cool!

I have to say, I was feeling a little dismayed at what I perceived to be a lack of criticality regarding the socio-cultural impacts of tourism among the people I spoke with. Maybe this was due in part to the fact that one of my main methods of meeting participants was through engaging with the tours myself as a client? Or maybe I am completely wrong-headed about the whole thing – the financial impact of the tours is very evident, and maybe this is enough to make them be wholly valued by the communities? Maybe I’m just being too pushy with my own perspective that the tours can be harmful?

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This man, who has a physical disability, spends quite a bit of time outside the local liquor store, which is across from where many of the tourists park their cars. He has taken it upon himself to protect the cars, chasing away would-be robbers and vandals. For this he receives no ‘tip-out’ from the tour guides, and the tourists have no idea the role he plays in keeping their valuables safe.

But, then I heard another tourist say that ‘Everyone back home should go on a tour like this’ and I felt all of my insides clench. I’m sorry, but I just can’t get on board with the notion that we all ought to¬†go look at¬†other people’s poverty for our own edification. And I saw repeated examples of both tourists and the guides reinforcing negative and harmful stereotypes about the Township residents, for instance that young African fathers are not present in their children’s lives. I went back to my proposal in search of a little guidance and grounding, and re-encountered this gem of a video:

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So it is not just me.

One man told me that people in the poorer parts of the Township really want tourists to come through because it means so for much¬†for them to have ‘superior’ people walking¬†through the same streets that they walk. When I prodded for an explanation, he told me that the white people are the superior ones, and that¬†some people feel that to be seen by white people, to have a chance to interact with them, means that you are a person too, it means that you exist. Holy Fuck. Please bear in mind that is this (hopefully obviously) not what I think, nor is it what he thinks, but rather what he thinks other people think (I think). Tourism is not responsible for the racial disparities in this country, but hearing stories like that doesn’t make me think that it’s helping a whole ton either.

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This lady owns a shebeen in the Township. She doesn’t like seeing the white tourists walk past, because her pub is unlicensed and she is afraid that one of them will report her to the police

Another told me that some people will come to the Township to film their music videos, because it makes them look edgy and ‘fresh’ – that they pay the residents a paltry amount of money to act a certain way for the cameras – ‘thuggish’ – and that to him this was exploitative and abusive, as many of the people did not know what they were consenting to, they just saw an offer of money. Some musicians, like Skrillex for example, have come to the Township and have stayed and mentored young local artists, but to my young friend others just come and take and perpetuate negative stereotypes about the people who live there.

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The residents of the Township gathered to take part in a music video.

Lots of the people that I meet in my day to day tell me that they are studying tourism – I mean lots and lots of people. It’s a bit astonishing to tell you the truth. But then you see how much more money those involved in tourism¬†are making than many other people in the community. And in parts of the community where many people struggle to make a living, you can imagine how divisive and political these imbalances can become.

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This young lady is studying tourism at her high school. Like many people I have spoken with, she views tourism as a field in which she has the potential to make a very good living.

Please keep in mind that I have only formally interviewed a handful of people, and have casually chatted with many others, so don’t take anything that is said here as some sort of conclusive statement about the ‘Truth’ of Township tourism – only a few early observations that have stood out in my mind. I would love any feedback from others’ experiences or opinions on the matter!

*Also 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.

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Recycling in the Township

 

Interested in reading about some of my earlier musings about the role of tourism in the Townships? Check out Touring the Township (and playing Andrea) and Reflections on Township tourism II. Thanks!

A (not so) secret confession

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Meghan in Nairobi in 2009

It is interesting to think about working with Edwin and his colleagues in the visual arts department. I consider myself to be a social justice scholar (without ever, ever putting it in such terribly lame terms, but you’ll see where I’m going here) who is using art as a research methodology, almost as an afterthought. Edwin and co. are artists, using art to work for social justice in the community. It might be parsing, but it might also be very interesting to see how we come to work together from such different starting positions. Edwin gives very clear indication that this is his focus and objective, without ever coming out and saying anything so lame as ‘I’m working towards social justice.’ (Also, if it seems as though I am talking a lot about Edwin on here, it is because I know virtually no one else here yet).

So…, I’ve decided to go on a Township tour. This is something that I have struggled with, and it even came up as a question at my proposal defense back in June. As much as my research is about learning about local perceptions and experiences of tourism, and I hope that I will be open to whatever they may be, my own feelings are that the tours are exploitative, paternalistic, and maybe even a little morally repugnant. I have decided, however, that it would be unjustifiable for me to attempt to critique and take an arbitrary moral high ground over something that I have no first-hand experience of.

Now here’s the dirty secret part (or maybe it’s not so secret as I think it is): I’m looking forward to it. I am fascinated by these communities, as would be obvious from the fact that I chose this area of study for my PhD research. I cannot pretend that I am somehow morally superior to any of the other tourists who choose to participate in these experiences. I find these communities fascinating – I want to get out and walk around and talk to people and take a million photos. Where does this compulsion to consume the Other come from? Is it just innate human curiosity, or it is something more sinister? Could it be the desire to witness¬†a way of life that us so materially inferior to one’s own? (and by materially inferior, I of course mean on a purely quantitatively economic scale).+4w5536

It also comes to mind that these questions might be completely inane and self-serving. There are many things that I feel are morally wrong that I don’t question – for some reason child prostitutes in Thailand comes immediately to mind – that I would never feel compelled to ‘sample’ in order to decide for myself how I felt about it. I know that the comparison is hardly apt, but it bears thinking on…1935249_300995705117_5312299_n

Of course, I like to believe that as a regular, everyday tourist I would never choose to participate and support this particular brand of tourism. I just wouldn’t. But even this is being disingenuous. Because of course the truth is that I do get to enter these neighbourhoods and interact with people for reasons that I have determined are justified, and not merely about curiosity. Do you see the difference? Whereas the ‘tourists’ tell themselves that the $$ that they pay for the tour is supporting the community, allowing themselves (perhaps) to assuage their guilt about their voyeuristic intentions, my being there is legitimized by the fact that I am there for business, not leisure. Does that make my voyeuristic intent any purer? Not a chance. Do I tell myself, same as everyone else, that my being there is helping, and that in turn I am come away changed for the better? You betcha. So I cannot hide behind my moral proclamations that the intent behind the tours, from the tourists’ side, is wrong because I know that I share the same intent, in my heart. Now I feel as though I’m trying to justify myself. I’m really struggling with this.

The truth of the matter is that I have been in slums many times¬†and none of the fascination has worn off. I’m not sure what that says about me, or what is at the heart of that.