Today is Youth Day in South Africa and a public holiday. This day was set aside to commemorate a dark event in this nation’s history: The Soweto Uprising that began on June 16, 1976. Young students and their allies took to the streets of Soweto (the largest Township in South Africa, located in Johannesburg) on this day 40 years ago to protest the government changing the official teaching language of some parts of public education to Afrikaans. This was perceived by many people to put black students at a disadvantage, as their focus would shift from understanding the content to deciphering the language of instruction.
Police responded to this protest with shocking brutality. The official number of people killed is 176, despite police reports at the time that only 23 had died, and others claiming that as many as 700 were killed. This is the photo most closely associated with the Uprising:
Hector Pieterson, a 13 year-old boy killed by police in Soweto on June 16, 1976 (photo credit Sam Nzima)
Other communities joined in the protests, and by the end of 1976 more than 600 people had died. Although it was another 14 years before Nelson Mandela was released from prison, these protests forever changed people’s acceptance of apartheid rule in South Africa.
I think I have mentioned before that there is a white family living in the Township. They moved here in 1998, inspired by the spirit of reconciliation and a desire to do what was within their power to help heal the wounds of the past. This is so extraordinary that even today, 18 years later, their friends in Town introduce them as “the people that live in the Township.”
Every Wednesday the Lady of the House hosts a Reconciliation Lunch. She serves a full lunch (honestly, I can’t have breakfast on Wednesdays anymore) and the doors to her home are open to anyone in the community who would like to attend. Anyone. I have been going regularly and I don’t know that I have ever seen fewer than 30 people in attendance. Imagine. Opening your home to 30 friends and total strangers every single week and feeding them until they’re stuffed.
Steam bread and stew. Delicious traditional South African food.
The idea of the Lunch is to sit and eat with people that you would normally not have an opportunity to sit and eat with and learn about one another’s lives. The Lady of the House has a topic to discuss every week and everyone at the table must share their perspectives on the topic. Sometimes the topic is light and fluffy, for instance ‘talk about your best friend growing up and what you did together’, sometimes it can be quite intense and heartbreaking, such as when she asked us to share about our experiences with crime.
Sometimes I think the topic is going to be fluffy, as in ‘talk about your mother’ following Mother’s Day, and I end up crying at the table.
I always learn something. This week we talked about our hometowns. Several people spoke about growing up in the Township and how much it has changed in terms of safety since they were kids. A student from the University spoke about growing up in Joburg and living behind electric fences and having their family dogs poisoned by people trying to break in. One lady spoke about how lovely her hometown was because she was able to ride her bike to and from school without worry. That one really struck me. It never occurred to me that it would be a privilege to be able to ride your bike as a child without having to worry about what might happen.
I don’t feel that I contributed much to the conversation this week. Barrie was…nice?
I would love to ask the Lady of the House if she would make one Lunch topic about tourism, but I won’t because I don’t want to take away from the objective of the Lunch, even though I know it would be an amazing discussion. As it is I feel very lucky to have met such incredible people and to have had the opportunity to learn about the community in such a special way. On this Youth Day it is nice to reflect that the simple pleasure of sitting down and sharing a meal with one’s neighbours is no longer impossible, just special.
Local dudes and students from the University playing dominoes together
Ever feeling like you’re trying to play a game with the wrong set of rules?
When you go abroad through various programs, often you are forced privileged to participate in pre-departure cross-cultural awareness training. One of the games that really stood out for me was one where you would get all the students to sit together to play a game of cards. Each student is given a different set of written instructions for how the game is played, and they are not allowed to speak to one another as they play.
Can you see where I’m going with this?
It was interesting for me to see some of the students lose it when others failed to play according to their rules. This is a training session people, obviously there’s a larger objective at play. But I digress…
Sunday chill at one of the original Township houses
My Dutch friend and I have been talking about the rules. Specifically, that we don’t know what they are. And everyone knows this about living and working and studying internationally. Everyone knows that culture shapes the way we perceive and interpret the world and our expectations and norms and blah blah blah.
It is still so, so frustrating.
There is so much that I don’t understand. And I know that I keep coming back to race like a broken record, but believe me when I say that it colours every aspect of life here. For me it is an awareness not of being one or the other, but of the ways in which it frames relationships.
I have now had 4 or 5 people tell me, unasked, that tourism is good for the Townships because it improves racial relations. That it means so, so much to be seen by white people, to have an opportunity to interact with one another, especially for kids. There are two sides to this, according to my friends: one, that being acknowledged by white people means to a resident of the Townships that you exist, that you are also a person, and two, it provides an opportunity for black people in the Townships to see that white people are not monsters or deities, but that we are all just people who are equal.
I believe that both of these things are ‘true.’ I also believe that both of these things are at cross-purposes. How can the touristic encounter work towards a establishing a common humanity, while at the same time affirming another’s humanity simply by deigning to acknowledge them??
But this is by now a somewhat familiar frustration coming from me, no? I am still confused, but trying to wrap my head around it with the help of my Dutch buddy has been wonderful. It makes you feel less insane to be confused and frustrated with a friend.
Essentials of the Sunday chill: box o’ wine, fuzzy slippers, and menthol cigarettes (they’re not mine Mom)
Other cultural confusions? My Afrikaans friend told me that many of her friends would be shocked, shocked to hear that I am living in a Township, going to shebeens, and joining in for Sunday chill. Not that they would find it weird. I think we can all agree that I’m comfortable doing weird things. But that they would be incapable of understanding why I would ever choose to do such a thing.
Also, I am struggling with how best to deal with two undoubtedly common frustrations: people hitting me up for cash, and people ‘falling in love’ with me. As to the former, I have resolved to ‘lend’ friends a small sum and let it be known that that is the limit (until I’m repaid at least, which has yet to happen). As to the latter, I (think that I) say very clearly that I am only interested in being friends and have no intention of engaging in any other type of relationship while I am here. People are still surprisingly persistent.
This is where we come back to the rules of the card game (you thought I forgot about that one, didn’t you?). I feel as though I am communicating as clearly as I am able (I also learned years ago that being coy gets you absolutely nowhere). And yet I find that some people persist, and I really can’t understand why. Also, being a Canadian, and being on the reserved and shy side even for a Canadian, I am amazed at people professing their adoration or asking for a sizable sum of money of a virtual stranger. I just can’t see one of my Canadian friends telling a girl he or she met an hour before that they are in love with her.
I’m not complaining – I know that I will be sad on the day that I realize I have become too old for persistent marriage proposals. And I am certainly not complaining that I am in an understood position of financial privilege, and I would be happy to share beyond what I do if I didn’t think it would create even more of a divide in my friendships. I’m just confused. It’s one of those cultural divides that I don’t know that I’ll ever quite understand.
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.
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?
Tourists and seniors interacting with one another at the seniors’ center in the township, also funded by the NGO
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.
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‘?
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?
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.
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.
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.
*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.
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.
The ‘sheeps’ head lady’ tending her fire
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.
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?
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
As I was preparing myself for this trip in the fall of 2015, I was saddened and horrified to encounter a number of news stories about violent protests erupting on university campuses throughout South Africa (don’t tell my mom). Some of the issues include rising tuition fees, the use of Africaans as a mandatory teaching language, and allegations of racism. All of these factors have resulted in inequitable access to higher education for Black South Africans.
Edwin tells me that a number of campuses remain closed. When I asked about the violence, the senseless destruction of university facilities, and was there not an avenue to have conversations about these things, he suggested that perhaps people were (justifiably?) frustrated after decades of seemingly fruitless conversations.
Yesterday as I tried to leave the library, I noticed that a large metal door had been partially lowered over the main entrance and that a man was shouting outside demanding admittance. The security guard escorted myself and some other students out through a back door.(sorry about the crappy photo quality – I only had my phone on me)
Does your university library have a giant metal gate that can close over the entrance? I don’t think mine even has security guards.
A number of young black African men and women were gathered in the courtyard below, while many white onlookers peered down from the overpasses. When I asked one student what was going on he irritably muttered something about ‘black workers.’
I went and sat on the steps for a while (after the speaker invited her white family to join them below) and tried to figure out what was going on. I was very moved by the passion of the speakers in demanding justice for the 150 workers who had been fired following protests the previous fall (there have been no displays of violence on this campus) and for pay and opportunity equity for all university workers. I found the signs that the participants were holding (including “70% of land in the hands of 13% of the population” and “No justice for Black students at White universities”) to be particularly evocative. I later found out that the university workers had joined in solidarity in with the students protesting colonial statues on campus. There were apparently some clashes earlier between the students and the private security forces the university had hired for this planned protest.
I was also particularly moved by the singing of the people gathered. Ever since Edwin told me about his audio mapping project (Getting down to work), I have become interested in capturing the sounds around me (and have added an audio file of the Camps Bay waterfront to the Touring the Township post). Luckily I have started carrying my audio recorder around with me (although not my camera -grr) and this is what I captured:
I came home at the end of the day brimming with positivity and energy following this experience. I was inspired by the stand that the students and workers continue to take to confront the inequities at the university. My roommate, however, had a very different take on the issue. I guess she got stuck in the student life center for a couple of hours when they went into lock down, and was outraged that these ‘riots’ had wreaked havok with her day. I countered that there were no riots – I was there and what I saw was a peaceful protest.
“Well they were swearing!”
“Okay, but I’d probably be swearing too. I think people have a reason to be upset, and I think it’s cool that they’re taking a stand for what’s right.”
This then deteriorated into a diatribe about ‘these people’ and I had to leave the room. Maybe she’s right – maybe everyone has had enough with the disruptions and the dissatisfaction and would just like to see things quietly carry on. I don’t know, since I’ve only just arrived here and don’t have an appreciation what things were like this past fall, or at any point in the past for that matter. It does seem very clear that she and I are approaching the issue from drastically different starting points.
This weekend’s trip into Cape Town was quite eventful and a study in contrasts. I think it goes a long way towards exemplifying some of the contradictions and complexities that are a part of living in South Africa (that was for Meg – I like alliteration too 😉 ).
I took the morning train in yesterday morning. Despite having been sort of vaguely warned about the dangers, it seemed to me that the only real danger being talked about was in taking the train before or after hours, and that riding during the day presents no problems. I was for sure the only white person that I saw on the train the entire journey, and it got me once again thinking about the racial segregation of space. At home I would take this train all the time! It was clean, more or less efficient (it was only half an hour late), and got me dead into the center of the city without having to deal with the ordeals of traffic (read: lunatic drivers) or trying to sort out parking. All for the low low price of CAD $1.75. Seems like a no brainer to me.
I planned this trip into the city expressly to participate in a Township tour. I booked my tour online (for Monday morning – they run a Gospel tour on Sundays, as opposed to the regular tour that runs the rest of the week) and not being familiar with the layout of the city, I looked to the company’s website for guidance as to what part of the city I should find lodgings in. The website advised that they would come and fetch people as far away as Camps Bay, but no further out. I read this as: they come to Camps Bay. So that is where I should stay. This is not the only part of this trip wherein I should have done a better job actually reading what I was getting myself into. I found a great deal on Hot Wire for a room in a villa near the beach (yay! Beach finally!) and took a taxi once I had my fill of wandering around Cape Town (more on that later, maybe – that city is a really wonderful place to explore!).
Turns out I’m not so much Camps Bay people. I thought I was out of place at the university, with all of the willowy blonde giantesses, but now I have officially found the place where the beautiful people congregate. To be fair, it was a little like walking onto the set of Beverly Hills 90210, so that was exciting for me (only I was being played by Gabrielle Carteris). Camps Bay appears to be everything that a wealthy seaside resort ought to be – lots of restaurants and cafes with patios spilling out onto the sidewalks, kids playing drums and dancing on the beach, massive crashing waves (but a wicked riptide, apparently. I didn’t see anyone in the water), and luxury cars cruising up and down the waterfront strip.
This is what it sounds like when you’re walking along the waterfront:
As an aside, Hot Wire is a wonderful thing! Check out this place that I was able to stay at! I’m usually more of a hostel kind of girl. Now, how do you (as me) contend with the reality of that room, knowing that the purpose of my visit is to go to a Township to see how the poor people live, or in travel brochure-speak, see the ‘reality’ of life in the city? Is this not also reality? Or is it less valid as reality because it is a reality available only to a few?
On Monday morning, I was picked up at the villa by the charmingly effervescent Sabrina, who was to be our guide for the day. Sabrina is a former resident of the Township, although she now lives in a different part of the city with her husband. Our tour group eventually grew to 7 as Sabrina navigated the minibus (silently shrieking ‘tourists’ everywhere we went) throughout the various neighoburhoods of the city (turns out, I was staying the farthest outside of the city center). As we drove, Sabrina told us about the history of the Township, which was founded in the 1920s as single men immigrated to the city from the Eastern Cape looking for work. Single room dormitories were constructed and colonial regulations regarding movement, later to be replaced (and made more restrictive) by the apartheid-era Pass Laws, regulated whether or not these men’s families would be able to come and visit with them, as well as when (or whether) they would be able to return home for a visit. Eventually, demand in the city for female domestic workers led to the government permitting wives and children to join the men in the Township. It probably goes without saying that housing facilities were not adapted to meet the changing needs of the community. Eventually, rooms that were originally designed to house one man became home to multiple members of one’s immediate and extended families. Intolerable crowding and an utter lack of privacy (this is the one that struck me as an unanticipated shock – privacy. Imagine never being able to close a door?) led to many families constructing their own habitations from whatever materials available outside the dormitories.Today, most residents commute into the city for work, spending about 25% of their incomes on transportation, although it is estimated that 35% of the population is unemployed*.
The improvised shacks seem to be made of just about anything – the ubiquitous corrugated tin, pressboard, shipping containers, I even saw what looked like an old refrigerated trailer converted into a home. Electrical connections are improvised and are often cited as fire hazards, although I have not seen any evidence of recent fires. In some areas there are blue porta-potties to service the families that have no private facilities. Super gross, and totally inadequate for any person to have to use long term (think about the johns at the end of a weekend festival. Bleh. Then think about only having access to that). That being said, they are provided by the city and are maintained weekly, and can only be an improvement over the holes in the ground that overflowed when it rained that I was used to seeing in Dar es Salaam. And do I think that by making that comparison it somehow makes it okay? The houses that I saw also had municipally supplied garbage bins and the truck comes and empties them weekly. Another luxury that my friends in Dar would have been happy to see.
In this first part of the tour we drove around the community and peered through our windows at the vocational school, the youth center, and people’s homes. I felt like a real creep – totally conspicuous in the air conditioned front seat of the big white van with the tour company’s logo emblazoned on the side. Like we didn’t want to get our hands dirty or sully our clothes by stepping beyond the glass.
We finally stopped and got out of the van to join Joshua, a young man from the community who was taking over the next part of the tour. Incredibly, it actually got worse from there.
The first stop on our walking tour was a lovely preschool. About 20 children between the ages of 3-5 were sitting on a carpet as Joshua explained that the teacher had identified a need for preschool education as well as English instruction in the community. Joshua had all the children stand and come to the front of the carpet. As we tourists stood in a semi-circle around them, the children were made to sing 6 or 7 songs for us, complete with hand gestures. This to me felt so exploitative and abusive that I felt my eyes welling with tears (which anyone who knows me will tell you is not so unusual an event – I’ve been known to cry in movie trailers. But still), and I had to move to hide my face from the children. Here we are, interrupting their school day, and they are being made to perform for us like little trained seals. What lessons are these kids learning from this? Do their parents know about this, and if so, what must they think? I can’t imagine any of the parents that I know back in Canada would be happy to hear that this was happening in their child’s classroom.
Just when I think it is finally over and we can get the hell out of there, Joshua tells us to brace ourselves because now he is going to tell the kids to hug us. As soon as he says the word, all the kids rush forward and clamber into our arms and laps. What the actual fuck? Some kids were even shoving one another to get closer. One little boy repeatedly tried to kiss me on the lips, a little girl kept touching my face, my nose, my eyelashes. This went on for way too long – at least 10 minutes. Did the other tourists know that this was going to happen? Is this part of the appeal of this particular tour?
Before going inside, Joshua told us it was perfectly okay to take photos of the children. This is something I had not thought twice about in the past, but now makes me deeply uncomfortable and is something I would prefer not to do unless asked. He did say that it was important not to take photos of people in the community without first asking their permission. He also advised one of the tourists who asked about contributing to the community that is was important not to give anything to children in order that kids not learn that they may be given things by white people, potentially leading to paternalism, dependence, and begging, and instead to make a donation to an NGO or a social service agency in the community.
After the preschool we walked through the community and saw a wide range of living conditions. The community has advocated that no one should be moved out of an inadequate living situation without being moved into something more suitable, and there are a number of new housing developments where families have been relocated. There are also a number of really lovely homes, in an area known as the Beverly Hills of the Township, where people have been successful and have chosen to remain in their home community. There is no denying that there are too many people living in truly abhorrent living conditions, but it is also true that a significant number of families in this community have done very well for themselves and have chosen to remain in their home community, a part of the narrative of life in the Townships that I think may be often overlooked by the tourists who visit there.
One of the other tourists noticed that the words ‘Real Phandaz’ were spray painted throughout the community. Joshua explained that Real Phandaz means taking action to improve your situation, showing entrepreneurial spirit, moxie if you will, and not sitting around waiting for the government to solve your problems or give you a job. Everywhere in the community there is evidence of Real Phandaz – car washes that consist of a few buckets of water and a little home vacuum, grill on the side of the road featuring all kinds of meat, and convenience shops and beauty parlours operating out of shipping containers.
On our way back into the city, we made a quick stop at a monument dedicated to 7 anti-apartheid protesters shot and killed by police in 1986 (known as the Gugulethu Seven). I am left wondering about the actual changes that have been felt here since these young men lost their lives. Apartheid, the Pass Laws, and the Bantu System have all been repealed. But ethnic segregation is still alive and well in people’s living environments, and some of these homes do not seem fit for human habitation. From what little I have seen, recent governments have made substantial efforts to provide decent and affordable housing for people. But there seems to be little movement towards the dissolution of physical racial divides. People work together and share space in that sense, but how can people come to know and understand one another when their living worlds are so far apart?
Also, I have to say that I did not see any evidence of this tour benefiting the community. There were jobs created for Sabrina and for Joshua, and surely for other guides, but no mention was made of reinvestment back into the community. I took it for granted that that was a central component of all of such tour operations, but perhaps that is not the case.
*Can we all please acknowledge the grossly inadequate historical reckoning of the establishment of the Townships presented here, due (in part) to the constraints of this form of communication and not from any lack of concern or caring on my part about the importance of all of the nuances related to this history?
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).
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…
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.
We talk about art in Uluntu. Edwin tells me that there is a permanent community art collective in the neighbourhood, some form of collaboration between community members and artists from the university. Esme, whom I am hoping to work with, is based there. Edwin tells me about the art installations that are in place now, on exhibition in people’s homes and in public spaces throughout Uluntu, although he adds, almost as an aside, that most is the work of wealthy white artists from down below. It is hard for me to think of these two spaces as part of the same city, the shiny white enclave surrounding the university that I have come to think of as ‘the city,’ and this other space which could not be more opposite. Geography separates them – not only the vast space in between the neighbourhoods, but also the clear boundaries delineated by major roads as designed by the city planners.
I wonder aloud if it would not make more sense, to my way of thinking, for art from Uluntu to be displayed in the city center so that the stories and perspectives and experiences of the Township could be shared with the larger community, rather than expecting that the residents of…
(I stumble here – I nearly said the name of the city. This is when I become aware of how deeply cemented the difference between these two spaces had become in my mind, almost from the very first)
…the main part of the city…
(I am aware of my language here – relegating this space – the poor, Black space – to Other. I don’t know how to correct it in time. I hope Edwin hasn’t noticed. I feel deeply ignorant. Am I overthinking this?)
…to come up into the Township?
If Edwin is aware of my fumbling awkwardness, he is much too charming to let on. He tells me that people have been over saturated with images of Township life. They are sick to death of stories and images of these impoverished communities after all the years of failed efforts and initiatives. The inability to effect significant change here has led to a sort of unconscious blindness to the problem that does not seem to have a solution. Sound familiar?
One final irony – as we begin to drive down the mountain back towards ‘town,’ Edwin informs me that the best views of the city are from where we are at that moment. Most of the tourism images that you will see of this city and the surrounding region have been photographed from within the Township.
I am back in the botanical garden at the university, a magnificent green oasis in the middle of the city (even though, really, the rest of the city is quite lush and green). It is so much cooler in here, and even though you can still hear the traffic and the university girls giggling on the street, mainly the sounds are of leaves rustling and birds singing and water flowing. I have found a seat under some spectacular 40-foot palms and I feel very removed from the 401 and winter.
The Botanical Garden
I had the great pleasure of meeting my local supervisor Edwin yesterday, who is delightful and I only regret that I did not arrive sooner in order to get to spend more time with him before he leaves on sabbatical (academics – do they ever work?). He showed me around our department at the university and introduced me to some of the people who may be able to help me out with my research, and he also showed me some of the key spots on campus. He then took me on a driving tour of the city, pointing out certain neighbourhoods and areas of interest. As he drove, he explained a lot of the historical and socio-political context of the university and of the city, which I think will be invaluable for me to at least have the outlines of. He told me so much, but I’ll try to draw out some of the key points that stuck in my mind.
One of the buildings on campus
This university is still struggling with its ties to the apartheid movement and its segregationist past. There have been protests, sometimes violent, against the colonial legacies of universities – including using Africaans as a teaching language – throughout South Africa in recent months, and this university has been no exception. According to Edwin, the school is still struggling with its historical legacy and diversifying its population. When you look around campus, it is VERY white and Edwin says that there is a serious lack of Black people in positions of power as well. He took us through a part of campus that had once been a coloured* neighbourhood, but once apartheid came into effect all the residents were evicted and moved to the newly-established coloured neighbourhood (are these neighbourhoods known as Townships as well? I have no idea) and the land was appropriated by the state, then given to the university. The former residents were never compensated.
The Slave Houses on campus
Today there is a plaque commemorating that event in the entrance way of one of the buildings on campus, but it was done by the university administration, and Edwin speculates as to what the memorial might have looked like and represented had it been done in collaboration with the community. He pointed out some beautiful old houses in this part of campus, known as the ‘slave houses,’ that used to be home to the people who were relocated, and which are now quite posh and expensive addresses.
We drove through the coloured neighbourhood next, which appeared to me to be quite a lovely, if a little ramshackle, neighbourhood, like a 50s post-war community that’s just a titch rundown. There are little cottages with postage-stamp lawns, and none of the big electrified fences that characterize the neighbourhood that I am currently staying in in suburbia. Here, Edwin told me of a really interesting audio mapping project of the city that he had worked on. In this neighbourhood, for instance, the audio recordings would include the sounds of children playing, whereas in neighbourhoods like mine all you would hear would be the whir of the electric fences and the pop-up lawn sprinklers (although, to be fair, in my neighbourhood you would also hear the constant yapping of the dogs next door).
After this, we continued on towards Uluntu**. Edwin explained that when the Black people were moved out to this Township roads and other infrastructure were built, but the population outgrew these sections and soon expanded into areas that are unplanned and unserviced. Esme, one of the PhD students in the department and someone I am very much hoping to work closely with, is working on a community-based mapping project to start to document and legitimize some of these areas.
As Edwin drove, we crested a hill and I got my first glimpse of Uluntu. The Township is built high into the hillside, thousands of tiny little corrugated huts, that to my eyes look like the little dilapidated shacks where you would go to clean your fish in Northern Ontario, all crammed together pell-mell, all the way up the hillside. Many of the homes have been painted in bright colours, and the usual hornets’ nest of electrical wires and TV antennae crisscross the rooftops.
Edwin drove us into the neighbourhood, pointing out the soulless cinderblock and cement buildings that are the first we pass as we enter – government-built housing, built around the time of the end of apartheid, and sometimes guesthouses. Perhaps I could stay in one for a time. As depressing as they look, I think it would be invaluable for me to spend some time living in the community, rather than always helicoptering in and out.
I asked about the shortage of government houses – there were a few more that we passed, but not many, and they all looked shitty. Edwin explained that there was much excitement and hope for the future of the ‘Rainbow Nation’ at the end of apartheid, and throughout Mandela’s rule, but it soon became obvious that many wounds were too deeply entrenched to heal overnight. The deep-seated racial segregation and the mistrust between the artificially-constructed racial categorizations could not just be said to be over. At the same time, the high cost of improving living standards mixed with rampant government corrupting led to a stalling, if not a complete standstill, in efforts to improve living conditions here or desegregate the communities. So here we are.
The road we took through the community is still quite good, and despite the smallness of the buildings and their rudimentary construction materials, I did not see any evidence of squalor or misery. Poverty, yes. But I wonder what life is like down the side streets that I glimpsed, those parts of the community that are not accessible to any looky-loo who wishes to drive through. Maybe these buildings on the main thoroughfare are an act of resistance, with their brightly painted facades. I asked Edwin if people minded our driving through like this, just to take a look. He said he didn’t think so.
Edwin said, later over cappuccino, that Esme’s mapping project could potentially make the community more accessible to tourists, that they would be able to go in and explore Uluntu and its local art installations without having to rely on a local guide. I wondered at that, as most tourists who participate in these types of tours (to my understanding) justify it in the sense that the tours create local employment opportunities and give money back to the community. If you are not on a tour, are you just gawping at another person’s poverty? Edwin’s response was that there is value in the experience itself, that people learn from it and come away changed, that it is an experience that they will carry with them forever. While I agree with this perspective, I still have to wonder at the question which remains at the heart of my research: at what cost to the people in the community?
*The distinctions between Black, White, and Coloured citizens are a residue of apartheid and are still prevalent in people’s language. I struggle about when I ought and ought not to capitalize these words, and would welcome any guidance in this area. I do not mean to offend any sensibilities in using these words, and only present them in the ways in which they are used here, which strikes me as having no valuation attached.
**Uluntu is the Xhosa world for ‘community,’ which is what I am choosing to call this Township here.
In my wanderings so far today I have seen a Burger King, a KFC, and the inevitable McDonald’s. Burger King is now serving breakfast.
The town itself is very beautiful, from what I have been able to see thus far. The streets and gardens are overflowing with large trees and flowering plants. The sky is the clearest blue and there is a range of craggy brown mountains off in the distance. The buildings are all white-washed in what I am assuming is an old Dutch-colonial style. There is little to no garbage in the street.
I am acutely conscious of my presence and appearance and mannerisms. To appear too standoffish, to not make eye contact or smile at someone as I pass makes me feel rude, snotty, condescending. At the same time, if I do smile am I invading a person’s privacy, perhaps their right to hate me? Is it being too forward, implying an invitation where there is none? Does having all these worries and awareness make me a racist?
In wandering about town, at first glace it appears that little must have changed since apartheid, at least as regards the physical nature of the city center. The street signs are all in Africaans, occasionally also in English. The wide boulevards are lined with expensive-looking shops – Thule, and lingerie store (I find it amusing that I had to look up the spelling of that word), a bicycle shop, consultancy firms, and lots of upscale cafes, wine shops, and bistros. It doesn’t feel unlike the touristy drags I have been down in and around Sarasota, Florida.
This is the only sign I have seen thus far written in a language other than Africaans or English
I am acutely aware of not wanting to be perceived as a Africaaner. I don’t want to be like them, privileged on the backs of others. But who the hell am I to judge anyone? Canadians are no better. We just pretend that we are not racist, perhaps because we have been allowed to render invisible the people we have supplanted. Perhaps I am worse, because it is my relative privilege that has allowed me to be here, sitting in this beautiful tropical garden, writing about my big feelings about white privilege; it is this imbalance of power that has allowed me to travel to this place in safety and comfort, and to not feel too badly about the 5 caches of valuables that I have scattered throughout my apartment.
My first stop this morning was the Tourist Information Office. I found a couple of pamphlets about Township tours, but very little information. I asked the woman working there about medium-length accommodation rentals, but she said I would be better off checking the ads in the weekly paper that comes out on Thursday. I wanted to ask about guesthouse stays in the Township but I didn’t have the nerve. Instead, I asked what she knew about local ‘reality’ tours. She didn’t seem too friendly about my question, saying there wasn’t anything that they supported there. She did give me a name of a contact person to get in touch with with, though. She said that there are two Townships here, neither of which I caught the name of. One of these is “more colourful. The other is more African. Where I live.” She was not friendly as she said this. There is no question in my mind that this first lady I spoke with, who works in tourism, is not a fan of tours in her neighbourhood.