I’m baaaack!

Kayamandi, Cape Town, Stellenbosch, township, South Africa

Beautiful Kayamandi

After too many months of avoiding this work, avoiding the feelings and questions that going back to my time in South Africa would necessarily invoke, I am finally ready to think about South Africa again.

A thought-provoking conversation with one of my brilliant mentors at UW yesterday really got the balls rolling in my head in terms of thinking about how to approach and conceptualize the ‘doing’ of this research. She has gotten me thinking about identity politics, and what that might mean someone who identifies as a white Canadian woman is able to say about race, power, identity, and poverty in South Africa. It is not that I am unable to speak of these things, or that I am not allowed to, but that I can only do so from my own subjective position. I know that. I have always known that. But I think now I am coming to understand that.

I am also coming to understand that one of the reasons that I have struggled and avoided facing this work is because I have been grieving. I have been grieving the loss of the life that I loved in South Africa, the loss of all the treasured friends I made there. I am also grieving the lost opportunities to better understand.

I must confess – and no disrespect intended at all to all the lovely people who spoke with me about my project – but I feel as though these interviews and photos are so secondary to what I actually learned throughout my time there. Don’t worry Heather! – my research questions are up on my desktop, I’m not losing the thread. But my head and my heart keep returning to all that I learned there in my day-to-day. Joining in for Sunday chill, eating dinner and watching the soapies with Mama and the rest of the family, the Reconciliation Lunches. Amazink. I learned so much through these experiences and encounters. I miss them still.

Amazink, Kayamandi, Stellenbosch, township, South Africa, Cape Town

Amazink at sunset

Stellenbosch, township, Kayamandi, Cape Town, South Africa, reconciliation

The Reconciliation Lunch gang

And yet there is still so much that I don’t understand, so much that weighs on my heart. My friend who was stabbed, who waited so long to go and see a doctor that I legitimately feared he might lose his hand. Why was I the only family ‘member’ that would take him to the doctor? There was no lack of love or concern, to be sure. How is it that that fell to me? Why is it that several friends of my dear young friend who is drinking himself to death asked me to speak with him to try and help him. Why me? I don’t have any particular expertise or insight into what he is going through. I have heard that he isn’t doing well.

I also think about how we had no power in the township for the last two days I was there, apparently because thieves stole the copper wiring. Hundreds of people stood in the cold wind and rain, literally for hours, to get kerosene for their stoves and heaters. I watched them from my window, drove past them in my rental car. Where do I file that heartbreak, that shame?

Stellenbosch, Kayamandi, township, Cape Town, South Africa

My friends

‚ô•

I miss my friends who tried to help me understand all of this; the Viviers, Elsa, Patrick, Franky, Roots, Monde, Jedi, Pakamisa, Anathi, Mama, Bongani, Nozi, Joes. I feel as though this is just the beginning of a torrent of questions and feelings as I try to unpack some of this. More to come, no doubt ūüôā

Kayamandi, Stellenbosch, Cape Town, South Africa, township

When he saw this picture, Patrick said: “This is the whitest I have ever seen you!”

 

Mis-Education

Yesterday was my friend’s birthday, he of the lovely pink house:DSC00031

When I found out about it last week I offered to do something nice with him to celebrate. Initially my plan was to take him out for dinner, as I would at home with any other friend. But then I remembered how I invited him to my house last weekend for a beer, as he had invited me to his, and he became really uncomfortable and asked to leave. I promise I wasn’t being a creep. It just wasn’t his element. So dinner might not be the best idea. Then I thought maybe a movie? Then he wouldn’t have the pressure of making one-on-one conversation with me for 2 hours and we could just enjoy a flick. But I still wasn’t sure…

He called me yesterday morning to see what the plan was for the day, and let me know that it would be better if we all just got some meat (always with the meat!) and chilled at his buddy’s place. It took me a while to come around to it, but he of course wanted me to come over and¬†pay¬†for the meat.

At first I was a little hurt that he was rejecting my offer to do something nice for him and was once again treating me like an ATM. I’m a bit slow sometimes, but I did eventually realize that he just wanted everyone to be together and that it wouldn’t be a very nice birthday for him if he got something that he was not able to share with his friends.

If I had known that I would have brought more cash with me.

But he danced around it and never explained his reasoning to me. I guess I should know by now.

We had a really lovely time hanging out all together and chatting. When it was time to leave, my friend gave me a hug and said “Thank you so much, you really made my day. You made me feel like I exist, like I am a real person.”

That made me want to throw up.

The scary thing is that that wasn’t the first time I have heard something like that, although never directed towards me before. That the simple act of wanting to do something nice for a friend on his birthday would elicit that sort of response makes me feel so sick and angry and sad.

This week I am working on the presentation that I will give at a conference in Durban next week. In an attempt to illustrate the complexity of the context related to tourism in the townships, I have pieced together some of the footage that my Dutch friend and I shot here in town. We wanted to show the difference between town – where the white people are – and the township.

On top of the video I plan to play an audio clip from one of my interviews. Despite having his permission to do so, I am reluctant to share the audio of his voice on here, so hopefully the transcript will do. I begin by asking him whether or not people living in the poorer parts of the township would want tourists to come and see where they live:

Kwame: Definitely. I think that the idea that a person that I see as a superior person or a person that is better than me, the idea that a person like that can come and walk in the same street as I live makes me, even if there’s no money it does something for my self-esteem.

Meg: Who is, who is the person that is better?

Kwame: Hm, a white person.

Meg: Really? Why is that?

Kwame: Well white people are better than black people.

Meg: Well [awkward laugh]…they’re not. Like, is that the consensus?

Kwame: I know that. I know that.

Meg: Okay, that kind of makes me want to cry a little bit.

Kwame: I know that. But the rest of the people don’t look like, don’t think like that. A person looks at you, you are white, they know that you have something that they don’t have, you are much better than them. You know. Financially, you know, your life is more together than mine, you have had a better life, you grew up in a house, I’ve never seen a house, I’ve always grown up in a shack that always leaks every single day.

Meg: Yeah.

Kwame: I, I’m, we have a single parent whereas white people have two parents, you know, I’ve never seen the inside of a car, whereas for a white person a car is something that is like nothing, you know. I’ve never had enough money to buy enough school uniforms to go to school.

Meg: Right.

Kwame: I’ve walked to school bare feet most of the time with torn trousers whereas a white person has never seen something like that. So for that person to be able to come and walk in the street that I’m walking in and be able to hold my hand and be able to come into my place before even, you know, she even gives me money, that is, means so much for me.

Meg: Really?

Kwame: You know, it means a lot.

Meg: Why? What does it mean? I’m trying to understand this, ‚Äėcause you know I’m an outsider and I’m a white person so I…what does that mean?

Kwame: It means, it means…I’m a person too.

Meg: Wow. That’s really heavy.

Kwame: It means…people, people don’t look at me the way I look at myself, it means…some people realize that I exist in this world.

Meg: Okay. Just by coming to see where you live?

Kwame: People coming to see where I live, they, they, and they can talk to me.

Meg: Yeah.

Kwame: Because I grew up not knowing how to talk to a white person. You know, that there, these people are actually even making an effort to recognize that I even am alive, you know…is, is a huge thing, you know. That, that now these kids that we have now know what a white person is because they can run to them.

Meg: Yeah.

Kwame: Whereas I grew up not even being able to talk to a white person.

Meg: Sure.

Kwame: So it’s a, it’s that self-affirmation and confirmation of existence that comes with it as well.

Meg: Wow.

Kwame: I talk a lot, don’t I?

This is one person’s perspective, so please don’t take this as representative of what everyone or even most people think. It is horrible enough that one person knows this to be ‘true.’

When you talk about postcolonial studies, invariably it comes up that colonialism is finished and we need to move on and not dwell on the past. This is the long-term impact of racist colonial laws and policies. This is what is left over 20 years later. This is not the only ‘truth’ about this country, but nonetheless this remains.

Sad and mad.

 

The power of PhotoVoice

Bead work made by women in the township, Cape Town, South Africa

Beaded jewelry made by the women at the women’s center is sold to the tourists and the income generated is then used to support the other initiatives of the center, including providing hot food to others in the community and helping people with HIV/AIDS access medication.

I am in the process of transcribing the audio recordings from my interviews at the moment. For those of you who have not had the pleasure of experiencing this special form of hell, I envy you. For those of you who have told me about your own tortuous run through this mill, I now feel you.

That being said, the cool part of transcribing is that it allows you to really, really hear what people are telling you, free from the distraction of thinking forward to your next question or wondering if any of what a person is telling you is actually going to be helpful in the end. Helpful for me of course, because as researcher it is my universe that is central :-/. It is amazing to me how much I have missed of what people are actually saying to me because my head has been wrapped up in other gunk.

Thank goodness for transcribing.

As I listen to my conversations, I wonder if I have actually spoken about my research methodology on here. I learned something cool about my chosen methodology the other day, in conversation with 6 women involved with a women’s skills development program in the Township. My methodology is PhotoVoice: I ask participants to take photos related to tourism and then to tell me about why they took that particular photograph. Here is one that was shared with me the other day:

Tourism photography in the township, Cape Town, South Africa

Taking photos of ‘tourism’ in the township

I looked at this and said “Is she taking a selfie?” and everyone laughed. The woman explained that she took this photo because to her it represented all of the opportunities to learn new skills and have new experiences that tourists bring. If I hadn’t come on tour and met them, they would not now be having this chance to participate in my research and get to develop their photography skills. Pretty cool.

This is the neat thing about this methodology. I looked at this picture and thought, meh. Then I got the story and it took on a whole new meaning, a whole new life. Likewise, the photos open up avenues for conversation and understanding that I would never have known or thought to pursue without their being introduced via the photos.

This is a car wash:

Car wash, township, Cape Town, South Africa

Car wash in the Township

The lady who took this photo explained that a tourist came to visit the Township and met with the young guys who were trying to get their car wash business off the ground. He went with them and bought a secondhand vacuum, the zinc siding, and a shipping container to store everything in. Now they have a successful and sustainable source of income. Long-term impact of tourism.

One of the people I spoke with gave me the old ‘hand-up rather than hand-out’ analogy. Tourists are in a position to give people a little, or a big, nudge that can help them get their initiatives off the ground.

Bead work, township, Cape Town, South Africa

A Mama doing bead work at the women’s center

The lady who took this photo explained that she posed this woman doing bead work out front of the women’s center because she wanted to represent how she had once been, sitting out front of her house beading with no job and no prospects. Then an American tourist came and created the women’s center (which, incidentally, is home to the groovy¬†community garden¬†I wrote about earlier) and now she has a job and a place to go and be with friends and give back to the community every day. Big impact.

Cooking sheep innards, township, Cape Town, South Africa

A lady cooking sheep innards at her home in the Township

The woman who took this photo explained that this lady, her neighbour, doesn’t have a job and is trying to support herself and her family by cooking and selling sheep innards. She wants the tourists to come to her home and buy her food, to have a unique experience to try some local food and help her make some money. As much as I’m *enjoying* my adventures in meatland, I don’t think I’m quite ready for that one, but maybe some others will dig it.

For the women at this center there is no downside to tourism (I asked). The tourists give them an opportunity to learn new skills and have new experiences. And there is always the possibility that one tourist will offer to¬†pay for a child’s school fees¬†or help buy the tools to help get one’s business off the ground. Tourism will always involve imbalances of power, I don’t think there’s any way around that. Maybe, for these women in this community, tourism is filling a gap that their government has not been able to fill in terms of helping to provide pathways out of poverty. Maybe.

Children's library in the township, cape Town, South Africa

Donated children’s books in the women’s center. It was explained to me that this lady likes to keep the books neat and tidy so that the tourists will see that they respect and value their donations.

 

I have had other thoughts about tourism in the townships! If you’re interested in reading more about me trying to understand this particular brand of tourism, check out¬†Touring the Township (and playing Andrea),¬†Reflections on Township Tourism II, and¬†Reflections on Township Tourism III. I’d love to know what you think!!

Youth Day and Reconciliation Lunch

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

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, township lunch, South Africa

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.

Playing dominoes in the Township, Cape Town, South Africa

Local dudes and students from the University playing dominoes together

Playing with a different set of rules

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Township view

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…

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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.DSC00035

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.

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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.

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Beautiful view of the Township and the landscape

 

 

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:

Camps Bay Reverse Township Tour

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!

Poetry & Politics

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The arts and culture space in the Township

I had the privilege of attending the InZync Poetry Session¬†last night at the Township’s incredible arts and culture space with Esme and the Dutch student who is also living at Mama’s. The venue was jumping, crammed full of mostly young people, white and black, all very cool and hip and arty. The line-up was pretty stellar, and included a Syrian¬†now living in France, a¬†Nigerian, South Africa’s Dissident Poet, South Africa’s¬†Poet Laureate, and a number of exceptionally talented young local artists.

The caliber of the poetry was like nothing I have have ever witnessed before. Spectacular poetry. I was particularly impressed by the amateurs who performed. So, so moving and evocative and powerful. Clearly I am not a poet, because I am utterly at a loss to describe how bodily and emotionally and intellectually I was moved by their words and performances. (Obviously I forgot to bring my audio recorder, so I tried to catch some sound using the video setting on my camera).

I have had a number of conversations with various people over the past several weeks about the surprising (to me) lack of anger that I sense in many of the people I have met here. I feel that if I were living in a Township, after having been forced to leave my home community because the ruling minority decided that my¬†part of town was ‘desirable,’ if I saw these prosperous gated communities and massive wine farms and old white people driving Bentleys and Aston Martins I would be PISSED. One incredible Mama that I met, who had been a social justice advocate at a time when her colleagues were being¬†assassinated, told me that it takes too much energy and eats away at you to hold on to all that anger and resentment. Another incredible Mama told us about when people had¬†to wear a large placard around their necks, known as ‘dompas‘ (literally ‘dumb pass’), any time they wanted to leave the Township to go to town; this while she hosted my dad and I for lunch in her home and laughingly¬†encouraged me to keep trying to learn to cook chakalaka.

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A pink BMW convertible drives past Mama’s house in the Township

These conversations generally lead to talking about how the students are angry, and I have touched on the student protests already in a previous post, but I don’t think I have adequately expressed how PISSED they are. I got a real taste of just how angry some of the students are last night.

The poets spoke about their anger at living in townships, about having been taught a history that glorifies their colonial oppressors, about being robbed of their culture and dignity, about the stupid wine farms. About seeing white people clutch a little more tightly at their bags and edge a little further away on the sidewalk when this particular young black man approaches. There were lots of fists clenched high in solidarity and protest. There was singing and cheering. I didn’t understand all of it, as a lot of the poetry was in Xhosa, but believe me when I say that I felt it. And I know that I barely grasped a fraction of what was going on due to my total lack of understanding of what it is to be South African.

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In this photo you can see the white suburb on the right, wine fields, the farm manor house at the far left, and the shacks on the lower right.

At one point, a¬†performer asked the other poet on the stage, ‘Do you hate all white people?’ as part of the dialogue in their performance. Without missing a beat, someone in the front row shouted, ‘YES!’ and the room erupted. There was laughter – the outburst¬†didn’t feel hostile or threatening – but there were for sure a few ‘Damn straights!’ in there as well.

Now let’s put this in perspective (from my perspective): easily 40-50% of the people in that room were white. Two of the poets were white, as was the DJ. And the white poets spoke very evocatively¬†about the need for change. In that moment I felt strongly¬†how little some South Africans feel has been accomplished in terms of achieving racial equity. At the same time and upon further reflection, I’m fairly certain that a mixed-race crowd erupting into laughter and cheering at a statement of ‘I hate black people’ would literally be national news.

A short while later, the MC came on stage and asked that these discussions be held respectfully and without hostility. He said that these are issues that must be discussed, in spite of discomfort and awkwardness, but they must be discussed in the spirit of friendship and reconciliation. Afterwards, Esme told us just how rare these discussions really are, that honest conversations about race and all that implies, in her understanding at least, are almost taboo among many South Africans.

And did I feel guilty, standing there in the back of that room? You bet I did (thank you Catholic upbringing). Shame flooded over me when the young man talked about seeing white people grasp at their purses at his approach. I may not have pulled that exact move (I hope), but I have been guilty of wondering if certain black men in a crowd are looking for an opportunity to snatch something of mine. To be fair, my white skin stands out like a neon sign in the Township, and at any given point in time I am usually¬†carrying enough sellable stuff to literally change a person’s life (I’m saying literally too much, but it’s true). I have also been robbed by young black men at least¬†six times in various countries in Africa. And the family I am staying with is constantly advising against my leaving the yard alone, to the point that they come and stand on the sidewalk in front of the house to wait for the bus with me (yes, it feels exactly like kindergarten). On Sunday afternoon I wanted to bring something to a Mama who lives half a block away and had to be accompanied by Mama’s daughter and three little kids. Are they acting in an overabundance of caution? Probably. And is it unfair to the residents of this community, who have been nothing but kind and welcoming to me? Absolutely. But guess what the narrative becomes if something bad happens to me or any other visitor to the Township? What then gets told of¬†what is ‘true’ about this community?

At any rate, last night’s experience at InZync is not one I will soon forget. It has given me a lot to ponder about race, rage, and the powerfully painful legacies of colonialism (one of which, of course, is my presence here).

 

Getting down to work

February 25, 2016

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.

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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.

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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 Рincluding using Africaans as a teaching language Рthroughout 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.

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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.