South Africa Township Tours: An “Authentic” Experience of Cape Town
"The Cape Town area is famous for beaches, wine tours and Table Mountain, among other attractions. But on a recent morning, a group of tourists set out to experience something most visitors never see - the townships where black and mixed-race South Africans were warehoused under apartheid.
"We want to show them the other side of Cape Town with this township tour," said Samantha Mtinini from Camissa Travel & Marketing. The tours take visitors to homes, schools and markets in three townships where they meet children, vendors and other residents."
Branded as a bridge to cultural understanding and economic benefits to the residents, one tour company begins with a stop in “Langa, a black township where the visitors were greeted by preschool kids singing a welcome in Xhosa and English.”
Can these tours build capacity for tolerance? Or are they the latest form of poverty porn? This time riding on the waves of visitors in South Africa attending the World Cup. While an influx of tourists will bring a small economic boost to some, most residents will not benefit from the tours. Humans are used to serve as a background for the privilege seeking a sensual experience of the “real world,” while reinforcing the Western perceptions. The poor are being exploited again for the insatiable appetite of the rich in the latest manifestation of poverty porn. Human dignity is being traded in to tease the cravings of those in power, under the guise of education and humanitarianism.
For the already marginalize population, I can almost guarantee you there was little community decision making to bring groups of tourist who will come to buy trinkets, take pictures, and leaving feeling worldly by racking up some good street cred with friends back home. A few individuals are offering these seductive tours knowing full well the object of the tours will or can do little to fight the force insertion of outsiders.
Call it cultural immersion, but it’s another form of white privilege in arousing the senses of the powerful. Stop and think for a second. If the residents of the townships have any objections to tour groups, do you think they will speak up? And to whom, exactly? Who will listen? Who will enforce boundaries? I often hear reports from world travelers that “the locals are so friendly. They are such great people, we American have a lot to learn from them.” Do these locals (if they are locals, you will find many are migrant workers feeding off the job markets) have any choice other than be friendly and smile at visitors from the developed world? Tourist are their source of income and by extension, their employer. Of course the “locals” are friendly to outsiders. The welcoming expressions tourists see are a combination of genuine human kindness coaxed out and magnified by classism and oppression.
You’ve seen Slumdog Millionaire, now come see the real thing! These township tours are little more than the Forks, Washington pilgrimage of the Twilight saga fans. I don’t have a problem with tourism. A healthy tourism industry can create robust economic growth and larger job markets. My issue with township tours is usage of people, poor people without a political voice, as objects in tourism fantasy. Slum dwellers did not give consent to be participants of this fetish act. The perpetual reinforcement of placing the third world “others” as powerless displays is the latest manifestation of prejudice and power abuse. Safaris are out, slum tours are the in. Come gawk at the struggling exotic noble people who are connected to nature and have infinite knowledge of the universe. See Edward Said and Orientalism, nuf said.