During the apartheid era, black townships in South Africa were no-go areas for most foreigners. Riot police and journalists were among the few nonblacks who ventured into these sprawling settlements. These days, high crime levels mean that they are still off-limits for the unescorted. But, in the company of experienced guides, the townships are tourist attractions, and their inhabitants are discovering tourism's benefits. World Cup visitors should certainly consider taking time to explore these impoverished but vibrant communities.
"It's a two-way thing," says Samantha Mtinini, who leads tours of the Langa township in the suburbs of Cape Town. "We reap economic rewards and our guests learn of our hopes and dreams. And we all benefit from understanding that while we have cultural differences, we are the same in so many ways."
Langa is a densely packed community of matchbox houses and shacks of tin, wood and plastic sheeting crammed into every available space. For visitors it is a glimpse of a world of poverty, leavened by the locals' cheerful resolve to make the best of things. Entrepreneurs thrive in old shipping containers, converted to house everything from hair salons and driving schools to funeral parlors. In a church-run day-care centre, infants address Caucasian visitors with cries of "Abelungu!" the Xhosa word for whites. One stop is a cookery school sponsored by city hotels, where students from Langa's poorest sections are being helped onto the first rung of the economic ladder. "Now my dreams can come [sic]," one of them says.
Tours are limited to small groups, which allows them to cram into a two-room shack belonging to Nombuyiselo Ngxizele, a former teacher who is happy to recount tales of life under and after apartheid. She believes that things are better now, but adds that the euphoria of the Mandela presidency has given way to disenchantment with the new generation of leaders. "They just want to boost their own egos," she says.
You certainly sense their remoteness from the travails of a place like Langa, where overcrowding is appalling. The tour group is shown three families sharing a single bedroom in an old workers' hostel, and somehow achieving the impossible task of keeping it clean and tidy. "There is no privacy," Mtinini says, "but people don't die lonely here."
Half-day township tours cost $51. World Cup fans may also want to check out the Diski tour, in which you get to play soccer against a township team, followed by a braai (barbecue). See gocamissa.co.za for more.
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