We cycle along to a chorus of 'umlungu' and residents driving past in their cars shout from their windows "How do you like South Africa?" Other pedestrians walking beside us ask where we are from. Our answer "Johannesburg" falls upon surprised expressions.
They are right. It does offer up a slice of real life, but it's an uncomfortable piece of pizza.
Lita told us it's called 'Sao Paolo' by Soweto locals, referring to the slums of the South American counterpart. This is the Soweto you often see in pictures, the one ingrained in my own imagination after years of stereotyping, news stories and school education on the Apartheid era. There was more rubbish than street, pigs paraded the treasure troves of trash and the tightly crammed corrugated iron shanties slotted together like puzzle pieces. Our guide pulled over and pointed to the outhouses communally used by too many people. The ones that seem to make the news again and again, but to no avail on the cries of indignity. It makes us all feel uneasy. It feels too voyeuristic. Too intimate. Too inappropriate. We suddenly realise we're paying to have someone show us poverty. We are total intruders.
It's a raw encounter, so in some way it's probably needed, but its difficult to shake the uneasiness and the bottomless feeling in your stomach. I have no photographs of 'Sao Paolo'. This was the lowest social class in Soweto and it felt unbearably disrespectful.
Alternative Township Tour
Their commentary on the video is importantly poignant and resonates stirringly after the tour. Follow this link and watch the original news snippet too, it offers a pretty balanced look at both the good and bad of these tours.
What is a ‘township tour’ in South Africa? Is it an educational journey where profits go back into the community? Does it promote cultural exchange or is it a one-sided venture where a bunch of voyeuristic tourists snoop into the lives of ordinary people so that they can tick the poverty box on their holiday itinerary?
- Sabelo Mkhabela
PS. A version of the blog originally featured on the Getaway Magazine Travel Blog.