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November 14, 2017
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Sub-Saharan Africa: Touring the Townships of SA


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cape town south africa
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Places of hardship, poverty, and a cruel regime of the past, South Africa’s townships hold a world of history within. These days, however, transformation is taking place – slower than some would like, but change is coming nonetheless, and in a most unexpected way: through tourism. This phenomenon is seen country-wide to various degrees as international visitors and domestic tourists alike are keen on experiencing the real South Africa. As a result, places like Soweto now have a booming tour industry with a host of local experiences and attractions to choose from. Others, like Langa in Cape Town, offer unique cooking, cycling or walking tours, but are yet to develop the community and its involvement to the same extent as Soweto has successfully done.

That said, there is a fine line between touring a township and exploring its history, and using the plight of those less fortunate to make a quick buck. This must be done properly with a view to not only uphold the dignity of said community, but also to empower it, and often those who truly get it right are the tour operators who have had experience and have partnered with people in the township in order to create unique tours in these areas.

According to Lilizela-award-winning tour guide Siphiwe Khumalo, Owner and Tourist Guide at Township Travel, township tours are growing in popularity because of the way in which they are done. “We make sure that our guests are part of the communities and people we visit on the tour, like doing a family or school visit with them so that they get true insight into Soweto,” he explains. Each month his company books an average of 20 to 25 tours. “The demand from my clients is the real experience, and true authentic stories that they get to hear from the different people we meet in the streets, shebeen or church about Soweto – and the future the township, its economic situation, political, educational, sport or entertainment of course. On our tour we visit Funda Community College, a fine art school in Diepkloof Zone 6, and show them the different classes of the township. The part they enjoy most is visiting Motsoaledi Informal Settlement, with no electricity, which is where I live and is where I run my company from.”

Because Khumalo is so close to the community, he says that it’s easy to avoid infringing on township dwellers’ privacy. “We visit people who want to open their houses, businesses and schools,” he says, “By opening and sharing as proudly Sowetans, we uplift communities through tourism and mentoring young people in the township.”

Soweto

An abbreviation for South Western Townships, Soweto is a vibrant, sprawling cluster of suburbs in Johannesburg. It has a population of over 1 million, and has a rich history as the centre of political campaigns, student uprisings and in more recent years, urban and streetwise communities developing their own sub cultures.

In the first Soweto settlement, Kliptown, the Freedom Charter was signed in 1955. It is commemorated with a small, open-air museum on Walter Sisulu Square. Orlando, home to the famous towers of the same name, is the oldest suburb and offers a plethora of delectable foods to explore among other things. Here, visitors will also find the famous Vilakazi Street where Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu once lived, as well as the Hector Pieterson Museum.

Popular tours include bicycle, culinary, and red bus or taxi tours – although there are many more to choose from as township tours of Soweto are constantly in demand.

Langa

Established in 1927, Langa is the oldest township in Cape Town and one that survived much turmoil thanks to the Urban Areas Act of 1923. These days, it’s a thriving township tour destination in the Cape, with over 25% of tourists opting to explore Langa. The suburb also has a rich history, with over 50 000 people burning their pass books in 1960 in defiance of the pass laws – as well as when students protested against Afrikaans as a compulsory first language in schools. Langa is also the birth and resting place of South Africa’s queen of pop, Brenda Fassie.

These days, the area offers vibrant, lively experiences with a number of African food options at Lelapa, Mzansi’s or Eziko Restaurant. Guga S’thebe Arts and Culture Centre is a must see, and is a part of the wider Langa Cultural Precinct. Walking, cycling, soccer, arts and culinary experiences are most sought after.

Umlazi

A township south-west of Durban, Umlazi is the fourth largest in SA and offers a wealth of attractions to keep visitors entertained. Its name originates from King Shaka, who said the waters tasted bitter, referring to the Zulu word ‘umlaza’, meaning sour milk. This township is anything but sour, however, and was turned into a township in 1967, despite originally being formed in 1845.

Some of the places worth exploring in Umlazi include Victoria Market with its distinct Asian atmosphere, while the Muthi Market imbued in mystery. In close proximity is the Kenneth Stainbank Nature Reserve with Coedmore Castle tucked beneath its mighty yellowwood trees. Also nearby is the Clairwood Shree Siva Soobramoniar Temple, a hindu temple dedicated to Muruga. And of course, a tour of Umlazi just wouldn’t be the same with an authentic shisa nyama experience.


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