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Rethinking Township Tours

Even before coming to South Africa, I stressed opposition towards township tours.  They were “objectifying,” “idiotic,” and “demeaning.”  The idea of touring poverty made me cringe.  “But, township tours allow people to understand the poverty on an more intimate level; they expose people to living conditions that they would not be able to see otherwise,” my friend Daysy argued last semester.  She may be right, but after touring Gugulethu today, I find myself disagreeing even more.

I guess I consented to the township tour as a means of seeing more of Gugulethu.  Before today, my experiences in Gugulethu had been restricted to Sundays at Mzoli’s.  I was curious to see more, yet wary to venture without a guide.  As well, township tours are part of the fundamental South African experience.  As a business, they have exploded over the past decade.  The tours provide a means of displaying how people have remained impoverished post-apartheid, despite the democratic transition.  Donald, our tour guide, took extra care to express how the government had failed to deliver many welfare goods to Gugulethu.  “Judge for yourself,” he kept saying, “are living conditions better?”

Our tour began with what can be called nothing less than an invasion of privacy.  Donald led us to one of the shacks perched above Gugulethu, looking out over the N-2 highway.  I felt like I was back at orientation, except this time it was much worse: a large group of Americans, blatantly wealthy, foreign, and out-of-place.  Waiting outside the shack, I tried to focus on anything except my surroundings.  But once we were led inside, it became impossible to avoid the awkward confrontation.  Donald waved his arm, showcasing the room.  “Do you see this shack?  Do you see the wiring, the bed?  Six people live in this house.  Do you think it is good?”  The owner of the house, whom Donald never formally introduced us to, was an older seamstress.  She never spoke, but simply sat behind her sewing machine, watching TV.  The other family members present, a young woman and a boy, also remained silent.  I learned nothing about these people, except that they are poor, which was exactly what Donald was trying to reflect.

The rest of the tour, while uncomfortable, never reached the same level of dread that the shack induced.  We were led through the rest of Gugulethu, to see the local pubs, markets, and main stretch.  We also saw Gugulethu’s two famous memorials, the Gugulethu Seven and Amy Biehl memorial.  The tour ended with Mzoli’s, a relief to be back in familiar territory.  While I will probably return to Mzoli’s over the next two months, I doubt I will ever go on a township tour again.  It was too invasive, too objectifying, and yes, too idiotic.

A comment Donald made at the beginning of the tour stuck with me for the rest of the day.  Discussing European tourists that have come to tour Gugulethu, Donald mentioned that some patrons “weep when they see the poverty.”  Comments like this I especially dread.  If there is one thing I have learned in South Africa, it is to not focus on the poverty.  Such concentration only generates pity; and with pity, comes an unequal stance between the observer and the observed.  Our weekend in Ocean View was meant to undo such perceptions, whereas township tours perpetuate them.

Our generation did not witness apartheid, and cannot fathom the violence and repression of its time.  Older generations did, and will forever view apartheid’s repression with a sense of guilt.  Township tours, I feel, feed off of this guilt.  The family in the shack was not empowered by my visit, but was objectified in order for me to feel remorse for the effects of apartheid. 

 As the guilt of apartheid begins of fade, one can only hope that the business of township tours will diminish as well.  Younger generations will no longer view township tours as a means of “learning about the effects of apartheid,” and will (hopefully) come to view them more as a source of objectification.  Township tours do not undo apartheid’s effects, but perpetuate a sense of “white guilt.”  While older generations may be quick to feel pity, ours experiences discomfort.  As much as Donald means well, I can only hope that he will eventually move on from the touring business, to pursue more beneficial means of empowering the people of Gugulethu.


Margaret Yukins is a student from Columbia University.


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