The Most Tourist-Friendly Township in Cape Town
We are slowly making our way up a street leading to a picturesque rocky hill. Suddenly, we find ourselves surrounded b little children and dogs looking for hugs. The only thing that gets in the way of this rather heavenly scenery is the dead rat lying amidst a pile of rubbish on the roadside by our feet. “They know how to behave when tourists are around,” says Mhinti, referring to the kids and dogs. I cannot help but smile at the transparency.
We are in Imizamo Yethu. Huddled between parcels of prime real estate and the mountain, Cape Town’s smallest township is home to approximately 60, 000 people, although official statistics state half that number. We follow Mhinti, a vivacious young woman from the community, who is our “township experience” guide for the day. As we move on, we encounter another group of children, this time singing and dancing in a circle. Behind them, we get a glimpse of frowning teenagers idling on the corner of the street, reminding us of a rather less idyllic reality. Many of the children dancing and laughing will come to face the confusion and challenges that come with growing up, just like any other child. However, growing up in a township often means that one’s opportunities for expressing, forming and developing an identity are limited and often challenged by instances of violence, drug addiction and lack of economic stability. The lack of youth-oriented spaces and activities lead many to become part of gangs or slip into drug addiction and alcoholism that in many cases, replace dysfunctional family dynamics and lack of proper models. Mhinti starts clapping, encouraging the little children, and then, after we have gotten the chance to take a picture, she tosses them a few coins. They disperse quickly and we move on with our tour.
The majority of the population of Imizamo Yethu are black Xhosa speakers, originally from the Eastern Cape, who flocked to Hout Bay during the 1990s in search of employment. Today’s population has grown to include people from Zimbabwe, Malawi and other parts of Africa. There is even the indispensable Chinese shop, where one can find anything from notebooks and soap to gaudy pom pom beanies that make for a playful birthday gift. Encouraged by Mhinti, we feel obliged to look around the shop and eventually come out with little trinkets whose utility, apart from supporting the shop, is highly questionable.
When people first came to Hout Bay valley, they squatted on the land, eventually pushing the government to allow them to stay there. However, none of them have proper ownership rights. Many of them speak about the fear of someone taking what little they have, which makes for an everyday clouded in insecurity about the future. Townships were supposed to be, in theory, temporary solutions, where people waited for the proper homes promised to them in South Africa’s beautiful and progressive constitution. Many of them ended up waiting for more than 20 years without receiving anything.
The next stop on our journey takes us to a shebeen, ‘a centre for reinforcing the social fabric,’ as Mhinti calls it. In other words, the local bar. It’s 11 a.m., but some of us get a can of beer nonetheless – partly fulfilling our role as supporters of the local economy, and partly, presenting ourselves as students of Prague. As we enter, the laughter of our predominantly female group, fills up the space which is usually the realm of men. 50 Cent starts flowing from the jukebox. It feels as if the bar is coming alive for us. We are immediately drawn to the game of pool taking place in the middle of the space. There is one guy in particular who catches the eye with his slick, panther-like moves and his nice outfit. His name is Michael, and he is from Zimbabwe; he works as a waiter in Cape Town. Our boys are quick to the challenge, to little success.
As opposed to moving through the township in single file, the time spent in the bar feels more natural somehow. Caught up in the game and the background music, we are not so much guided through an experience, but rather move on our own. The universality of the game breaks through the invisible boundary and lets us have an interaction that breaks through our roles as tourists and objects of observation. Mhinti seems to be more at ease, although one can see her ever-present gentle restlessness to keep the tour moving. Ultimately, the game of pool is good for business. Mhinti’s tours rely on good relationships with the community. When locals see the positive effects of the presence of outsiders, there are more welcoming and also more likely to ensure the safety of the people involved. That is one of the reasons why people hope that tourism will help battle crime rates and underdeveloped economies in townships.
Meanwhile, I try to capture the atmosphere with my camera, while trying not to impose my presence. Tricky. A young man walks into the bar and we engage in conversation. When I mention my interest in filmmaking, he opens up about his childhood dream of becoming an actor. Then he explains that he had to grow up and is now in business. I say something along the lines that we are all actors in some way or another. Cliched, but sure enough, there is something resembling the turning on of a switch in his eyes. He proceeds with a monologue analysing the dual social dynamics contained within the phrase “How are you?” and how the answer to that question is ultimately a performance, just like the very act of asking it. The rest of our journey takes us to something that resembles a security council, where a small group of men from the community have gathered to deal with a case of a teenager who stole his mother’s clothes and sold them. They talk to us about how they go on about keeping their community free from violence and drugs – key problems in any township. Imizamo Yethu seems to be less affected by crime, at least on the outside, which makes it especially ‘tourist-friendly.’
We end our township experience with a traditional homemade lunch prepared by Mama Mirriam at her house. Apart from preparing lunches for tourists, Mama Mirriam is also a homestay host. She lets us see the two beautiful rooms reserved for guests that want to have a more authentic experience of the township, even if on the luxurious side. In contrast, most people in the township do not have properly built houses, but tin shacks that make for a rather more uncomfortable experience. As we prepare to leave Mama Mirriam’s house, we linger and talk to Mhinti about her work. Apart from showing tourists around, she is part of an NGO that aims to support the community through tourism. Her hope is that the tourists that come to the township will leave positive reviews and spread the word, until eventually the “guys with the big bucks” come. We smile and nod, while on the inside we feel unsure as to the sustainability of this plan.
In many gift shops in Cape Town, alongside breathtaking views of the city caught between the ocean and the mountain, one can also find postcards with pictures of rows of shacks. The caption reads simply Informal Settlement, South Africa. There is no mention of which particular township the rows belong to, or any people for that matter. The postcards leave an uneasy feeling, similarly to some aspects of the township tour. One goes through designed story spots, which is assumed makes for an authentic “township experience.” However, it is the little unplanned, unscripted moments, filled with the mundane and painfully familiar that make us feel closest to the people there. That might undermine the uniqueness of the township tour brand, but ultimately it is what preserves the humanity of this curious business enterprise.
There is something difficult to swallow about the whole experience. Something hard to define and articulate. On one hand, we know that by participating we are helping the community. Our money will go towards those who are in greater need of it, in exchange for the experience of getting a glimpse of their way of life. However, it still feels like charity more than anything else. I guess the most uncomfortable aspect of it all is coming to terms with the monetization of an aspect of human communication that is elusive and rather fragile. One cannot help but wonder what the effect of this process of structuring and capitalising on real-life stories will be on our ability to perceive and engage in human communication for the sake of it and not as a means to an end.