One family’s visit to Langa, a black township in Cape Town, offered an education in cultural exchange.
There’s a lot to do with kids in South Africa—beaches, safaris and whale watching are just a few of the attractions. But the country has a rich, if sometimes troubled, history and in Cape Town you can join the small but growing number of visitors who take a walking tour around a township, one of the residential areas that were designated for non-whites during the racially segregated apartheid era. Today, township tours are promoted as “cultural tourism,” and the only way to see Nelson Mandela’s country. They are aimed at visitors who want reality rather than a fantasy experience.
We visited Cape Town last year with our daughter, 16, and son, 13. Unsure about how appropriate it would be for white tourists to wander around the poorest areas, we consulted the black doorman at our hotel, a local known as Uncle Brian, who had grown up in the city.
He gave us a very personal history lesson. In 1966, when he was 14 years old, his family was among thousands forced to leave their homes when their area, District Six, was declared “whites only.” His community collapsed, and they moved to the barren outskirts of the city, the Cape Flats, where he grew up in a township. He told us, “Visiting a township is the only way you will understand about apartheid, the only way to see how far my country has come since those days.”
For my children, it was a challenge to put these events in a context that was meaningful. My son, with his customary tendency to relate everything to football (or soccer, in the United States), couldn’t believe that all this had happened, not in some dim and distant past, but “in the year England last won the World Cup.”
We joined four other foreigners (few white South Africans ever visit the townships) and set off for Langa, Cape Town’s oldest planned township. Though Langa lies just about 12 miles from the heart of the city, the contrast is striking.
Piling out of the minibus, feeling horribly conspicuous, we took in our surroundings while setting off on foot with our guide down the narrow, dust-filled alleyways. We smiled uncertainly at people we passed—mainly women and barefoot children. A few smiled back, but most took no notice.
We were shown into one of the dwellings, though there wasn’t room for more than two at once. “Mum, it’s smaller than my bedroom,” my daughter whispered, eyes wide, trying to imagine an entire family living in this cramped space.
We visited a shebeen (tavern) where we sat self-consciously passing around a foaming bucket of home-brewed beer, watched impassively by local men. My son nodded to one wearing a grubby football shirt, and he strolled over. Football provides a universal language, and after this common ground was broached, we all relaxed a bit.
At a stall, women sweated over boiling pots of flyblown sheep’s heads, complete with wool. We cringed when a man in another group asked loudly if the “white stuff” on the women’s faces was “some sort of tribal thing.”
“No sir, that’s sun cream,” their guide replied laconically. Sensing the snorts of laughter bubbling, we moved the kids on quickly.
On the way to the schoolhouse, our guide spotted some children idling in the alley. He launched into rapid Xhosa, the local language, and marched off to find their mothers. Clearly rattled, he explained: “School is free. They learn, they get good food. [Their parents] shouldn’t keep them home to help with chores.”
Sure enough, when we arrived at the schoolhouse lunch was underway. We met a crowd of happy, chattering kids who were wolfing down nourishing bowls of 'pap,' the traditional dish of maize meal.
Despite some uncomfortable moments, the trip proved eye-opening for both parents and children. The very fact that township tours exist represents a huge step forward from the days of apartheid—the days when Uncle Brian and his family were evicted from their communities.
A different perspective. You may be taking them well outside their comfort zone, but it needn’t be a guilt trip. The township tours offer children a view of another reality that is far more concrete than any number of parental rebukes about how lucky they are.
The benefits of cultural exchange. A woman who shows visitors her house told us that when the tours first began, her neighbors would rush over, thinking she was in trouble. “Whenever we saw white faces before, it was always the police,” she said. “Because of apartheid we never had the opportunity to share our culture.”
The tours also challenge the preconceived notions of visitors about what life in the townships is really like. They offer a way for people on both sides of these racial and economic divides to see each other as more than opposing demographics. Or, as our son said, “They liked us and we liked them!”
Take a small group walking tour. Companies offering these include Daytrippers and Grassroute. Other companies run drive-through tours where visitors are limited to staring through the windows of their air-conditioned bus.
Take plenty of cash. It’s your opportunity to put money directly into the hands of the people who need it. Local craftspeople rely on trade from tourists, and the roadside stalls are crammed with handmade goods, often made from recycled materials.
Destinations: Cape Town
Another great tour is either the Alternative Winelands tour with Dreamcatcher or a cookup with Kamamma and Homestay with Kamamma. Are you looking for more? why not do some volunteering along the Gardenroute with Dreamcatcher - contact Gerla for 100% tailor made authentic community experiences - www.africainsideout.com
Much needed piece Please include more articles like this one that go beyond the typical pleasure vacation and even the trendy ecotrip to truly understand another country and its history--good AND bad
Great Insight! I have wanted to go to Africa for a while and this provides some great cultural and tourism insight. Some of the companies that provide are listed; however, I think that i would prefer a bus tour....what are some companies that offer these?