I felt awkward. I always do in situations like this. I didn’t know how to act, what to say or do. Instead I just followed our guide through the Kayamandi Township in Stellenbosch, South Africa, eager to learn and experience something new. It wasn’t my first time in a township though, in fact it was my third, but that didn’t make the experience any more comfortable for me. As an American, we just don’t have anything to which we can equate these communities. So the brain, being the enterprising organ that it is, searches for something similar, and in the US that would be a poor neighborhood, a ghetto of some sort. But that’s not at all what a township really is and because of that, so few even try to experience the beauty, albeit an awkward one, that townships happily share with anyone who takes the time to visit.
Townships are holdovers from apartheid, when non-whites were forced to live in large communities, such as townships. In Stellenbosch, the Kayamandi Township was at first home to mostly black laborers, there to work the nearby farms. All townships around South Africa evolved over time, many of them turning into small cities. Unlike a real city though, townships lack key aspects of infrastructure, like sewage, universal running water, and well-organized electrical grids. Townships still exist today, but they’re evolving and many, like Soweto, have distinct sections home to middle-class individuals as well as the very poor. There is most definitely poverty in a township, but that poverty doesn’t define the experience.
Our group had just finished lunch in the home of a local Xhosa cook, part of a food tour with the group Bites and Sites Food Tours. Sitting on the floor of her home, we ate in hushed silence as Mama Lily shared stories of her life, both happy and sad. The food seemed to taste even better after learning the love she had for it. Leaving her home though is when the awkwardness began. In the US, one’s first reaction to being in a poorer part of any town is to worry about one’s safety, and so that’s how I felt in Kayamandi. Just as that concern washed across my face, three kids ran past with a soccer ball in hand; laughing and jumping and immediately embarrassing me for how I felt. But that’s just it; I didn’t know how I should feel.
Having visited a few townships I have noticed a similar pattern amongst fellow visitors. None of it is intentional or meant in a bad way; it’s just their natural reactions to being there. But many seem to take on the mantle of Oprah, and embrace kids they’ve never met as they laugh together and play games. I can’t help but wonder if they’ve ever done the same thing in poor communities in their own countries. My guess would be no. I can’t help but be offended when visitors say how ‘enriching’ it is to be in a township, to gawk at the poverty in a new form of imperialistic voyeurism. Not that I’m any different, no, I’m not. Walking along the streets of the township, past homes made from bits of tin and held together by hope, I snapped photos, patted youngsters on the head and walked along happily knowing that soon I would be back in my luxury retreat, with 500 thread count sheets and a glass of bubbly.
As I said though, townships are unique; they don’t have a parallel that I know of anywhere else in the world. Just as we walked past improbably small shacks, we also visited small businesses, everything from jewelers to a barber. Then I saw him, an older gentleman walking through the streets, returning home from a day at work. He was in a suit with a dapper hat, dressed to impress but surrounded by dirt roads and kids playing with leftover garbage in a nearby field. I think that’s what we’re supposed to see when we visit a township, when we visit a place like Kayamandi. We’re not supposed to see the past or the present necessarily, but we are supposed to see the future. We’re supposed to see the pride residents have in what they have built, from the well-dressed man to Mama Lilly who built her own house and owes not a penny to any man. It’s from this pride and a belief in an even prouder future that groups like AmaZink were born.
Founded in 2011, AmaZink is South Africa’s first township theater, offering guests an evening of good food and even better song and dance. Every Friday night visitors descend upon their theater in Kayamandi for an immersive experience; enjoying a dinner inspired from great township cooking and being entertained by a group of young people who are just as proud of their past as they are certain about their future. In other words, we’re not supposed to see places like Kayamandi as an attraction or a tourist site, we’re supposed to see the people who live there as people and to use the visit as a chance to learn more about them and who they are.
Walking away from a township puts the final awkward cap on the experience. After being welcomed into homes that are smaller than most of our garages, it’s awkward to then pile back into a van to be whisked away to a five-star dinner. But that’s ok. It’s ok for the experience to feel awkward at times, to be unsure as to how to react or even what to say and do. It’s not Disneyland and it’s not supposed to be. If South Africa is anything, it’s honest and by encouraging tourists to visit townships like Kayamandi, they’re begging the world not to feel pity or even embarrassment, but to just try to understand this beautiful country a little bit better. That’s what a trip to South Africa is really about, understanding her people, their past, how they’re adjusting and where they’re going.
This campaign was created and sponsored by the Stellenbosch Wine Routes and Destinate in partnership with iambassador. LandLopers retains all editorial control of what is published and as you know, I never shy away from honest commentary.
6 thoughts on “The Awkward Beauty of Visiting a Township in South Africa”
Thanks for shedding some light on this topic, Matt. I’ve never been to South Africa, but it is on my travel list. I read a book (“The Housemaid’s Daughter”) once that was set in a township and it sparked my interest then. What you describe feels familiar to how I felt when I took a tour through a Rio favela. The people are resolute, starting businesses and succeeding, and I don’t think they want your pity but your understanding.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts and photos, Matt. I’m a South African who has been to townships numerous times and the stark contrast between haves and have nots sometimes makes me uncomfortable too. But I usually have an encounter or two that knocks me off my perch and makes me see beyond the poverty to how much cultural richness and community spirit is there too.
I’m glad to know that I’m not the only one who felt awkward! When I was in South Africa, I couldn’t decide if I wanted to visit Langa in Cape Town. It almost felt like a Township tour was the equivalent of going to the zoo- with the residents and their homes on display for the curious and intrusive tourists- and I ultimately decided against it. I now regret that decision- especially after reading your post. A Township tour does sound like a great way to connect with locals and to learn about South Africa.
We visited Soweto on our recent trip to South Africa. Haven’t decided if/how we would treat that topic on our own site. I’m glad we did it, but our emotions are very conflicted on it. Not finding the right words here… Thanks for sharing your experience.
Hi Matt, I really enjoyed this posting. I have just returned to Canada after studying tourism in the townships for 5 months and living in Kayamandi. You words beautifully expressed a lot of my own feelings about touring those spaces. You’ll be happy to know that Amazink is up and running again (it was closed for a while) and they just finished an amazing show and are working on a new one for the fall. And your photos are gorgeous :)
This is a great post Matt. Im from SA, and I’ve found this tourist experience somewhat awkward as a South African, one that is definitely privileged in comparison! But after living in the US, I can see how important it is to experience SA’s townships, and you put it so well in your last few sentences… “understanding her people, their past, how they’re adjusting and where they’re going.” So important!
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