Undoubtedly, tourism is one of the biggest money-spinners for South Africa’s economy and creates much-needed employment. It’s been described as the country’s new gold and everyone is rushing to cash in.

In recent years, there’s been a massive growth of township cultural tourism – from Soweto to Khayelitsha – as guests immerse themselves in communities that have remained unknown, even feared. They come for the vibrant culture – street art, craft, delicious food as well as heart-warming encounters with locals. It’s now common to see a gaggle of tourists walking or cycling around areas such as Orlando West in Soweto with wonderment on their faces. However, some scoff at the idea of well-heeled tourists traipsing into economically challenged areas. On balance, signs show the unique value that ghetto travel brings. Meet a few change agents who partake in immersive cultural tours of one form or another.

Bongani Mathebula – Jozy Triangel tours

Nothing pleases poet and journalist Bongani Mathebula more than taking tourists on a walking tour of Joburg inner city to talk about street art and graffiti as well as the rich history of Jozi as part of Jozy Triangel tours, a company he started six years ago. Tours are both during the day and at night.

...some scoff at the idea of well-heeled tourists traipsing into economically challenged areas.

Jozy Triangel tours also takes tourists to various Jozi townships: Soweto, Alexandra, Tembisa and the Vaal. But Soweto is undoubtedly the most popular destination. “Tours go to Soweto every Thursday while tours to other townships are available through prior arrangement,” he says.

Mathebula is emphatic that his company shies away from poverty porn, preferring to run informative tours that shed light on various aspects of township life, from the historical to the sociological. “We’ve witnessed instances of poverty porn from companies and tour guides that look at townships in a condescending manner,” he says. “We prefer to paint a clear picture of the state of townships. We explain things that would ordinarily escape the notice of guests. For example, with hygiene being such a hugely important aspect of life for residents, we explain to them why even shack dwellers strive for dignity by having the interior of their dwellings meticulously decked out regardless of depressing surroundings. We highlight the residents’ spirit of trying and the spirit of potential.”

Empowerment is another ethos for Jozy Triangel Tours. In Soweto, after taking guests to the usual touristy areas, the tours always end up at Mbuyisa School of Arts and Culture in Orlando West, where tourists get a chance to buy art directly from learners who made it. “We don’t accept hand-outs. We encourage guests to support by buying art from the kids. In this way, the children grow up knowing that they need to work for everything so they can get paid for it. We don’t want them to grow up with a mentality of having to beg to survive. This ngamla, ngamla business doesn’t cut it for us.”

Mathebula believes there’s room in SA for cultural tourism – provided it’s done right. “It opens gates for local people to heal from oppression and provides huge opportunities for each individual to reach their potential,” he says.

www.jozytriangel.co.za / 067 279 3288

Bongani Mathebula, the founder of Jozy Triangel. Dlala Nje: Twiza_photography Dlala Nje: Twiza_photography Dlala Nje: Twiza_photography Dlala Nje: Twiza_photography

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Dlala Nje

Township tours are not the only way of getting to see the reality of South Africa. Take Dlala Nje, a Joburg inner-city initiative that began in 2012 with a mission to take tourists on guided walking tours of Hillbrow, Berea and Yeoville, areas that most people shun for fear of crime and seeing the grime up close.

But for the founders of Dlala Nje, Michal Luptak and Nickolaus Bauer, it’s all about shattering misconceptions about the inner city and doing their bit in fostering a thriving community with access to economic opportunities, particularly for youth. Dlala Nje sees the inner city as a node that is a tapestry of pan-Africanism, thanks to the co-existence of locals and immigrants from many sub-Saharan nations.

Dlala Nje tours start at Ponte City, one of Jozi’s most recognisable landmarks, and meander through the neighbourhood, stopping at various eateries and pubs along the way. The experience is thoroughly immersive and mind-shifting. Proceeds from the tours support the running of a Dlala Nje Community Centre, located at the bottom of Ponte, which helps youngsters accomplish various activities including doing homework, accessing the Internet, and extra-murals such as judo and yoga.

“In the past seven years, we’ve taken 15 000 people through some of the most notorious places in Joburg. We’ve achieved our goal of changing perceptions while creating opportunities for youth,” Bauer says. “The so-called middle class needs to realise that those less fortunate than them are not inherently evil, wanting to take things away from them. The so-called downtrodden need to learn those a bit higher up on the economic ladder don’t simply want to exploit them. There is a common ground people need to start experiencing.”

As for the question of poverty being a magnet for selling cultural experiences, Bauer believes that Dlala Nje’s record of empowering the community and creating jobs where there were none, speaks for itself. “If you can’t see value in what we have created and the lives we have changed along the way, then it may not be what you see but how you look that’s the real issue here. The bottom line is: if you’re not making something collectively within the community you operate so the majority of people there benefit, then you aren’t a social enterprise pursuing socioeconomic transformation – you’re a business pursuing profits.” 

www.dlalanje.org / 011 402 2373

Izizwe Projects 

Izizwe Projects, which was founded in 2008, is a non-profit organisation that seeks to uplift the lives of underprivileged children in Walmer township in Port Elizabeth through a variety of educational and leisure activities. Izizwe Projects brings in international visitors, who each pay R250 to witness how their programmes are run. These projects include an oral health programme and a literacy programme at crèches, a dance programme, basketball as well as an adult literacy class. From these visits, tourists also get a chance to see how they can support these initiatives.

Most visitors come from as far afield as the Netherlands, Germany, France, Norway, Sweden and England. “We allow visitors to visit the township and join our team for a morning or day for the opportunity to participate and see our efforts close-up rather than just taking a picture. It is an important part of exposing the needs of this community,” says Celia Pienaar, programme manager at Izizwe Projects.

Currently, Izizwe Projects employs five staff from the surrounding community and also boasts about 20 unpaid volunteers. “We hope to help people acquire a new view on township life rather than feed on the negative media opinion that most people believe. Our township tours are conducted by locals who know the area well.”

...it’s all about shattering misconceptions about the inner city and doing their bit in fostering a thriving community with access to economic opportunities, particularly for youth.

Pienaar is adamant that the tours they run, rather than being exploitative, are useful in opening vistas of understanding and bringing much-needed development. “We put back every cent into the programmes we provide to the community,” says Pienaar.  “We’re a non-profit organisation, not a tour operator.”

www.izizweprojects.co.za / 063 373 3661

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