Connect to share and comment

Treating the poor like zoo animals?

Do so-called poverty tours exploit or enlighten? Township residents don't seem to mind.

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — In a makeshift bar in a township outside Cape Town, South Africa, four tourists pass around a small bucket of umqombothi (a foamy, sour, locally brewed beer). Sunlight streams through cracks between the wooden planks that made up the bar’s walls, illuminating several shoddy benches, the animated gestures of a traditional healer, and flecks of dust lazily spinning through the air.

The healer, Archibald Mafuduka, 55, explains the concept of ubuntu. Today, he applies it to the passing of the tin of beer — in township communities, everyone shares what they have. In the context of South Africa – both historically and in the present – it has a more profound meaning: I am because you are, and we are all here because of each other.

Clearly, this is not your grandfather’s tourism experience.

Tourists are drawn to Cape Town by many attractions: the infamous Table Mountain, swanky waterfront and beautiful beaches, and, this summer, the World Cup.

But this tour is a new “attraction:” Poverty tourism. Various companies offer tours of the townships and the empoverished living conditions that surround the picturesque metropolis.

This controversial service is not restricted to South Africa; it is a worldwide phenomenon occurring in places like Nairobi, Kenya, Mumbai, Rio de Janeiro, and even the immigrant zone of Rotterdam. Depending on safety, accessibility and the tour company, tourists are taken through the communities by bus, car, or on foot, and group size can range from 1 person to dozens.  

Critics claim the practice exploits the struggles of the people who live in slums, treating those residents and their communities like animals in a zoo. Others extol the practice as an eye-opening experience that exposes tourists to the realities of life in the developing world which those tourists would otherwise be oblivious to.  

In South Africa, the “poverty tour” experience also varies: It can consist of forty people being herded onto a bus and driven around the townships as they take photos out of the windows. Or it can mean being led around on foot to quintessential township sites, and learning from local people about the history and a way of living very different from their own.

That’s the approach offered by Sam’s Cultural Tours in Langa outside of Cape Town.

“When you visit a house you must be able to at least greet a person and say thank you for allowing us to come inside,” Lele Mbinda, 29, said before teaching the five foreigners in our tour how to say “hello,” “good-bye”, and “thank you” in Xhosa, the most-widely spoken African language in the Western Cape.

“I want you to see everything a township has to offer. The townships are the only area where you get three different classes in one street,” Mbinda said, dispelling the myth that communities consist solely of corrugated tin shacks without plumbing or electricity.

According to Mbinda, about half of the people who make enough money to live elsewhere still prefer to stay in the townships for the culture and atmosphere. Mbinda drove us around the “Beverly Hills” of Langa, where well-to-do professionals live in quaint, well-kept homes with small yards and security systems. “Most of the people who stay around this area could stay anywhere, but they still choose the township,” he said.

Many of the townships around Cape Town — although they all still struggle with the fearsome combination of disease, crime, unemployment and poverty — consist of a combination of privately-owned homes, small government-issued “Mandela houses,” and ramshackle shacks and hostels. These are often all found within a few streets, or even a few feet, of each other.

We took a 20-minute tour on foot through Langa, the oldest township in South Africa. “Shebeens,” (informal bars), hair salons, and “braais” (outdoor barbeques where women were grilling sheep heads and intestines) were filled with people chatting and laughing.