I used to have quite strong feelings toward what we often call “township tourism”. I didn’t like the idea of a bunch of tourists dressed in khaki driving through the township in a van, staring out at people and taking their pictures without their permission. In fact, I still have strong feelings toward anything that comes even close to this.
The kinds of experiences I’ve had in Khayelitsha in Cape Town, Daravi in Mumbai, Kayamandi in Stellenbosch and Soweto in Gauteng are so much more than a township tour. My visits to these townships have had nothing to do with tour vans and stolen pictures.
When you walk through a city or town, you experience it from the ground up. You get to make eye contact with people, say hello, ask them about their lives and ask for their permission to take their pictures. This is true for every township I’ve ever visited. It’s only when you get off the bus that you can truly understand the energy and uniqueness of any place you visit.
In Soweto, which is still known as a township despite having 5 million residents, thousands of luxury homes and flashy cars, well maintained roads, schools, hospitals, shopping malls and a four star hotel, the distances are vast, which means driving is inescapable. But stopping and getting out is not only advisable, I think it’s mandatory.
I recently spent 3 nights at the Soweto Hotel in Kliptown, during my visit to the Soweto Wine Festival. I was part of a group of bloggers, Instagrammers and media invited by Gauteng Tourism to discover the Soweto only the locals know. I was working with Mariette and the Destinate team on the itinerary and hosting the bloggers.
During the planning of the campaign, the organizers of the Soweto Wine Festival had connected us with some of the cool young creatives who are shaping Soweto right now. Millenials (can we use Born Frees?) who work day jobs at advertising agencies and corporates while managing weekend markets, monthly parties, social movements, creative cliques and cycling crews.
Over the next 72 hours, we visited the historic Regina Mundi Church, where political leaders gathered during the apartheid struggle and where the stained glass windows tell the story of the fight that changed our nation. We had the opportunity to visit the Othandweni Family Care Centre, where 45 staff members lovingly care for 90 vulnerable children.
We spent an evening at Lebo’s famous Backpackers, where we danced around a fire to live jazz music and ate shisa nyama washed down with glasses of Stellenbosch wine. At Trackside Live, we were warmly welcomed by a crowd of hip hop and jazz fans and we danced until the early hours of the morning while drinking wine from tin cups. We cycled the streets of Pimville with the boys who started Fixin Diaries, a bike repair shop and social movement which gets a bunch of the best looking people you’ve ever seen together to dress up in their finest hipster getups and ride the streets of Soweto on custom fixies.
We met amazing people. We became friends with people. And I realised that there should be no such thing as a “township tour”. We can’t use “township” as a blanket term that covers all the informal cities in South Africa. That would be like saying “oh yes I went to Greece and I did a city tour. Very interesting, the way people live in cities”.
Over the coming weeks I’ll be sharing pictures and stories from the city of Soweto. Hopefully, by the end of the series of upcoming posts, you’ll be ready to spend 72 hours (or more) meeting Soweto yourself.