South Africa: The country's heart laid bare

By P.K. Stowers

P.K. Stowers experiences a growing market for touring South Africa's black townships

Visiting poor communities gives travel some context. Photo / Paul Stowers
Visiting poor communities gives travel some context. Photo / Paul Stowers

Rather than head for the beaches or the wilderness parks on my first day in South Africa, I'm off to KwaMashu - the largest and oldest township in Durban.

My guide for the day is Thamsanqa, which is pronounced with a prominent Zulu tongue "click", something I have so far utterly failed to reproduce. Luckily everyone calls him "Tammy".

KwaMashu is the largest of Durban's three main townships, formed in the late 1950s to re-house black South Africans once it became illegal for them to live in the cities. The townships are home to more than 500,000 people, most of whom have a very low standard of living, and more than 50 per cent are under the age of 25. Unemployment is around 30 per cent, and those with a job may only earn around R1500 (NZ$220) a month.

The greatest poverty can be found in shanty towns, where dwellings are built of corrugated iron and packing crates, with winding muddy paths between the shacks. Most are without plumbing and residents rely on community taps for water. Even the roadside stores are rough, with makeshift electrical wiring snaking its way to overloaded overhead poles.

It is real poverty, and I am acutely aware of how this must look to the residents - a bunch of wealthy white people driving past and staring at them. I am just about to put some vaguely worded question to Tammy about the ethics of all this, when a young, blonde Australian woman beats me to it.

"What do the people here feel about us driving through their neighbourhood and taking photos of them?" she asks.

Tammy seems prepared for the question and says he was one of the first operators to bring tourists to the township, but not before discussing it with community leaders and residents.

"Tours come through here most days. People are used to it all now. They know me here. I'm from KwaMashu. It is important that people see all this, that they understand what life in the townships is all about, and that the struggle continues every day here," he says.

He's right of course. If you really want to see and understand a country, you can't just visit the beaches and museums. Although in truth it doesn't make me feel a great deal better. Our small tour group that looked supremely average getting aboard the mini-bus that morning now seems conspicuously wealthy.

Gradually the houses take on a more permanent appearance, most being small brick buildings with small gardens. Tammy takes us to the house in which he was born, and then - a kilometre or two up the road - the house he lives in now: a small, sparsely furnished, four-room building on a reasonably large section next to a large cemetery.

KwaMashu has everything you expect to see in a community, but the infrastructure and facilities are as basic as they can be. There are police stations, churches, sports grounds, stores, even roadside barbers, but it's still a shock to see the level of poverty on show. The area has been associated with high levels of crime and violence, but our trip - which includes stops throughout the township - is incident-free and everyone we speak to is accommodating and helpful.

We visit a local fortune teller, which costs around R100 per person. Being a little pressed for time, I pass on the opportunity and instead make friends with her two children watching from the alleyway. They are happy and playful, but I can't help but wonder what their future holds.


Twelve days on from the visit to KwaMashu I am in Johannesburg on my last day in the country. It seems only fair and proper to bookend my trip with another township visit - this time to one of the largest in Africa - Soweto.

Soweto is the largest black urban centre on the continent and has a population of over two million. Created in the 1930s as a housing area for black families and workers, it grew in the 1950s as people were forcibly moved from the city centres. This is where the fight against apartheid was based and fought from.

Some of the first houses we see jar tremendously with what I expect, as they are basically very expensive large houses - some you could justifiably call mansions.

"People are often surprised to see wealth of this type in Soweto," says Alex Radebe from Kgokare Tours, our guide, "but many people couldn't imagine living anywhere else. They have grown up here, become wealthy and decided to stay in the area. There are more than 20 millionaires who still live in Soweto."

I quickly learn though that residences like that are by far in the minority. Less than 500m away you can again see row upon row of the small, brick buildings. Most of the houses are owned by the South African government, and the waiting time to move into one is around 14 years.

Infrastructure in Soweto is far more developed than in KwaMashu, and we pass large shopping malls, a hospital and several large schools. In fact, Soweto has 178 primary schools, 78 high schools, four technical institutes and one university.

Alex instructs the driver to pull over to the side of the road and we all get out. Beneath the road overpass is a massive shantytown - these days called an "informal settlement".

"If it's possible we often get tour groups to bring old clothes that we deliver to some of the residents," she says. "Items like that are always well received. The unemployment rate in Soweto is about 45 per cent, but in these settlements it is closer to 75 per cent."

Many of our group take out our cameras again and take shots of the people living beneath us. I take about two before feeling too self-conscious and put the camera away.

I casually raise this ethical dilemma again, and this time our guide, who is in her early 20s, is slower to answer than Tammy. "But how can you not come to Soweto?" she says. "This is where the people are, the heart of the country. If you haven't been to Soweto, you haven't been to South Africa."


Getting there: Qantas runs regular services to Johannesburg from Sydney. Durban is about an hour's flight time from Johannesburg.

Where to stay: In Durban, the writer stayed at the Izulu Boutique Hotel. In Johannesburg he was a guest of the Da Vinci Hotel.

Further information: For KwaMashu tours contact Julnic Tours. For Soweto tours contact Kgokare Tours.

P.K. Stowers travelled to South Africa with assistance from South African Tourism.

- NZ Herald

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