Treating the poor like zoo animals?

Updated:

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.

Mafuduka led the group, telling us we must ask for permission before taking photos of any people. The families living in the houses we visited, he later told me, did not get paid for being part of the tour. They did it to share how they lived, and also because the tourists sometimes brought candy, toys or stationary with them. “They are very grateful for that,” he said.

He added that the tour companies had worked to help people understand the benefits, both economic and educational, that township tours bring to the community. “People are happy,” he said. “We interviewed people about the tours and they feel positive about them.”

Locals were not surprised to see a group of foreigners strolling through their neighborhood; most returned smiles or greetings to us, and all greeted Mafuduka and Mbinda with familiarity.

I smiled at a boy coming out of his house and raised my camera questioningly. He flashed me a cheeky grin and held out a red plastic object — a toy camera of his own — then bounced off to play with his friends. I laughed to myself; mocked by a four-year-old.

One of our last stops on the tour was a large hostel were Mbinda grew up to see a youth project called “Happy Feet,” which was created to keep kids off the street. 

Before arriving, Mbinda asked if we would each donate 10 Rand — about $1.30 — to the children after they performed traditional African dances for us. Afterward, one man in the group donated 100 rand — about 13 dollars.

Mbinda took it, hesitated, and refused to take any more donations. “I don’t want them to get used to a lot of money,” he said, slightly uncomfortably. “It wouldn’t be good for them.”

On the way back to Cape Town, Chris Lewis, a 39-year-old business consultant from England, said: “I like seeing the real country and getting away from the FIFA-branded idea of it. I like to see how people really live.”

A Singaporean man on the tour said he had also done a large township tour in Soweto, outside Johannesburg. “It was shit,” he said with a laugh. “Disorganized and impersonal.

Earlier, in the shebeen, one of the tourists asked Mafuduka if things in Langa had improved since apartheid came to an end in 1994.

He hesitated before answering; “Some things have changed, and sometimes it’s a sensitive thing to discuss. [Democracy] is a newly born child; it is starting to grow now. In the near future, you will find the baby crawling or running. As the saying goes, Rome was not built overnight.” He looked troubled.

Then he smiled at us. “Before we take our leave, we have to thank the people for welcoming us. We say enkosi.”

“Enkosi,” shouted the tourists in unison.