The plane cut through the last part of clouds and after a long journey, I could finally see the first glimpse of South Africa. I was excited like never before – I’ve never even dreamt of visiting this country yet I was just about to land in Johannesburg, more than ready to discover this mythical place. I had no idea what to expect from South Africa, I only knew basics, and so I was curiously looking out of the window, trying to spot as many details as possible.
The very first thing I’ve noticed were beautiful blooming blue jacaranda trees – I’ve seen them for the very first time ever and just loved them! But shortly after I’ve spotted some destroyed neighborhoods, people living in collapsing containers. As it turned out it was one of the many townships, a settlement that can be widely seen across the country.
I’ve heard the name “township” before but all the reading I’ve done couldn’t have properly prepared me to what I was about to experience. I just knew I have to visit at least one township during my South African trip, to try to learn about the life in these conditions. My initial plan was just to see the township in Knysna as the local tour offered there was supposed to be the best one in the whole country. But this just made me more curious and more interested in the issue.
It didn’t take me much to decide that I want to visit more townships, suddenly I felt just have to learn more about the life in townships and get a wider perspective on the place. And so after a small change of plans I also got to visit township in Cape Town and Soweto. I really can’t explain why such difficult issues interest me so much, especially that they stay in my mind for a long time, haunting me big time.
Table of contents
History of townships in South Africa
Townships were created in the late 19th century but the peak of its “popularity” came in the apartheid times, a dark page in the South Africa history, when “non-white” people were forced to leave their houses and move to special places, designated only for certain race groups (black people, coloreds and Indians). Areas where people suddenly had to live in were underdeveloped, lacking the basic facilities like running water or electricity. Whole families were packed in tiny houses made of containers.
Now, all these years after the apartheid collapsed, the situation in townships is getting better yet it’s still far from being decent. There’re townships with better facilities and these that look like the time stopped there.
People don’t have an easy life there but with its increasing slowly. The communities are supported by the numerous volunteers to be more active, they develop slowly and despite the difficult life people seem to be happy there.
Tourism in townships of South Africa
Tourism is also getting more important in the life of the townships and even if some inhabitants may not agree with that, it still makes a big difference. It’s possible to stay overnight there, to eat with local people, to have a full township experience. It may feel like townships are selling each other but I more see it as a way to raise the awareness of the poor living condition and the reality of the difficult life in Africa that eventually can lead to improving these.
There are numerous tours you can join to get a township experience and I definitely suggest doing it when you visit South Africa. Only with the tour, you can get a full background story that will help you to understand the place. Click here to see the overview of township tours in South Africa.
Each township I visited in South Africa was similar yet different from each other. Below you have a small review of my time there.
I visited the township with the highly rated Emzini Tours and even if the tour was short, it was a really good one (I was a little reluctant after the tour to Lesotho but what bothered me there didn’t happen here at all).
The tour was small, there were only 8 of us, and it was run by the local citizen of the township – Ella. This brave woman worked very hard to get where she is and now does a lot of great things for the community, working on lots of local projects to make the life better.
During the tour, we visited a local shop (where the seller is hidden behind the grille and where you might buy things not only per package but also per item), a hairdresser (there are so many of them in townships!), a local repair shop. There were animals randomly crossing the streets but overall it looked like a neat township, there seemed to be an order in this place.
There were a lot of local businesses (everyone could hire a container and start one, the rent was around 600 rd = 55$ = 40€) and the unemployment rate was pretty low, around 20%. Apparently, everyone who wanted to work had a job there.
A lot of houses were old, wooden structures, with no electricity or running water. The country is constantly building new houses next to the old ones, the waiting list is long but people are patiently waiting for their turn. Everything but electricity is for free, the same goes for the schools, hospitals and other social services.
I had the impression that even if people don’t have a very easy life they’re still pretty happy and don’t complain a lot. The other thing is the township in Knysna was the most decent from all I visited in South Africa…
Cape Town township – Imizamo Yethu
I didn’t actually plan to visit a Cape Town township but I couldn’t miss such an opportunity since Imizamo Yethu was on the route of the hop-on-hop-off bus (the only way to get to the interesting places in the city, there’s hardly any public transport! You can get your bus ticket here.).
This one was in much worse condition than the Knysna township, their water facilities are dismal, the sewerage system is non-existent, very few toilets can be found around. The only couple of streets had real houses – and “street” is also a too big name for the lane with no asphalt and water running through it. Most of the life of the township is in the containers – houses, shops, services, and even a church are located in these.
Even if I visited Imizamo Yethu in the middle of the weekday there were a lot of kids running around and playing on the streets. The unemployment is really big, reaching 50% but even if someone becomes successful the person still lives in the township, the community bonds are really strong there!
Here are some of the recommended and highly rated tours in Cape Town township:
- Township Eco Tour
- Township and Robben Island Combination Tour
- Cape Town: Half-Day Guided Township Tour
- Cape Town Townships and Langa Gospel Tour
- Half-Day Tour Through Cape Town’s Townships
These days there are more and more volunteers coming to work there so hopefully, together with tourists, they will bring a change to this place.
Probably the most known township in South Africa is actually the group of these, located in the south-west of Johannesburg (hence the name, Soweto = South Western Townships). People say “when Soweto sneeze whole South Africa catches the flu” and that’s very accurate as a lot of main events in the recent history started in Soweto. One of the best museums I visited during this trip, Hector Pieterson Museum, is also located there.
Soweto is home to over 1,2 million people and the living standards vary, there’re fancy looking houses and expensive cars and few streets later people live in ruined containers with no running water or electricity. Unemployment reaches 70%, 50% among youth but there’re a lot of local initiatives to revitalize the area and make people more active. Soon there’ll be a new hotel opened in Soweto, in the neighborhood of the Soweto towers – two factory chimneys that are probably the best-known landmark in the townships.
There’s also a lot of money coming from abroad, both from church or independent organizations, for example in one of the schools kids are sponsored by French organization hence have to learn the language. Still, the salaries in Soweto are around 6 times smaller than in other areas of Johannesburg and the poverty is widely seen around.
Soweto is a must visit place for everyone coming to Johannesburg. I even changed my plans to include the place in my South African itinerary and I don’t regret this decision at all. That was the place that created the South African history, in Soweto two of the Nobel Peace Prize winners – Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu – used to live (on the same street!), Soweto struggled so much during apartheid times. No matter how hard it was to visit this place it was one of the highlights of my time in South Africa.
Here are some of the highly rated and recommended tours of Soweto:
- Johannesburg and Soweto Apartheid Full Day Tour
- Jo’berg in 1 Day: Soweto, Apartheid Museum & City Tour
- Johannesburg: Small Group Soweto Bike Tour w/ a Local
Slum tourism in townships
Recently I came across the term “slum tourism” that referred also to visiting townships in South Africa. Apparently one of the main reasons people go for this kind of tours is to put their life into a perspective and to make themselves feel better about what they have. Well, it wasn’t the case with me.
I was simply curious and wanted to see how the real life for the majority of South African citizens look like, I was hoping to understand the country, culture, and history that way. And I did. These weren’t easy visits but I definitely learned a lot from them.
But also when I was looking at kids running around, playing together on the streets with barely any toys I could see similarities to my childhood. When I grew up things also weren’t very good in Poland yet the country managed to overcome the problems. Even if we didn’t have a lot of kids were happy and had a good childhood. And that’s what I saw in these townships too, happy kids who might have a bright future ahead! This is what I hope and wish for!
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