What do you see on a South African Township Tour?

Informal self-built house in Walmer Township (photo by H Browne - CC-BY)

Informal self-built house in Walmer Township (photo by H Browne - CC-BY)

The South African townships originated when rural South Africans left their tribal areas and migrated to the cities, setting up squatter camps on the periphery. These areas later became locations where the policy of Apartheid was enforced—with black South Africans being restricted to living in the townships while white South Africans lived in the main areas of the towns and cities.

The policy of Apartheid (“apartness”) ended when South Africans achieved racial equality in 1994, but the townships live on as inexpensive places to reside, and their inhabitants are still predominantly black South Africans. Most white South Africans, and most international visitors to South Africa, have never been inside a township. Indeed, the British Foreign Office advises visitors to avoid entering the townships by themselves.

It’s now possible to visit a South African township on an organized tour, which provides a fabulous insight into the way of life of the large number of people for whom the townships are home. The tours vary from those organised on a personal basis by a township resident for a small group of two to four people, to scheduled tours conducted by minibus.

I visited a Walmer Township near Port Elizabeth in 2009, and this article describes what happens on such a tour.

Our guide was Wicliff, who has lived all his life in Walmer. He was there during the formative years of the protest movement which eventually led to racial equality in South Africa. He has seen the history of his people’s struggle first-hand, and participated in many aspects of it.

Wicliff picked us up by car and drove us past the Women’s Co-operative, and along the highway where unemployed tradesmen display their tools of trade in the hope of landing some work. We then turned into Walmer Township, passing the woodland which holds the initiation grounds where young men are physically and emotionally initiated into adult life. If an initiation ceremony is in progress, it can be visited.

Turning into the residential streets, we saw the new buildings recently constructed by the government. Some are single-storey, some two-storey. They’re compact but functional. Other streets hold row after row of shacks: informal self-built housing. Some of the houses have piped water; others depend on a communal tap on the street corner. Some of the houses have electricity—and lying across the road are dozens of extension cables carrying power illegally and dangerously to houses without an electricity supply.

Unlit shops and little churches are sprinkled around the township. We took a short walk and saw a sample of the local life. The informal economy is alive and well here, and it seems that every block has a house with a hairdressing price list displayed outside.

We visited a pre-school center and a large primary school, where the children seemed happy. A school meals service is provided for those who cannot afford lunch. The head teacher’s office had a computer and a phone, but the classrooms themselves were as spartan as could be.

Wicliff then took us inside a self-built Xhosa home, which turned out to have been built by his father. This house had electricity and was equipped with a kettle, microwave oven, television set, and lighting.

All through the tour Wicliff told us of the events in Walmer’s history, and how it came to be what it is today. Afterwards he took us to the Red Location Museum, which chronicles the struggle against Apartheid (presented in what I thought was a very fair and balanced way).

We arranged our Township Tour through Nelson Mandela Bay Tours, at a cost of R900 ($120) for two adults and two children. These tours can be customised to suit the needs of the client, and evening tours can include a home-cooked Xhosa meal and a visit to a local shebeen (township pub). A tip of R50 or R100 for the guide would be appropriate, and you will certainly want to make a donation to the school when you see how much it would benefit.

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