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Jurassic township tours

In a famous scene from the original Jurassic Park, the private visitors are herded into Toyota Venturesque vehicles from which they depart on a predefined tour of the park and its unknown inhabitants. They stare with awe and mystery through the high-voltage fencing at the dark hinterland beyond, waiting for an unknown predator to show itself. Eventually, with said predator failing to turn up, a sacrificial goat is placed in the cage, only to be dismembered in full view of the passengers.

I could not help but be reminded of this scene time and time again when I was invited to a new-age funky township tour of the Cape Flats. The Toyota Venture like car was there, the high-voltage fencing was there — although it must be said that this was seen more regularly when we were passing through that part of the city that contained infinitely more dangerous and the lesser-known suburbanites of Constantia — the clicking of cameras from the safety of the vehicle was frequent, as was the peering of tourists into the unknown. Indeed, there were even a couple of sacrificial goats.

What struck me, however, is that a township is not a Jurassic Park (even though, in my opinion, this form of housing does belong in the dark ages). These are real people that are being gawked at, these are their everyday lives being photographed, and indeed, it is their human dignity (or lack thereof) that is the main tourist attraction. Throughout the trip I felt extremely uncomfortable, securely buckled in my seat with a glass plate between the poverty and I. While everyone waved and smiled, I could not help but wonder, if I had been on the other side of the window, whether I would have done the same. Indeed, I would probably have thrown rocks at the vehicles for attempting to see how I, “the other half”, lived.

As I write this I can hear the baying of the wolf of economics. Township tours do provide a sustainable form of income. They pump money directly into the poverty stricken areas, they create jobs, provide safety and security on the roads (the SAPS would never let a busload of tourists get hurt) and indeed provide a view of the extreme poverty that characterises South Africa’s urban centres through which the more fortunate might feel the need to get involved. I understand this completely, and this is why I feel so tense writing this. But I can’t help but feel that all these interests come at a price, and that price is human dignity. I cannot escape the thought that, underneath all the moral and economic arguments, a township tour is a trip to witness, to stare open mouthed, at the extreme poverty in which the majority of South Africa live. We have turned, in other words, our poverty into a tourist attraction. Economically, this sounds like a brilliant idea; morally, it strengthens the very divide the economic aspect of the tours is attempting to minimise.

Of course, every city has tourist tours. Cape Town itself has the red buses that take tourists and locals on scenic tours of the mountain, the city, and the suburbs. But these tours are different, for what they are attempting to show is Cape Town’s scenic beauty (of which it has plenty). Township tours, however, seem to satisfy our lust for the macabre; there is no beauty in poverty, so why do we go there? Speaking to the other passengers, some were there for that very reason, some thought it a good idea “just because”, and some wanted to provide the spurious moral ammunition they needed to say that they had helped poverty while sipping a glass of champagne with their friends from a balcony overlooking Clifton Beach. While everyone was shocked, again, I can’t help but think this shock was more of the type one receives in a horror movie than the real type that would automatically make a philanthropist out of us all. Indeed, as I am as guilty as they are — I type this on an expensive laptop with a quality (and expensive) education behind my name.

So, am I simply being a liberal middle-class whiner, bent on a moral crusade with little thought to how much the income that these tours generate help the local community? Maybe. One cannot escape the benefits that these tours do generate for some; in an impoverished community that is never a bad thing. And yet, I still cannot escape the thought, no matter how much I try to, that township tours display the same logic of those early circus shows, in which people would gaze in amazement at the shows. These people, however, are not circus freaks. They are poor. Perhaps some would blame the neo-liberal market place, in which anything and everything can be made into a commodity, even the very waste and consequences of the system. This comes at the price of standards and human dignity, a price that in my mind is too high. Human dignity has always been more important than profit. Problematically however, it is this human dignity that has become profitable.


  • Simon is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre of Criminology, UCT. He has a few interests, most of which seem to revolve around drugs, gangs, and violence in South Africa. He was awarded a PhD in 2012, and since then has published on a number of topics, ranging from gay bashing to the izikhothane phenomenon. At present his research is focussed on policing in South Africa, and how it might be made more effective (especially in regulating illegal drug use). He writes in his own capacity.


  1. baobabbooi baobabbooi 14 July 2011

    Toyota Venturesque vehicles?

    Nah, Dude, your research sucks: those were Ford Explorers.
    (Why do you think they broke down all the time!)

  2. Mr Y Mr Y 15 July 2011

    The fascinating thing about townships is what the inhabitats have made of it. Remember something like 3 generations where forced to leave in these places and a whole system was was created to keep them there. I would imagin that if any of the concentration camps from WW2 are still around, they have become tourist attractions. So I don’t think that this tours are about looking at poverty, rather they are about seeing a living example of how a subjugated people live their lives.

  3. John Patson John Patson 15 July 2011

    There are plenty of tourists who are happy to live in the “first world” bubble of their hotels and safari camps. It is wrong to criticise those who, mainly for good reasons, (seeing with your own eyes, acknowledging you are rich in a poor land,) rather than bad, (voyeurism, laughing at misery) leave the big bubble for the little bubble of such tours. Some are moved to start donating to charitable organisations. They also end up seeing more of South Africa than most white South Africans, who, 20 years since movements in townships were lifted, still have never set foot in one.
    The whole traveller rather than tourist argument of the 1970s, ended when poor people in places like Morocco, Bali and Afghanistan, realised that travellers were poor and tourists rich. Hence stones thrown at stoned hippies, or even more delicious, locals organising paid tours of hippy quarters. Who exploits who?

  4. MLH MLH 16 July 2011

    Yeah! Can’t imagine touring a Brazilian favella or a US ghetto for fun.
    But if people want to do it (I did it in order to understand my client’s market better; the client and employees did it because it had no idea what its own market was all about) and the people within the township choose to allow it, what’s the problem? The entrepreneurs along the routes do not have the luxury of choosing their markets; they are sometimes delighted to invite less well-informed people to see how they live. And frankly, I’ve had dozens of personal friends who either live more simple lives than I or wallow in status and luxury I’ve never seen. Why does it have to be about lowering human dignity? Nice people are nice people, no matter the side of the tracks from which they originate.

  5. hds hds 17 July 2011

    I am not sure this is an either/or argument; I think we live in the gray. When I first visited in 2007, I was turned off by the concept; it sounded to me like “come see poor people in their natural habitat.” A local friend of mine–former struggle vet and child of the Cape Flats–told me the township tours, done properly, not only supported local entrepreneurs but showed people a more textured vision of life in the townships.

    That makes sense to me. To the person who said they’d never go on a tour of a US ghetto: I used to live in a US ghetto and often gave tours to friends and acquaintances, because I wanted them to know my neighborhood was more than urban blight and poverty. We were also the local swimming pool and the African dance class at the community center, the bike shop where kids could learn to repair bicycles and eventually earn one of their own, and the park where the Emancipation Proclamation was first read in Texas. We were Juneteenth barbeques and twilights on the front stoop with my friend, braiding her daughters’ hair and watching our sons play basketball.

    It doesn’t have to be poverty on parade, it can be so much more than that. It can actually enhance dignity, I think, by showing that people are more than a photo in National Geographic.

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