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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.