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  • Writer's pictureMandisa Magwaxaza

Tourism vs Poorism

Townships need tourism, Tourism needs townships

There are colourful and vibrant urban hotspots all over South Africa. The people dress in self-determined remixes of the latest fashion trends. They ooze a rich swag. Aromatic smoke creates a haze of anticipation over the sidewalks. The air tastes like the goods on the grill. You’re welcomed into a buzz of music and conversation with an icy drink. The faces around you laugh when they smile, dance when they walk, pose as they stand.

Alexandra to Zwelitsha, New Brighton to Gugulethu, Soshanguve to Soweto and Mdantsane to KwaMashu, Rhini to Mangaung. The kasi energy is a subculture rooted in African indigenous practises, politics, sports, fashion, food, crafts, and community. Some of the dusty facades have been refurbished. Many streets are lined with modern, well-equipped, brick and mortar. Many zones are difficult to navigate. They are jigsaws of unorganised match-box-sized erfs with DIY dwellings that are meant to be temporary.

The people are scattered on various points high-above, above and below the breadline.

Outdoor gyms, playgrounds and churches fill fields where political activists once gathered for freedom-fighting. Young boys race downhill steering old tyres with wooden planks; you’ll cringe in fear for their front teeth, the thrill in their eyes is infectious. A mark of rushed settlement that is common in most South African townships is tall floodlights instead of regular street lamps. If you walk past a few, count how many have their concrete bases strewn with pebbles and chalked circles – ask your guide to teach you that game. I know it as upuca; An indigenous game played with one hand, stones and a drawn circle.

Millennials with degrees hawk, dress hair and tutor their neighbours’ children. Parents and grandparents till would-be sports fields to grow produce for school feeding schemes. Shipping containers become boutiques, barbers, tailors and shoemakers – trading at prices that will impress you. Alive with possibilities and economic hubs shaped by the needs of the people; by the lifestyle. This is the day-to-day behind the low lights on the news. The opportunities created by civilians who work to survive and live by the code of ubuntu.

This story tells of a vision for South African townships. I wish to see the parts of South Africa that are still marred by segregation become celebrated as the legitimate, authentic mirrors of South African culture which they are. As we grapple with the economic disability brought by the Covid-19 pandemic; I watch the poorest citizens struggle more than usual. Handouts and social grants only go so far. The majority of unemployed South Africans live in townships and what they need are economic opportunities. On Friday 24th April South African Minister of Finance, Tito Mboweni said that businesses hoping to open and thrive post Coronavirus lockdown should consider amending their labour market policies to favour unemployed South Africans, but not discriminate against foreign nationals. He cited restaurants and spaza shops. Economic Transformation is a hot topic in South Africa, many forms of which come as a transfer of wealth, land and opportunities to disadvantaged groups of society. I am not as well versed as our Minister in these issues, but I am a South African who lives within and amongst various groups of society and take their concerns to heart. I would like to have more conversations about the creation of new opportunities. Dignified activities that will generate new income streams, new ownership, and grow the money pie instead of cutting it into smaller pieces. I hope that my story will start one of these conversations for the tourism industry.

I recently enjoyed enlightening idea exchanges with four entrepreneurs, three of them from some of the most iconic townships in South Africa. I wanted to hear more about how they built their businesses and how they experienced tourism as an economic sector in townships.

Life in South African townships is a reality unknown to many South Africans and an exoticism enjoyed by few international tourists. The roads to these hotspots are not gated; yet travelled almost only by those who live there. How do we remove the invisible barriers to the townships so that all may see how the majority of South Africans live? Yes, poverty, crime and all their cousins live there, too. They can be alleviated. Local and international tourists can help make it happen by choosing to drive in, enjoy the culture, fun and history. Buy the art, shop the goods, eat the food. Stir localised micro-economies and open access to new income streams that can thrive within these urban subcultures. It is a trip, no guilt. Tourism. Not ‘poorism’.

Read the full article in Tourism, Travel & COVID19: The New Narrative for Southern & Eastern Africa During a Crisis Vortex. The book is edited by Shanaleigh Hebbard, and published by Knowres Publishing. Click here to purchase your copy.

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