South Africa is a beautiful, vibrant country that has struggled to overcome the dark history of apartheid. In planning my trip, I struggled with whether or not to take a tour of the townships. While township touring is very common and generate revenue for the people who live there, I didn't want to be a voyeur. I was reminded of the mixed feelings I had towards motorcoach tours through the devastated Ninth Ward of post-Katrina New Orleans. In the end I decided to go with a small black owned tour company with roots in the community for a more authentic, less invasive experience and deeper understanding of township life.
We began with a trip to the townships of Khayelistsha and Langa which sit in the Cape Flats, an area just outside the city center near the airport. From the outside the townships appear to be miles of tin shacks and poverty. Surprisingly, amidst the tin shanties were some modest brick homes and expensive cars; not all township residents live in extreme poverty. While many residents are poor, the townships are such vibrant communities with schools, churches, and businesses. We visited a local church and community center and a bed and breakfast where economic empowerment and education are encouraged. We drank homemade "beer" with some locals and played games with the children.
We also spent some time at the District Six Museum, a museum devoted to a once thriving multicultural area of Cape Town whose black and colored residents were forced out of their homes by the government into the townships. Family pictures, letters, street signs, and documents serve as a remembrance to the era of apartheid and to the people and cultures who lived in the area.
Overall I'm glad I chose to visit to the townships. I did at times feel somewhat like a voyeuristic tourist, but in the end it was an informative, interactive and socially conscious morning. After our morning in the township we boarded the ferry to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years. Today, the prison is no longer in use; instead it's a museum dedicated to the struggle for freedom. Some of the tour guides are former prisoners; some former guards. Our tour was given by an ex-political prisoner who was charged with treason and terrorism for opposing apartheid. He explained to us what life was like in the prison, where segregation and the rules of apartheid reached beyond the prison walls. We toured the grounds before visiting Mandela's cell.
At the end of the tour, he moved me to tears as he described his supreme respect for Mandela, his love of South Africa and his ultimate forgiveness of the government and the very guards who persecuted him. A moving experience and one of the highlights of my trip!