GUEST OR TOURIST? My take on township tourism.

Source: Tayla Gentle 

The second someone says the word “slum” (or any of its location-specific synonyms: township, flavela, etc.) in Europe, a red light turns on, a bell starts ringing and five neighbours leave their house screaming “fire”. From textbooks to newspapers, TV programmes to Facebook, slum is always associated with high poverty, crime, poor to no sanitation, and shacks as the only type of accommodation. So, when a Westerner first comes out of their Western shell, we cannot expect them to be running on the first taxi to Khayelitsha to have a Braai. However, it is our duty as a traveller to be open-minded, to want to visit all aspects of a place, not only the touristy beautiful monuments. Cape Town is not just Clifton and Table Mountain, the same way Rio de Janeiro is not just Ipanema and Cristo Redentor. Therefore, while exploring large cities outside the West, travellers’ awe at the idea of visiting slums has significantly increased. Highly populated, slums are urban areas whose accommodation is often composed of incomplete infrastructure and sometimes lacks basic services. Although a quarter of worldwide urban population lives in such neighbourhoods, they are a foreign reality for most developed countries (except for a few such as Portugal), hence tourists’ wonder when travelling outside of Europe or the United States. While in South Africa, I went to townships (South African specific slums) multiple times. 99% of my visits were invitations from friends. Nevertheless, I had the opportunity to attend one of the well-known township tours whose popularity is growing by the day. Highly controversial, township tours were something I was sceptic to take part in and whose ethics I had always question.

Source: Kami

The hostel I was volunteering for offered two colleagues and I a free township tour as an educational, hoping to help us sell more tours to guests. I did not hide my lack of enthusiasm. There was nothing attractive about the idea of going around listening to a guide telling me how poor the inhabitants of the place were. Nonetheless, curious about how truthful to life in a slum it would be, and since it would be free of charge anyway (believe me when I say I would have not paid for it), I decided to put my prejudice aside and jump on a car to Langa next to a smiley and bubbly local tour guide. Here is how the tour went.

First things first, the choice of vehicle was appreciated. Far too many companies operate through mini-buses that tourists never leave, lurking through the window, collecting snaps for Instagram, basically experiencing townships like they would a museum. In my case, my group and I were in the guide’s personal car, as we would be if we were simply visiting him. Langa being a 15 to 20-minute ride from the CBD, we were listening to our guide explaining that his goal was to show us the area as he experiences it daily while praising slum tourism for helping the community. 

We then followed by viewing different types of housing, from a shack shared by a family of six to a +100-meter-square-house inhabited by the wealthiest people of Langa, “the Beverly Hills of Langa”. My main problem here is that we only entered accommodations with the poorest infrastructure. I know that there is more to a township than a shack and public housing, but a tourist that sees it for the first (and probably only) time does not. It felt museum-like. We were intruding people’s homes, expected to look at them with pity and sadness. And it ends there: ‘these poor people that have less than me that I should pity‘. That is the image that follows tourists on their flight home, perpetuating the idea that Africa is poverty, the idea of the white saviour, both of which are without a doubt problematic.

“There is ethical problems with township tours because there is a lack of information exchange. One person comes in, gets whatever they get but people that they have come to see or view don’t get anything back.” (Khanyisile Mbongwa)

In reality, the one thing that truly felt familiar and reminded me of my own previous experiences in townships, was our meal. A local lady catered the whole group with typical (and not-so-typical) food whose quantity could in fact feed three times more people and that left us all speechless with how delicious it was. And there we were. Six people around a table, discussing while sharing tasty food. Nothing more than that. No sad pitiful faces. We were guests and there was not one minute, one second even, we did not feel welcome.

Source: Tayla Gentle

Being a guest and being a tourist are two very different things. My Remembrance Day, my Day of Reconciliation, my Christmas, my New Year’s Eve (most of my December really), my Pride, to only quote a few, I spent them all in a township. That is why my township tour would never compare to any other moment I spent In Gugulethu, Khayelitsha, Mfuleni, etc. There was no one inequality benefiting from another, no one trying to save anyone. I was simply a guest in someone’s home, the same way I would have been anywhere else.


Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that we should ignore that slums are an issue in terms of urban housing. We must acknowledge that it is a reality. But paying thousands of Rands to a company that is using racism and classism to enrich itself, although it might feel safer than other options, is not the way to do so. That is why I would never encourage a township tour over simply experiencing it how it actually is.

“The majority of those living in the slum question why white people are come to visit them “like monkeys” in a zoo.” (Joanna Sugden)


Here is my advice. If as a tourist, you are interested in visiting slums and do not have the possibility to do so as a guest, do your research first. Make sure you choose a company that is as local as possible, not the first option on Google. Buy local food. Buy local art, jewerly, as much as you possible can. Support the community and empower it. Talk to people. Open your mind. Ask questions. Spend a night (AirBnBs are often available and so are 2-day tours). Do not be a visitor in a museum, looking at a statue that you will publish on your social media. Be interested. And please…do not, I repeat, DO NOT, take a #whitesaviour picture.

IG: @jessicatdlm & @radicalwander 

Twitter: @radical_wander

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