Discover the new South Africa. Visitors to Cape Town are seduced by the pristine white beaches, mountains and winelands. Too few experience the ubuntu (hospitality) of the townships.
In the late 1920s South Africa’s Nationalist government decreed that South Africans should be segregated by skin color. Black and Cape colored people were moved from their homes in what became “white areas” and relocated on a windswept, sandy plain on the outskirts of Cape Town. Here, in adverse conditions and extreme poverty, they established close-knit communities.
Doors – always open for neighbors – are today open to tourists. The traditional hospitality of these communities can be shared over a home-cooked meal, in an overnight stay in a bed-and breakfast establishment, or simply sipping a drink in a neighborhood tavern while listening to live jazz. For township jazz was born in the taverns: a pulsating mix of styles and rhythms blending the sounds of Mbanqanga with percussion, marimba and the penny-whistle kwela.
It is not advisable for tourists to visit the townships without an accredited guide. As in any country, a stranger is a target for con-artists and criminals. Here, a white face is a rarity. So join a tour. Muse-Art Journeys will expose you to the life – and soul – of the community.
You board a bus in Cape Town’s prime tourist attraction: the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, where the city’s working docks have been extended into a sophisticated shopping and entertainment area. Your tour is conducted by an English-speaking guide who grew up in the townships, can explain the history and introduce you to locals.
As the bus turns off the highway out of Cape Town, you enter a new landscape of cramped houses and narrow roads. Dogs scratching in the sand. No trees or grass.
Friendly waves and smiles mark your route. Immediately you alight, you are surrounded by bright-eyed urchins, eager to escort you on your way. There is no sense that the community is on display. Residents are genuinely happy to welcome tourists, for visitors contribute money towards upliftment.
To the musicians, your presence means payment. All those recruited by Muse-Arts Journeys are self-taught and unemployed. Rather than give in to idleness and depression, they have formed small bands. Their talent deserves encouragement.
Tours do not follow a set pattern, but vary according to the interests of the group. You could join an interactive session on traditional and indigenous musical instruments, or a barrier-breaking tavern drumming circle, where you are presented with a traditional drum and led through hand movements and rhythms until you are capable of a crescendo.
Visits can take in a crafts center, where the vivid motifs on ceramics and printed cloths show naïve spontaneity and joy in creation. Among township entrepreneurs is an untrained craftsman who, with primitive tools, recycles tin cans from refuse dumps, shaping the metal into elegant flowers, which are then hand-painted by his daughters.
Should you wish to try traditional fare in Slow Food style, a meal can be prepared for you, but be warned: African food is heavy in starch – steamed bread, “pap” (stiff porridge) and “samp” (crushed corn) are staples, often served with curried offal. A more popular meal is a Western-style buffet, with something for all tastes, including vegetarians.
Dinner venues include a family home in Langa, the oldest-established township. Opened to visitors by a friendly mother-and-daughter cooking team, the spotless rooms, furnished in Western taste (there is even a Van Gogh print in one of the dining rooms) are testimony to enterprise that overcomes poverty.
This initiative is also shown in township bed & breakfast establishments, where transport back to your car or hotel is arranged after breakfast, shared African-style with the family. At one guest house in Guguletu (Gugs in township parlance), an arms-wide welcome awaits visitors, who are offered breakfast, lunch and dinner, or a traditional barbecue. Rooms with sink-into-comfort beds, are as bright, ebullient and as well upholstered as the delightful hostess. There’s even a honeymoon suite with the luxury of an en-suite bathroom. Fittingly, the cheerful ambience is reflected in a recent change of name: from Salmonberry House to Luyolo, which translates as “fun”.
And that – plus upliftment – is what township tours are all about.
Tours Wednesday and Friday. Departure 6.00pm. Return 11.00pm. Rates (all-inclusive except drinks) R260 per person. Booking essential. Muse-Art Journeys, tel +27.21.919-9168, or e-mail [email protected] . Bed & Breakfast rates (including transfers and tour) from R524 to R864 per person, for groups of two to six. Reservations +27.21.426-4260 or http://www.cape, www.cape-town.org .
Jos Baker is a food and wine, journalist. She has written numerous books and contributes to Wine Magazine.
Photo: Hugh Masakela