What do you expect to see when planning a trip to South Africa? A Lion Kingesque setting of orange skies and vast rocks? Perhaps spotting the big 5 in one of the excellent national parks is on your list, or learning more about the great achievements of Nelson Mandela? These were definitely the kind of things I was looking forward to most on my trip to South Africa. However, the biggest highlight of my trip turned out to be something completely different: a Township Tour in Hermanus.
When I took the bus from the airport to Cape Town city, two things struck me the most:
- There were zebras roaming freely at the foothills of the Table Mountain
- The townships next to the Cape Town highway seemed to be never-ending
After an amazing 3 weeks on the road – my girlfriend and I hired a small budget car – we were on our way back to Cape Town via the coastal Garden Route. We planned to stay a night in Hermanus, a small seaside town known for its excellent whale-watching. We stayed at the Zoete Inval Traveller’s Lodge, a quirky hotel that uses recycled materials for bits of its interior and exterior. I could gather from the posters and banners hanging on the walls that the owner seemed to be involved in many local initiatives supporting children and families that live in the city’s townships.
As we check in a sign behind the counter draws our attention: Township tours with Willy. We ask for more information. Willy seems to be an elderly man living in the township of Hermanus. If we would be interested, the lady behind the counter would ring him up and he would take a local taxi from the township to the guesthouse. He would get in our car and we would all drive to his house. We are immediately sold and book the tour for the next morning.
The next day Willy shows up. He had glasses, an honest smile and a walking stick. He squeezed himself into the passenger’s seat and we head off towards the township.
What is a township tour?
The township tour turns out to be much different than I expected. I heard many stories of car-jackings and other crimes and I had been advised many times to ignore red lights and keep car doors and windows locked at any time while driving through a township.
Yet there we were, parking our car at Willy’s house and going for a stroll through the township.
I can definitely see why people would advise that, especially in certain townships (such as big parts of the Cape Town township) and after dawn when things get a bit more grimy. Yet there we were, parking our car at Willy’s house and going for a stroll through the township.
Throughout the tour, I feel like Willy’s just telling us stories like he would be telling it to a friend. He doesn’t really have a set itinerary and we just follow him around, say hi to people he knows, and have a little chat with some of them. Willy is eager to answer the questions we have.
I like to show people how life inside a township really is, without making it into some sort of sensational safari tour, Willy tells us.
“I’ve heard that in other township tours the people are in bulletproof vans with blinded windows, and they only have the opportunity to snap pictures from their “safe” spot”, Willy tells us. “I like to show people how life inside a township really is, without making it into some sort of sensational safari tour”. As Willy has lived in the township for decades, he knows exactly which neighborhoods are best to avoid and which ones are perfectly safe.
Is a township tour safe?
We follow Willy (we were the only ones on the tour) through the streets, hearing his stories about the local communities and the public facilities. Willy has been living in the Zwelihle township for a big part of his life and he knows every neighborhood and seemingly everyone living in it. I keep my camera in my pocket but as I take pictures every few minutes I have it out for most of the tour. It was really mostly a precaution based on all the stories I heard; in reality, I didn’t feel unsafe or out of place for a second.
The only time that made me feel like I was ‘different’ was when we met a teenager and his little brother. Willy introduced us and the boy stuck his hand out for a fist bump. I put my camera in my pocket as a natural reflex to return the friendly gesture. I guess it might have come across a bit like I was hiding my camera; the boy remarked in a somewhat insulted tone: “Why do you hide your camera? I’m not going to rob you”. “I wasn’t….No…”, I stuttered, but as we were already walking on it didn’t really matter what I said.
Life in Zwelihle: a township in Hermanus
As we stroll through different neighborhoods in the Zwelihle township, Willy explains that there are in fact different levels of poverty within the township: “There are a few blocks of houses that are made of concrete and have built-in facilities. The government is building more of these type of houses, but they have a huge waiting list and it can take years before you would be able to be eligible for it”.
Other neighborhoods have been built in a much more improvised fashion, with walls made from scrap wood and corrugated metal roofs. Willy tells us that this is where the poorest residents live; the houses have no heating, electricity, toilet or running water and rely on the public facilities that sometimes can be miles away. The township is lit up at night by the same kind of lights that you would see in a football stadium or construction site. Our guide tells us that it has been installed by the local government to reduce crime and that it has, so far, had the desired effect.
Food programs, education, and jobs
We visit an organization inside the township that provides food for soup kitchens, school children’s lunch packs and 2 meals a day for the families in need. A few local volunteers are making big pots of soup and other ‘scalable’ meals.
We also learn that the education system within the townships is run purely by (foreign and local) volunteers. The lessons are free, but unfortunately, many parents keep their children at home most of the time to help around the house or to run errands. On the other side, there aren’t always enough volunteers to help out, so class sizes can become unmanageable.
There aren’t always enough volunteers to help out in teaching at the schools, so class sizes can become unmanageable.
There is a huge unemployment rate in the townships; most people with jobs are employed in the town of Hermanus and have to commute in and out of their township using the improvised taxi service that doesn’t have fixed routes or time schedules.
The people of Zwelihle
During our walk, many kids ask us for pictures. We happily comply, after some of them throw up a few gang signs (even though most of them are much too young to understand what they mean). Another thing I notice is that even though the conditions are difficult, people have found a way to form a community and to set up a local economy. There are convenient stores, hair salons, schools and many shared taxi vans that people can flag down at any point.
We meet a lovely young lady who has just set up her barber shop. As I go into the small room with a low-ceiling I am impressed by her resourcefulness in finding bits and pieces for the interior, hairdressing equipment, and signage and arranging it in a workable way. “Business is tough this time of year (it was winter in South Africa); people don’t have the money to go to the hairdressers regularly and there is a lot of competition out there”, she tells us. “But it has always been my dream to set up a hair salon so I’m happy that I was able to do it”.
When we ask Willy about the country’s progress in making the townships more livable, he says: “Things will get better if God permits and time allows. If you look at how the situation was 10 or 20 years ago, you can definitely see a positive trend. We need to keep the momentum.”
The tour ends at Willy’s house and he invites us in. His house is in one of the “nicer” neighborhoods: it is made of concrete, it has electricity, running water and even a simple roofed area next to his house that we use as a garage. There are pictures of his wife and children on the walls and we sit down on a well-used couch. We thank him dearly for the unique insight into life inside a South African township and we more than happily pay him the fee for the tour and we include a tip.
Would I recommend doing a township tour in South Africa?
I don’t have to think twice about my answer to this question: I would highly recommend doing a township tour! As I haven’t been on any other township tours in for instance Cape Town, I can’t comment on its quality and experience. However, if you happen to pass Hermanus, make sure you do not miss out on Willy’s Township Tour!