Some travelers do it, many don’t and in my opinion, every traveler should. I’m talking about paying a visit to a South African township.
Created during the Apartheid era, these communities, typically located on the outskirts of towns and cities, were designed to house the ‘non-whites’ who were living in what were then designated as ‘white-only’ parts of the country. Of course, these individuals were forcibly removed from their homes and placed into these segregated townships, most of which suffered from a severe lack of basic services.
Today, millions of people live in these townships as a result and there is apparently still some forced relocation taking place as the government tries to move people out of the shanty towns that still exist. And while some townships have fared well and even include a growing middle-class, the majority are still suffering from poor infrastructure and problems with education, among other issues such as gang violence.
Based upon that very brief description, I wouldn’t be surprised if your initial reaction would be to avoid visiting one of these communities during a visit to South Africa. Instead, you may prefer, as many travelers do, to visit a ‘cultural village’ which is a village created specifically for tourists in order to display the traditional cultures and customs of the people who have inhabited this region for, well, a very long time. The most well-known of such groups would be the Zulus.
But during our trip, we skipped the cultural villages. After all, a cultural village is similar to a museum, and while there’s nothing wrong with visiting a museum, it doesn’t offer an opportunity to see what life is like today, right now, for so many South Africans.
And even though this reality might be difficult for many travelers to see, that’s part of the learning experience.
However, I must admit to myself that this was not exactly how I felt at first when, during our visit to the eastern part of South Africa, we spent an afternoon visiting a Zulu township located in the heart of KwaZulu-Natal province.
NOT A GOOD START
When our vehicle turned off the main road and onto a dusty, dirt street a few kilometers outside of the town of St. Lucia, I immediately felt terribly uncomfortable. We had entered Khula township and I could not help but feel like such a tourist, as if I were here to gawk as an outsider and take a few photos of people that look different from me. I fidgeted in my seat, nodded awkwardly to the locals walking by and spent several minutes with my head down, fully aware that our small group stuck out only as a group of tourists know how to do.
It all seemed so wrong and so I just braced myself for what I assumed would be a most difficult afternoon.
A short distance down the road, our driver, a local Zulu from this very township, stopped the vehicle in front of a simple building. It turned out that this was a community centre that feeds and clothes dozens of orphans from the area, but I still couldn’t stop myself from hesitating for a few moments before joining the others who had entered the gate that led to a small courtyard.
But when I did enter the gate, and the dozens of energetic children came running up to all of us, shaking our hands and wanting to talk with us, I suddenly began to realize that this was not some tourist attraction after all, but a slice of reality that I really did need to see for myself.
The children were incredibly welcoming and so full of life, and they appeared so genuinely excited by our presence. I couldn’t help but smile as they piled on top of me, every child wanting to get into every photo that was being taken. In fact, the children were the ones insisting that the photos be taken, and they were also taking many of the photos themselves, politely asking for our cameras and for a quick lesson on how to use them, and then stepping back and snapping away.
Naturally, with all of the chatting, laughing and photo taking, our twenty minute stop passed quickly and when we finally pulled ourselves away from the courtyard, and I stepped back out of the gate, I had a completely different perspective about visiting a township. I now felt comfortable with the idea of interacting with everyone around me as these children helped break down that imaginary and unfortunate barrier that is sometimes created between visitors and locals all over the world.
After this experience, and as we continued to drive through the dusty streets, I found that my awkward nods had turned into waves and ‘sawubonas’, both of which were returned to me by everyone we encountered. And this was especially the case when we arrived, without warning, at the home of our driver, where we were greeted by his family, who had collectively cooked up a feast for our group.
We were invited into the home and we all sat down in the modest dining room where we ate fresh curries, salads and delicious beans in condensed milk. Keep in mind, this was not a house designed to accommodate tour groups, this was someone’s actual home, and everyone, from the family to the neighbors, seemed so interested and sincere in their desire to show us a slice of their lives.
We were able to ask questions and see with our own eyes how the people of these communities lived and interacted with each other. And despite the poverty, not a single person in our group, and not a single person we came across, had anything but a smile on their face.
MY CHANCE TO BE A WARRIOR
Upon completing our lunch, our group went for a short walk until we reached an area that was indeed set up for visitors, or at least the few visitors that trickle into Khula township. We took our seats on some logs scattered around and we joined the handful of local residents who came out of their homes to watch the performance as well.
What we watched was a group of ten orphaned boys give a display of traditional Zulu warrior dances. These boys actually spend most of their time, every day, practicing and performing these dances in order to help ensure that certain aspects of their culture did not disappear with the passing of time.
And not only did we get a chance to see this traditional dance in action, a couple of us were even invited (or maybe forced) to participate as well.
Matt (ExpertVagabond.com) and I suddenly found ourselves lined up with the Zulu boys in front of the small crowd, and we were instructed to simply follow along with the dancing as best we could. I was able to handle this part but it all went downhill as soon as we had to display our own individual versions of a Zulu warrior dance.
Let’s just say that I’m not much of a dancer, especially when it comes to pre-battle displays of aggression, but I gave it a try anyway…
Quite horrendous I know. You should have seen the faces of the local women who were watching. If they were drinking milk at the time, it certainly would have come out of their noses.
A WORTHWHILE EXPERIENCE
What I’m really trying to say with this post is that I do recommend a visit to a township when you’re in South Africa. While it may seem like a touristy and possibly uncomfortable thing to do at first, there are plenty of townships, such as Khula, that rarely see foreigners and are more than welcoming towards visitors.
And as a result, you have an opportunity to not only observe how millions of South Africans currently live, but you have a chance to interact with and learn from the local residents as well.
As you know, my travels are all about human connections and to be able to shake a hand and share a laugh with a Zulu woman or man with whom I would never have come into contact with had I never traveled, is just another life highlight for me, and another educational experience that I will never forget.
So, if you don’t treat the township as a tourist attraction, it simply won’t be one. Don’t feel uncomfortable. Just extend your hand and converse with the people around you. And then, you too will soon discover that such a visit just may be the most challenging, eye-opening and memorable experience of your trip to South Africa.
Our group’s visit to Khula township was arranged through Mandy Heritage Tours & Safaris, a reputable tour operator that knows how to provide unique cultural experiences for visitors to the St. Lucia region.
Have you been to a township? Would you consider visiting one on a trip to South Africa?
[…] the Township of Khula and Have a Traditional Zulu […]
i love that the tour group you were with took the time to take you to the townships…truly as hard as the situation was for you at first its a part of south africa of past and and hopefully shaping its future by bringing attention to the proverty of some townships..besides them seeing ur zula warrior dance will make sure that future generations will keep practicing and keeping their traditions alive.
I just stumbled upon your blog, and coincidentally I just got back from a two month trip to SA! Most of my friends recommended I stay in Camp’s Bay, the Waterfront, Simon’s Town, etc. But, I ended up staying in Athlone, a Cape Town township. This was the first time that I had traveled outside of the normal “tourist” box, and now I cannot imagine traveling any other way. The real-life, everyday experiences I had in Athlone far surpassed any contrived tourist experience skimming over the country’s true state. I am really enjoying reading about your out of the box travel experiences- thanks for sharing!
Thank you Hannah for visiting the site and every time I hear that someone else was in South Africa, I can’t stop thinking about the amazing experiences I had there as well. I’m glad you were able to get such a unique perspective with your stay in Athlone. It seems as if that was exactly what you were looking for, and the good news is that in South Africa, you can easily get away from the main tourist destinations (as you discovered!).
No language barrier? I know some parts of South Africa are English speeking, but I would assume it wouldn’t be the same in a township.
Hey Samantha – Even in the townships English was widely-spoken. Whether it was adults or children, we had no problem getting by using only English.
Thanks for the article, I am thrilled I found your site.
I visited South Africa in Nov and Dec 2010, We were staying at a reserve outside of Richards Bay and we got the travel agent at the lodge to take us to a local township, so off 8 of us went to a local farm where the grooms family was coming to meet the bride to be families. This culture is amazing. We watched in awe as they came down the road 50 or so strong singing and dancing and than the brides family lead by the father came out of the houses to meet and greet them, for the next 2 hours they and we danced and laughed and praised the bride, than it was time for them to eat and us to leave. This was a experience of a life time, I will return again and thanks for the link on the travel agent.
Sounds like quite an experience Candy. Seemed like you arrived at just the right time in order to catch such a glimpse of the true culture of that township.
[…] There is plenty to see and do in iSimangaliso Wetland Park. You can choose a half or full day safari including lunch with Heritage Tours. There’s also hippo-viewing boat cruises and kayaking available on Lake St. Lucia as well as evening beach and turtle tours. In the quaint downtown area you’ll find a variety of restaurants as well as local artisan shopping. And no trip to South Africa would be complete without a big game drive and visiting a local township. […]
First, I just found your blog and am so excited to read through it, this is the first post I’ve come across.
Second, I was recently in South Africa a few months ago, mainly around Cape Town, and one piece of advice we were given was to visit a township. My travel partner and I decided to make other plans because at the time, without knowing much about them, we thought that visiting a township would be invasive, uncomfortable, almost as if it was a tour to “gawk at the poor people”. We had this notion that these would be tours set up by the government to make money off of a seemingly not so savory part of the SA culture and the townspeople would not appreciate our presence either. After reading your post, it seems like an incredible experience and I am sorry we did not take advantage of that opportunity while in South Africa. I plan on visiting the friends I made while in SA soon, though, so that mental note has been made.
Third, I have a somewhat comical story to share with you. While in SA, we made a trip to Stellenbach and the surrounding wine country, and our guide was a petite, absolutely crazy, 40 year old white woman who could talk for days and loved blasting and dancing to South African hip-hop. She told us the story of when she was a child growing up near a township. If i remember correctly (without referencing my journal), her dad used to go into the township on a weekly basis to buy some food and especially spices that he considered better than he could get anywhere else. Once a month, her dad would take her and her little brother along with him into the township, but they had to duck and hide in the car because it was not allowed for them to be in the township. She considered that such an exciting treat when she was little, her and her brother being “smuggled” into the township. It is interesting to note the differences that a few decades can make on a country, as well as the similarities such as townships still existing.
Hey Sam – We each have our own experiences so I’m sure that next time you’ll visit one of the townships. I thought it would be just like you described as well but was quite happy to discover that it was completely different than that. And that is an interesting story about your guide in the wine region…I would imagine there are endless tales to be told that most of us travelers would never hear!
Nice try, hahaha.
Hey Earl, that balance between feeling like an oogling tourist and experiencing a slice of local life is hard to achieve. I have had the same feelings as you more than one.
Still the experience looks unbelievable! Your dance isn’t quite there yet though 😉
Hey Forest – It is a most difficult balance and one that I am often uncomfortable with. At the end of the day, it should be about tourists and locals interacting, and if that takes place, then it’s a much different story. Otherwise, that uncomfortable barrier is there where tourists are just on the outside taking photos and that’s the extent of the experience.
Oh wow. What a terrifying dance! 😉
I’m glad you wrote about this, Earl, and about your fears going into it. I totally understand that – being worried that what you’re involved in might cross that fine line between education and exploitation. Because it certainly is a fine line. But, in this case, it doesn’t seem like this township is trying to “sell” itself to tourists. Instead, it’s welcoming them in and showing them something a little more authentic. And, really, without visitors like yourself, some of those traditions like the Zulu war dances might actually die out! A perfect example of tourism actually helping a community preserve itself. Great post!
Hey Amanda – Describing my dance as terrifying is the best compliment I could receive…mission successful! And the Khula township certainly wasn’t trying to sell itself. The people were really just open to the idea of allowing visitors to learn about their lives and see how their township operates. This is definitely the reason I ended up feeling more comfortable in the end.
Small correction – The very first “Black Townships” were actually created by the Second Boer War. The British put the Boer and black South Africans into segragated Concentration Camps. After the war the Boers returned to their destroyed farms to start again while many of the Black South Africans remained where they were.
Meeting different people and the experiences that come with it, is the highlight of travelling. 🙂 I’m gonna keep this post in mind when I make that trip to South Africa.
PS: You can totally make peace with that warrior dance. 😉
Hey Usha – Haha…maybe the dance would lead to laughter and everyone on both sides would throw down their weapons as a result 🙂 Merry Christmas to you as well!
Really enjoyed this story. A lot of times we say we want to see “the real _____,” but we do not know where to look or are afraid of what we may find. Learning about the recent history and traditions of a place is great, but actually getting to experience with the people is so much more rewarding.
Hey Stephanie – Agreed! And this is why people are often surprised when I say that I don’t go to museums often and I simply prefer to walk outside every day and see what happens. Even if it doesn’t seem as interesting at first, I much prefer to observe and experience what life is actually like for those living in a country. Glad to know you feel the same!
Wow. Thank you for writing about all this. It reminds me of how I loved my six week trip in Asia (S Korea, Japan, Taiwan, China, HOng Kong) in 1987 when i was 17…it was an organized trip yet what I loved most about being over there is that people were so proud of what they had and ever friendly. 🙂 Yes, when I have the means to get over to Africa I would go visit as many things off the beaten path thatI can. I love doing whatever comes up and welcoming it (well, i did when i used to travel and will when i can again). Again, thanks for the awesome sharing 🙂
Hey Marina – That’s the beautiful part…far from the world being dangerous, I usually find that no matter where I am, the people are welcoming and more than interested in allowing me to learn about their culture and lifestyle. And that’s the best opportunity to learn so we should always take advantage of such situations as much as we can when overseas!
I second Darlene. I love the way you travel, and the way you write about it.
I appreciate that Ellen 🙂
I second Matthew, I bet other warriors would have been running the other way. I’m liking all the videos lately!
Thanks Stephen! Matt does have a point there. I think even the small audience started running away during my dance as well. Luckily it only lasted 15 seconds.
This experience is exactly why I WOULD go to South Africa. It is definitely all about the human connections, and I really love this story. And the dance, of course. Top notch!
Hey Dalene – Those human connections do make the difference and a township is one place to really meet people that we would otherwise never encounter!
Your dance skills would definitely scare off invading warriors from a rival tribe!
Hey Matt – I suppose that might be true. Perhaps the Zulu warriors could have learned something from me!
Seriously best dance ever!!!!!!
Good Show Earl, I haven’t been to South Africa, yet, much less a township. However, I have experienced your feelings when in Thailand visiting a Hill Tribe village. We were taken there by a taxi cab driver who we had hired for the day to take us to unplanned places not on our list of things to see or do. The village we visited wasn’t specifically set up for tourists but they definitely were set up to sell their crafts. I/we don’t ordinarily use tour operators to help us be travelers. I just like to do encounters by myself. I like to wander around neighborhoods and talk to people without it being a staged affair. It’s my serendipity. I love experiences that just happen. I’m a good planner but sometimes the best plans will only get you what’s in the guide book, the same thing that everyone else gets that reads the same book.
As a traveler, you have the time to let things happen not on an itinerary. If you’re on a short vacation, that’s different. Things have to click right along so you don’t think you’re wasting time doing nothing. if you “plan” to allow unplanned things to happen, sooner or later they will. And they’re the best kind.
Earl, I envy the trip you’re on at present and understand your circumstances. But I’ll enjoy even more when you get back to the “wandering Earl” type of travels and descriptions of your non-planned adventures. These type of stories set you apart from the other “Travel Writers”.
You go Earl!
Hey Steve – I’m of course usually the same way as I love to just wander into any part of a town and see what happens. It seems that by the time I get back to my hotel/guesthouse in the evening, something interesting almost always has happened and I’ve at least learned a great deal. In a place like South Africa, certain things are difficult to do on your own though. I would not have been able to get to or around this township without something organized. Sometimes that’s just how it goes I guess and I’m still happy because the alternative, those cultural villages, would not have been something I’d be too interested in.
And don’t worry, I’ll be back to my independent travels! Actually, I already am as I am now in Bucharest 🙂
You’re right, in that you take experiences from every angle. Different locations sometimes require plan B or even C.
Have a Merry Christmas, as I know what it’s like to be away from home and family, in another culture for Christmas.