Poverty tourism brings cash to SA townships

Seeing buses full of tourists looking for a glimpse of South African poverty, squatter camp resident Lawrence Rolomana decided to try to earn a share of the cash they were spending.

Bored and jobless, the 22-year-old approached the tour guides and asked: “Can you please share your guests with us?”

He suggested showing the visitors around the camp where he lives, offering them more than just a fleeting glimpse from the road. “No problem,” he was told, “as long as you bring them back in one piece.”

Attracting tourists might seem a daunting task for someone living in a squatter camp in Soweto township, on the edge of Johannesburg, the world’s most dangerous city outside a war zone.

However, Rolomana and his friends now take hundreds of mostly Western visitors, keen to see the grim side of the new South Africa, around their community every week.

The tiny shacks in the Motsoaledi camp have no water and no electricity. Parents and children share a few square metres, possibly one table, one bed and a television set powered by a car battery. There are no museums and no obvious tourist attractions.

Before tours were organised, visitors on their way to see the house of former president Nelson Mandela in Soweto, the crucible of the anti-apartheid struggle, were already stopping by for a glimpse from the safety of their buses.

Four years later, after working with residents on security and tour-guiding skills, professional guides are happy with the arrangement.

So are Rolomana and 20 other residents who share the work.

Touring the settlement is free. But Rolomana can make up to R100 in tips on a good day—taking visitors on a short stroll down the narrow alleys, visiting a shack and watching residents coming and going and collecting water at one of the communal water taps.

That is equivalent to roughly a day’s pay for a security guard protecting an apartment compound in a wealthy suburb.

Growing numbers

Growing numbers of tourists are visiting townships such as Soweto between safaris and trips to the beach at Cape Town.

Do the poor, black residents resent the much wealthier, often white, tourists coming to stare at their poverty?

Many say they don’t.

Desmond (42), who moved to Soweto from the Eastern Cape and lives in a few square metres with his wife and four children, tries to survive with the odd day job. He welcomes the extra cash.

“I feel happy because people can help us. It feels all right, no problem,” he said. Visitors, leaving after exchanging a few words, sometimes leave a banknote when shaking his hand.

Outside in the alley, Adili (17), who goes to school, said: “It is a good thing, because most of the time they give us something.”

Some visitors were uneasy, however.

“I did not need to see what a squatter camp looks like,” said Belgian tourist Lieve Vantecom, who said she preferred visiting the part of Soweto related to the anti-apartheid struggle.

Another problem became apparent when a child arrived with his hand outstretched, the only person begging during a 20-minute visit. There is a risk that schoolchildren might be tempted to play truant for the chance of a few coins.

Professional guide Antonio Vukman said visitors usually wanted to see the camps but money was a problem and tours needed to be better organised, with a fixed price.

“People hammer on their poverty, they ask for money ... it lacks structure,” he said. “Tours may take Soweto out of their trip if people complain about being compelled to give money.”—Reuters



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