February 19, 2018


The real costs of NHS contracting out -

Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Magic Money Tree -

Saturday, November 4, 2017

The Housing Wonderland by Ian Lewis -

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Will STPs finally wreck the NHS? -

Sunday, June 18, 2017

STPs – A new way to wreck the NHS -

Friday, February 17, 2017

Taking the Township to the Tourist


Township Tourism is unique to South Africa and it attempts to defy the old tourism adage that tourists spend most of their money within walking distance of their accommodation. There are other examples in other countries where tourists pay to visit an indigenous population but none has the political significance of the townships, which were the base for both the civil disobedience and the armed struggle used to fight and eventually overthrow apartheid.

Township Tourism is perceived to involve large numbers of tourists and is the main policy mechanism for township inhabitants to benefit from tourism. This has not happened and the question is why.

Nearly 20% of all visitors to South Africa undertake a cultural, historical or heritage visit on their trip. However, this figure raises to 43.6% when Business, Shopping, Medical, VFR and other non-holiday tourists are excluded(2011 Annual Tourism Report p58/9).1  However, this idea of culture, historical and heritage tourism promoted by the United Nation World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO )is a very wide area and includes performing arts, museums, and historical and heritage sites (Irma Booyens 2010).2 To include township tourism in this category means that there are not accurate figures for numbers or spend for township tourism.

Irma Booyens (2010)2 conducted research in Soweto and concluded ‘that township tourism can promote socioeconomic regeneration and pro-poor development, but only if it is developed responsibly and the benefits are spread more widely’. This paper argues that even if this is done and there is the political will it is highly unlikely that township tourism can make any significant contribution to socioeconomic regeneration. To make a contribution means understanding tourism and this leads to a process called Taking the Township to the Tourist.

Literature Review

The period after the historic 1994 election of Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) government spawned a great amount academic literature about township tourism. This literature can be seen as a part of the studies of pro-poor tourism, sustainable tourism and cultural tourism, which became popular at the same time and developed ideas about ways that the traditional trickle down of tourism could be improved and the benefits delivered directly to the poor.

C.M. Rogerson (2004)3, identified tourism as a key local economic development (LED) and Tony Binns and Etienne Nel (2002)4 , looked at two particular developments, Still Bay in the Western Cape and Utrecht in Kwa Zula Natal. However, they offer no concrete figures on visitor numbers or visitor spend or on the successful establishment of tourism based local businesses. In fact they admit that the game park initiative in Utrecht only restored a few of the thousands of jobs lost from the mining industry.

PPT Pilots Project in Southern Africa May 20045, supported by Southern Sun Hotels, identified the many problems faced by township tourism operators and recommended township co-operatives and stronger links with the formal tourism industry. There was the suggestion that Southern Sun could assist with the marketing but the reality is that this initiative has failed, one of many that has failed to deliver tourists to the townships.

Some of the reasons for township tourism failing may well be in the structure of South African tourism and J. Saarinen (2004)6 observed that a destination ‘contains features from the present, traces from the past, and signs of future changes.’ There are many features from apartheid tourism in today’s tourism and they are not only harmful to townships benefitting from tourism but to the tourism industry as a whole.

 An overview of South African tourism

Are the politicians and tourism officials aware that township tourism doesn’t work?

This is an almost impossible question to answer. So much political capital has been invested in township tourism that it is possible that many politicians and officials are, to some extent, in a state of denial. It is also possible that one of the long term effects of apartheid was a tourism industry severely out of kilter with the rest of the world.

Albert Grundlingh (2006)8 from the University of Stellenbosch is one of the very few academics to have studied tourism under apartheid and three of the features he identifies as being part of apartheid tourism are still present today. Firstly, the apartheid government wanted high income tourists not the mass market tourism that became prevalent from the 60s. Today this is manifest in the 5 star game lodges and safari parks and also in the continuing lack of an air access strategy that allows charter/low cost flights from Europe. South Africa has positioned itself as an up market destination, it does not want Europe’s hoi polloi, but the reality is that it is numbers that township tourism needs.

Secondly, the apartheid government built and run basic/spa type resorts under the brands such as ‘Adventura’ to promote holidays for the white lower middle class that can be characterised as self-drive, self-catering and self-sufficient. These types of resorts still exist today but with upgraded facilities and they tend to be in unspoilt areas such as the Wild Coast and off the beaten track. Viewed from the outside they are like prisons except the security is to keep the locals out! The tourists do not use the local facilities but bring everything, including food with them. What they do not bring they will purchase from the camp shop, which will be stocked to meet the needs of its white Afrikaner clients. A few menial jobs are the benefits that domestic tourism brings to some of the poorest rural areas.

These rural areas highlight the third feature identified by Grundlingh (p117), which was the promotion by the apartheid government of tourism to the ‘so called homelands’ Ciskei, Transkei (the Wild Coast) and the most well-known Sun City in Bophutatswana. The pretence of the homelands being independent countries allowed forbidden fruits to be offered to the white South African market. Casinos allowed gambling, pornographic films were shown and there was prostitution across the colour line. Today, there is still casino tourism except the number of casinos has increased and most are now situated in or near major urban conurbations.

Why Township Tourism?

Most ANC politicians began life in a township and the older ones were active in their opposition to apartheid, often called ‘the struggle’. They are proud of their heritage and proud of the role the townships played in the overthrow of apartheid. It is natural that they want to create and recreate the townships that were so important to their own development in their formative years. Part of this is manifest in the museums, heritage and cultural centres and theatre created in townships. There is Red Museum, one of the oldest townships of Port Elizabeth, http://www.nmbt.co.za/listing/red_location_museum.html and most recently the 150 million Rand (£12.5 million) Soweto Theatre opened this year and is confidently expected to be a tourist attraction.  http://www.joburg.org.za/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=8075:excitement-greets-new-soweto-theatre&catid=88:news-update&Itemid=266

How many tourists visit Red Museum? Not many and currently the option of building a hotel nearby is being explored as a way of bringing visitors to the museum and utilising its conference and other facilities. How many is not many? No one knows for the truth is that that there are no records of numbers of township tourists to any particular township. All that can be done is speak to all the township tour operators in a particular area and ask for their numbers. When this has been done and the numbers added up, the total is depressingly small.

Every year there is a tourism fair in Durban, called an Indaba http://www.indaba-southafrica.co.za and every year there are township tour operators brought to Durban, provided with stands and the politicians will proclaim how many more township tour operators are exhibiting compared to last year. However, there is no follow up to find out whether any of the meetings produced new business and some view Indaba as nothing more than a cynical publicity exercise.

The Target Markets

‘With the tourism industry, there are significant numbers coming to Vilakazi Street, interested in the liberation story.’ This is a quote from Steven Sack, director of arts, culture and heritage for Johannesburg.7 He was referring to the potential, target market for the Soweto Theatre but what are significant numbers. Certainly, Irma Booyens2 does not consider there are significant numbers coming to Vilakazi Street or anywhere else in Soweto. The problem, as always, is that there are no accurate figures but it is worth considering the target markets.

It is now over 20 years since apartheid ended so that anyone that remembers apartheid and was, maybe, active in the anti-apartheid movement will now be approaching 50, at least. This has been and is still natural market for township tourism but it is not a large market and it is a a dying market!

That large percentage of tourists who make a cultural, historical or heritage visit must be a target market. Some will be interested in the liberation struggle but most will be more interested that the townships have township jazz, they have the choirs, they have dancing (including gumboot dancing from the mines), they have theatre, they have arts and crafts, they have beautiful colourful traditional clothes, they have the sangomas (medicine women/traditional healers/fortune tellers) who throw the bones, they have their own cuisine and they even have their own beer, an acquired taste!!

Many tourists would enjoy some of these activities and some of these activities, especially the music and dancing, lend themselves to the evening, to food and a drink. However, many township tours are in the day when there are competing tourism attractions, even the beach or pool for sun starved Europeans. By the evening the tourist are not keen to trek to the township with its lack of facilities but they will walk across the road.

Taking the Township to the Tourist

Ideally, there should be a venue convenient to the main hotels in the centre of each tourism destination. It will be a place where all the local townships can showcase their music, dance, arts and crafts on a regular basis, preferably nightly in the main tourist season. Ideally, the venue should be co-operatively owned by the townships but if the finance is not available then hiring a theatre or a function room from a hotel will work.

Ideally, the venue should be able to serve food and be licensed for the sale of alcohol and for music and dancing. There should be an area where arts and crafts will be on sale and a sangoma is present. Tourists will pay an inclusive price for the food and the show and extra for drinks.

If this were to happen it is quite possible that foreign business travellers will find this preferable than another night on their own in a hotel room that looks the same the whole world over.


In 2011(2011 Annual Tourism Report p17/18)1 there were 2.16 million long haul arrivals in South Africa and 1.28 million were from Europe. After stripping out business, medical, religious, shopping and VFR travel some 50% were there for a holiday and the target market for township tours. This would mean that from Europe some 250,000 clients would be expected to take a cultural, heritage or historical tour. If they all took a township tour that would be only 700 tours a day for the whole of South Africa, every township from the Cape Town to Durban via Port Elizabeth and up to Jo’burg!!

Even the 20% of the total number of long haul arrivals would only give some 400,000 tours just over 1,000 tours a day for the whole of South Africa.

This is South Africa’s tourism contradiction; it wants to be an up market destination but that doesn’t produce enough tourists for township tours to be successful over the whole of South Africa. Soweto is the largest and the best known township, it has the political history, but as Irma Booyens (2010)2 has shown even Soweto has a long way to go to be successful with township tourism.

The last 20 years has seen the South African tourism trying to catch up with the rest of the world and, at the same time, develop their own unique products. National parks have been expanded and developed, the prison on Robben Island has become a tourist attraction and a great deal of money and effort has been put into township tourism.

Some of that money and effort needs to now be used to finally end some of the restrictions placed on South African tourism by its apartheid heritage. There needs to finally be a real  increase in air access to bring in more tourists and to take the township to the tourist.

Michael Gold,

August 2012

1.             South African Tourism – Strategic Research Unit – 2011 Annual Tourism Report

2.             Irma Booyens, Rethinking Township Tourism: Development Southern Africa Vol 27 No 2 June 2010.

3.             C.M. Rogerson, Urban tourism and small tourism enterprise development in Johannesburg: The case of township tourism: Geojournal Vol 3 (2004) p249-257

4.             Tony Binns and Etienne Nel , Tourism as a local development strategy in South Africa – The Geographic Journal Vol 168 No 3 September 2002 p235-247

5.             PPT Pilots Project in Southern Africa May 2004

6.             J. Saarinen, ‘“Destinations in Change”: The Transformation Process of Tourist Destinations’, Tourist Studies, 4, 2 (2004), 174.

7.             The Guardian, 3rd May 2012.

8.             Albert Grundlingh, Revisiting the ‘Old’ South Africa: Excursions into South Africa’s Tourist History under Apartheid, 1948-1990.  South African Historical Journal, 56 (2006), 103–122

Leave A Comment