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Township Tourism Allows Foreigners to See Legacy of South Africa Apartheid

The beaches, boutiques and vineyards of Cape Town make it one of South Africa's top destinations for tourists. But many visitors are adding a different type of attraction to their holiday stay. They are visiting the sprawling townships where many blacks still live in apartheid-era conditions. For VOA, Terry FitzPatrick reports on the growing popularity of township tourism.

"Come through, come through," said Mngqibisa, a tourist agent.

Six tourists from Germany are standing in a place you do not see pictured on the cover of South Africa's tourist brochures. This old hostel for migrant workers is now overflowing with families.

"The room here was designed to be shared by just the three men. But today you actually find three families sharing the room here," Mngqibisa said. "Family for here. Family for there. And, a family for the one bed."

Cinga Mngqibisa grew up just around the corner. Now working for Cape Rainbow Tours, he brings foreigners to see his old neighborhood. His goal is simple.

"Give them a complete picture about South Africa," Mngqibisa said. "The majority of people, this is where they live."

Millions of South Africans still reside in sub-standard housing in racially-segregated communities. The idea of bringing tour groups here started more than a decade ago, as an effort to foster racial reconciliation. The goal was for white South Africans to witness, first-hand, what apartheid created. But few South Africans ever signed up. Now, township travel focuses on international tourists.

For three hours, this group from Germany tours through the lasting legacy of apartheid, along unpaved streets, past shacks without water or electricity and through parks littered with broken glass. Tourist Britta Duerschlag says signs of neglect are everywhere.

"I'm really shocked about the state these townships are in, because I don't understand that townships are so dirty," Duerschlag said.

Tourist Michael Inacker wonders how long people can wait for life to improve.

"Many Africans are saying things are changing slowly, slowly, slowly," Inacker said. "And, I ask myself how long can this situation work and not end up in new violence."

The tour is part history lesson. This group drives to a monument where anti-apartheid activists were killed by police. Then, Cinga Mngqibisa explains how authorities employed unusual techniques to determine if a person would be forced to live in a township for blacks or one for mixed-race coloreds. A pencil would measure the curl of a person's hair.

"They would take a pencil and push it through your hair," Mngqibisa said. "And, if you shake and the pencil stays on, it won't fall away because the hair is holding it, then you are black. But if you shake and the pencil falls away, then you would be colored (mixed race)."

Mngqibisa says a needle would be used to reveal a person's native language.

"And then they prick with you with that. Now, if the person cries 'eina' then you are colored. And, if you yell 'echou' then you are black," Mngqibisa said.

There are no official statistics that track the growth and economic impact of township travel, but guides say the tours benefit local residents. They stop at workshops where tourists can buy arts-and-crafts. And, this trip includes a visit to one of township tourism's most tangible success stories.

"Hello, please sit down. Vicky is my name. I'm living here with my family, running the smallest hotel in South Africa," Ntozini said.

Vicky Ntozini's place is a two-room bed-and-breakfast inn built inside Ntozini's tin-shack house. Tour group visits have inspired foreigners to stay here overnight. Nearly everyone who comes donates to a program that feeds hungry children. Ntozini tells visitors that South Africa's township poverty will not last.

"We may live in conditions like this, but we are looking into life with a positive eye, knowing that even if it will take us another ten years, in the end, we will be living a happy, normal life like everybody else," Ntozini said.

At the end of the trip, the tourists said they were happy they visited the townships. They already knew South Africa has come a long way since the end of apartheid. They learned the country still has a long way to go.