“Oh my gosh, you are going to love Cape Town,” a white American friend said, after I shared that I was heading to the Mother City for the first time.
The reasons why I’d love it were typical—gorgeous coastline, Table Mountain, great shopping, lovely hotels and restaurants—so it’s fair to say my expectations were high. And while all those aspects of Cape Town are certainly true, none of those things immediately caught my eye the moment I made it into the city. After previously spending time in Johannesburg and Durban before arriving in Cape Town, I wandered the pristine V&A Waterfront entertainment district and couldn’t help but wonder, “Where are all the black South Africans?”
As an African-American travel writer, I naturally tend to roam the world looking for black folks and generally don’t find us hard to find. And, as the daughter of a political science professor and a civil rights activist, I thought I had a fairly good understanding of apartheid before arriving in South Africa. My parents kept me in tow during anti-apartheid rallies in Washington, D.C., and African history was a part of my bedtime story routine as a child. Hell, my mother even met Nelson Mandela during her tenure at the D.C. mayor’s office. But my hopeful belief that the effects of apartheid ended in 1994 was incredibly naive. Sure, the racial segregation policies under apartheid are no longer protected by law. But their legacy is nonetheless etched into the physical layout of the city that was designed to keep poor black Africans in contained settlements called townships and keep rich whites in the heart of the city.
Don’t get me wrong, Cape Town isn’t the only South African city with townships. But of the three major cities I visited, it was the one place where not only was the continued segregation palpable but black South Africans seemed to have no share of the tourism dollars flooding into the city. Ironically, the beauty of traditional black African culture was bought and sold nearly everywhere you looked: intricate wood carvings here, colorful Zulu beaded necklaces there. But who actually made these products? Where did they come from? Was the money going back to the artisans?
As my understanding of the effects of apartheid deepened, I decided it was time to be more conscious about where I was spending my money and with whom. The last thing I wanted to do was to contribute (unknowingly or not) to a system that reinforced the oppression and poverty of black South Africans. But I also didn’t want to partake in an out-of-touch township tour for tourists, where we all simply check “visit a township” off our list of things to do, then go on with our vacations.
Fortunately, there is some middle ground. The reality today is that although you may not find it in your average Cape Town guidebook, business leaders within Capetonian townships are sparking a movement towards tourism, social enterprise, and entrepreneurship that is helping to revitalize these communities and pave a future for their youngest residents.
In Langa, the oldest township in the Western Cape, the non-profit organization ikhaya le Langa, founded by social entrepreneur Tony Elvin, works to create not only a tourism district within the township called the Langa Quarter, but also a safe space for some of the area’s most vulnerable youth. Langa Quarter operates by the motto “Cleaner, greener, safer,” applying it to all of the initiatives within the district, including restaurants, bars, homestays, a retail shop and makerspace, street art competitions, and walking tours. Elvin believes that until tourists are willing to stay overnight in the townships, there’s little chance the locals will be able to build a sustainable business district.
Hence the Langa Quarter Homestay Hotel, a collection of 18 homestays that work together as a social enterprise, providing hospitality training to the all-women business owners. The Langa Quarter Homestay Hotel recently began a partnership with the President Hotel in Bantry Bay, offering a combination package of nights at the hotel with one or two nights in the Langa Quarter. The partnership moves away from the usual donor to beneficiary model commonly found in townships, (where a well-funded company or individual makes a donation to nonprofit or individual) to a more sustainable, mutually-beneficial and growth-oriented relationship. Nine of the 18 homestays are currently listed on Airbnb, earning personal congratulations and a celebratory visit from Airbnb founder Brian Chesky.
Also within the Langa Quarter is the Indawo visual arts gallery and retail space, which supports 15 artists primarily from Langa. Ikhaya le Langa hub, the community center within Langa Quarter, hosted an inaugural event for Langa’s first “Safe Space” for LGTBQ youth facilitated by the Triangle Project, a non-profit organization offering professional services to ensure the full realization of constitutional and human rights for LGBTQ youth, their partners, and their families. The program also helps young people establish and manage their own safe spaces.
Langa Quarter currently hosts six immersive, non-invasive tours and workshops through the township. One is the signature Past, Present, Future tour that includes a visit to the Dompas museum, a walk through Langa Quarter, a visit to Indawo, a conversation with a homestay owner, coffee at a local cafe, a sit down chat with Tony Elvin, and genuine connection with the local community. The Art Makers Workshop and Gallery Tour includes an introduction to African art, a presentation from artist and tour guide Tozamile, a workshop to craft your own work of art, a walk through the street art of Langa Quarter, and a visit to Indawo. Other tours include Langa by Bicycle, African Art and Jazz tour, Xhosa Lesson and Coffee Making Workshop, and a Meet Langa’s Entrepreneurs experience. All the effort has paid off as the Langa Quarter recently earned a spot on the Cape Town Travelers 2018 bucket list, the first for a district within a township as opposed to a township activity or business.
Also for art lovers is the Maboneng Township Arts Experience for cultural art tours through Langa, founded by Siphiwe Ngwenya. Walking tours are led through the actual homes of the artists, homes that they’ve turned into galleries of their artwork that's available for sale. Travelers can also take masterclass art workshops at Guga S’thebe, the area art center, including intro to mosaics, printmaking, denim painting, and a cooking class to learn to make magwenya, a local pastry. Also within Guga S’thebe is Naledi Langa Pottery, a part-retail, part-pottery crafting space aimed at alleviating poverty and crime within the community. Proceeds from art tour ticket sales support the artists, cooks, guides, and the Maboneng staff.
In Khayelitsha, another township just outside of Cape Town, South African Master Chef finalist Abigail Mbalo has built a destination restaurant in the township where she grew up. 4Roomed ekasi Culture, named after the four-room house she lived in as a child, Mbalo’s restaurant offers a three-course, fine dining experience with a menu inspired by South African street food. Chef Abigail also offers an up to 10-course menu for private groups, a food truck available for hire for private events, an onsite garden where fresh ingredients are sourced, and a takeaway counter with a separate menu.
Throughout so much of the world, communities like townships are written off as dangerous places unwelcome to tourists or their dollars, but how are these communities expected to grow and improve without visitors willing to give them a chance? Thanks to leaders like Tony Elvin, Chef Abigail Mbalo, and Siphiwe Ngwenya, visitors to Cape Town now have the opportunity to go beneath the polished surface, to visit and experience the authentic soul of the city.