Uplifting poor with tourism
Tours help breathe new life into underdeveloped townships
Feature Writer Cape Argus THE cheerful blue creche in New Rest squatter camp, Gugulethu, stands out in strong contrast to the greyness of the stormy sky, the delapidated tin shacks and muddy, rain-soaked ground. However simple and spartan the brightly decorated and functional building bears testimony to how the right kind of tourism can bring upliftment to the country's poor.
"Molweni!" says Pierre Toft of Africape Tours, greeting residents as we walk through their scattered shacks in New Rest.
"Molo!" they reply, indicating that he is well-known in the community.
The creche, which will soon be occupied by between 60 and 70 needy township children, is the result of the efforts of a small group of people dedicated to making tourism work for the benefit of all.
With partner Jenny Peers, Toft's small company, Africape Tours, has been running township tours for three or four years.
It all began in 1997 when Peers's daughter, Lesley, introduced her to a friend Thando Sekame, who lives in New Rest.
Toft, who was born in South Africa but has lived for much of his life in Senegal, Denmark and France, and Peers, a native Capetonian, immediately saw the potential of bringing tourists into the township and using tourism to build bridges between cultures as well to effect economic upliftment.
They also helped to establish a trust for the sole purpose of aiding development in the squatter camps of New Rest and neighbouring Kanana.
Other tour operators were at first hesitant to follow suit, but they gradually realised they too could make a significant contribution by taking visitors into the townships.
Today tourists from all over the world have visited these two squatter camps, which together are home to about 10.000 people, and many have been generous in their donations - not only of money but of clothes and furniture too.
It is a glaring irony that while many native South Africans have never ventured into an African township or got to know the inhabitants, it should have been left to a "foreigner" like Toft to take the lead.
Toft likes to recount the story of how many first-time visitors to Cape Town would ask where many of the hotel staff and cleaners they encountered lived, and would discover with surprise the far-removed world of township life.
But what was worse, says Toft, many locals - particularly those working at hotels frequented by tourists - actually dissuaded the visitors from venturing into the townships, telling them only the dangers and risks.
"I sometimes wondered what some local tour operators told their clients as they brought them in by bus from the airport into the city and they passed the miles and miles of townships and squatter camps."
Today Peers and Toft incorporate a tour of the township in many of their wineland and other tours and say that these have proved immensely popular with foreign visitors.
They stress the importance of making the tours "interactive" by encouraging visitors to stroll around and chat to locals.
"Often, we find that those visitors whom we have taken to the townships are the ones who, long after they have returned to their home countries, remain in contact with us and remember these visits over and above much else."
As we stroll through the shacks of New Rest, dodging pools of muddy water, Toft introduces us to a man who has not only been an invaluable partner in these projects but has become a personal friend.
A card-carrying member of Umkhonto we Sizwe for most of his adult life, Abbey Tini spent 16 years in exile and returned to South Africa in 1986. A few years later he settled in New Rest where he became active in community politics.
He is now a general adviser to residents and dedicates his work to spreading the word of Christianity in the community.
Tini's vision is to see the squatter's camp transformed into a stable residential suburb.
Toft and Tini met in 1997 and realised they shared the same views on the future of New Rest and Kanana.
Toft believed the he could bring tourism to the community.
They and others active in the community have now been joined by a young French couple, Phillippe and Christine Grange, who with their four month old daughter travelled from France to Cape Town by motorbike.
When they went on a township visit to New Rest and Kanana they decided to sell their bikes and use the money and their skills to help build a second creche at Kanana, housed at the moment in a rusty Golden Arrow bus.
During this whole process Toft and his team realised that residents needed to see concrete results from their efforts and they got the city council to begin installing electricity.
Arts and craft markets are gradually springing up in the squatter camps despite the fact that unemployment remains disturbingly high (55%), new jobs are slowly being created.
As Phillippe Grange quips in Swahili: "Pole! Pole?" (meaning "slowly-slowly"). That also applies to progress and renewal.
Though it may take some time, residents are looking forward to a better future.