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Adventure Blog

South African Townships

Buzz Poole
05/08/2012 - 06:22
Umlazi Township shipping container barbershop, via Simon Weller

I visited Cape Town several years ago, and did not venture into the townships. The remnants of apartheid were noticeable enough on the train my companions and I took to Stellenbosch. We bought the cheapest tickets available and rode in a car filled almost exclusively with black South Africans. It became clear very quickly that white South Africans did not ride third class. With our backpacks and casual naivety we stood out as tourists. We encountered no problems but the vibe, for lack of a better word, made us stow our happy-go-lucky demeanors.

This was the late '90s and in the intervening years the townships that sprawl out from South Africa's cities have become part of the country's tourist trail, especially Soweto outside of of Johannesburg where Nelson Mandela lived for years. Hostels have been started and township tours organized. But the townships are still poor communities, some of which can be dangerous. Andrew Evans, National Geographic's Digital Nomad, recently filed this report from the Umlazi township, outside of Durban. He tells of a Sunday visit, being fed and sharing the local maize-based home brew, umqombothi, with the locals. In his words: "I was a total stranger, an out-of-place mlungu wandering around the township, but I was suddenly included, pulled in off the streets of Umlazi and made to feel welcome . . .Everyone kept telling me that Umlazi was dangerous, but I honestly think that's a generalization based on the past."

The closest I've been to returning to South Africa was editing photographer Simon Weller's South African Townships Barbershops & Salons, an astounding book that documents the handmade signs used to advertise these very specific township businesses. Weller traveled across the country, visiting townships, including Umlazi, and relying on the kindness of locals. Like Evans, Weller often received warnings when he told people of his project. While he did encounter a bit of tension, his experience overwhelmingly mirrored that of Evans's. Rather than being constantly on guard, the townships' residents welcomed Weller with open arms, showing him just how strong the bonds of community are even in the face of the hardships that do still exist.

What both Evans and Weller make clear through their very different adventures is that to truly get a sense for South Africa's history, and how that history informs the present, the townships cannot be ignored.

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