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Camissa Township Tours in Cape Town
An eye-opening look at the Mother City’s other side
I may pass the destitute corrugated iron spread of them every time I travel to the airport, and I may read about the suffering and strife that envelops them almost every day in the news, yet Cape Town’s townships are a side to this city as foreign to me – a privileged local – as obscure overseas locations like Bahrain and Bulgaria.
That is, until the day Camissa Travel & Marketing opened me up to the raw vibrancy of this world that rests right on my doorstep. Founded in 2006 by husband and wife team Khonaye and Samantha Tuswa, the venture operates a series of half-day township tours – they can be combined with visits to Robben Island, the Winelands and more – in an effort to not only offer insight into South Africa’s complex past and cultural diversity but to give those from afar a very genuine look at life in Mzansi, not one that’s gilded with glitz and glamour. Essentially, these inspiring outings aim to show visitors that these bustling settlements on the border of our metropolis are as central to a Mother City visit as a trip to Table Mountain, Clifton Fourth or the V&A Waterfront. Not to mention, unlike many sightseeing expeditions that highlight lifeless monuments, the Camissa excursions aim to unveil a living, breathing entity where the strength and spirit of the residents is the key attraction.
“I’m here to facilitate a human experience,” says Khonaye, our guide for the morning, from behind the steering wheel just minutes after he’s picked my colleague and me up from our city centre base. “It’s about the people, their struggles and their triumphs.”
From the moment this instantly likeable man starts talking, his speech dotted with stories about the lush beginnings of Cape Town, the origins of SA’s black tribal groups and the local pursuits of British titan Cecil John Rhodes, I am enthralled.
Needless to say, I’m clutching to his every word when we come to rest at our first stop, the CBD site of District Six. A logical start to a township tour, this small stretch of land saw thousands of black and coloured families being evicted from their homes under Apartheid – it was declared a whites-only neighbourhood – and forced into settlements (the very townships we’re exploring today) on the disenfranchised periphery of the city. No description in any history book will ever hold a candle to the heart-rending experience of standing on this desolate spot listening to our chaperon detail the barbaric forced removal of the colourful, multi-cultural community that once lived in harmony on these grounds. When he explains that the site remains undeveloped today, just grass grown over the debris of homes demolished and hopes dashed, as a symbol of resistance to the human atrocities that happened here, I’m left chilled by the immensity of it all.
Immersed in the unfamiliar
But our adventure is only beginning, and it’s not long before we’re back on the road en route to Langa, the oldest black township in Cape Town and a soulful spot that Khonaye himself once called home. After a visit to the suburb’s former Pass Court and Office – an administrative centre that used to control the movement of black individuals before democracy – we are introduced to our site guide, Langa native Zingisa, who’ll be leading our walking tour of the area (Camissa often employs locals as tour conductors, an example of how township tourism drives job creation).
On foot, the experience is so much more authentic, more immediate than it could ever be from behind the sealed windows of a bus. Rather than approaching the trip like outsiders on a game drive, we’re immersed in the setting, able to engage with the dwellers, and well positioned to soak up the sense of ‘ubuntu’ (togetherness) and take in all the smells and sights: the myriad of meat markets, curio bazaars, liquor stores, hair salons and spaza shops that line the suburb’s streets.
“Welcome to South Africa,” shouts a charismatic, elderly man from across the road, and I laugh at the irony of his greeting: his assumption that I am a tourist may be incorrect – I have lived in this country all my life – but his supposition that this is my first encounter with the real SA is, regrettably, spot on.
Soon, we turn a corner and cross a water-logged sandy patch to reach our next destination, Chris Hani Educare, a pre-school that Camissa helps to support. Here, we watch as the sweet,little four- and five-year-old souls belt out our national anthem, ‘Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika’ (God Bless Africa), their tiny arms wrapped around each other’s shoulders in solidarity – it’s easily the most passionate, poignant version I’ve ever heard.
Though reluctant to leave, before long, it’s time to move on to themost eye-opening, unsettling leg of the tour: a look inside the people’s homes. Zingisa guides us as we contrast the newly constructed two-bedroom family units – the result of recent housing developments – with the old migrant labour compounds where hundreds of folk still find shelter today. In these former hostels, as many as three families (up to 16 people) dwell in one cold, cramped room, each forced to share a single bedwrapped in a single blanket.
A heart-rending picture of resilience
Despite such dismal conditions though, surprisingly, I see much pride and little demoralisation, and soon, something becomes quite clear: hope and optimism balance misfortune and despair in equal measures on the complex scale that is township life. These are people that are as rich in resilience and spirit as they are poor in assets.
Similarly, as we go on, it becomes evident that the tour is as much about success and the future as it is about adversity and the past. It’s fitting then that we conclude our Langa excursion with a visit to both the desperately impoverished Joe Slovo informal settlement and the markedly more well-to-do ‘Beverly Hills’ of the region, a neighbouring upmarket area occupied by township residents who’ve managed to break out of the cycle of deprivation; the latter stands as an inspiring symbol to the community of what could lie ahead.
The winter sun burns high in the sky when Khonaye picks us up by bus to return us to the bustling city centre, only minutes by road but whole worlds away.
“I hope you can see now that there’s something beyond the slums,” he says as we soar down the highway, rows of rundown shacks streaming past us on either side. “There’s laughter, there are smiles.”
And on that enlightened note, the half-day adventure draws to a close, leaving me deeply moved, my perception of the Mother City notably broadened.
Robben Island Tour
Though, the journey doesn’t have to end here. Those eager to learn more about the Apartheid past largely responsible for the adverse conditions we see in SA townships today can opt to continue on a tour of the historically significant Robben Island at this point. While Camissa does not lead this afternoon outing, because there is such synergy between this and their township tours, they do facilitate bookings and arrange all necessary transfers.
Departing from the V&A Waterfront daily, this insightful excursion offers visitors an inside look at World Heritage Site Robben Island, an oval landmass off the shore of Cape Town that, throughout history, has served as everything from a leprosy colony to, most notably, during Apartheid, a maximum security prison for political detainees, like SA’s own former president Nelson Mandela. The tour includes a 30-minute ferry ride there and back, an informative, guided bus trip around the island, a visit to the old prison and the tiny cell in which Mandela served 18 years of his sentence, and a stop at the harbour-based curio shop. Part of the expedition is led by an ex-political convict, making it a particular meaningful, emotionally charged experience. As the Robben Island tour paints a poignant picture of our nation’s tainted past, it is an especially fitting way to round off a township tour centred on where we are today and where we can hope to be tomorrow.
Tip: Camissa Travel & Marketing runs several other tours too, including a combined township and city walking tour, a Cape Winelands tour, a half-day gospel tour that takes guests to an African township church, an African cooking experience, which combines a scheduled tour with a chance to learn how to prepare an African meal; a Cape Peninsula tour ending at Cape Point; an eco-friendly tour that includes a train ride from the city centre to the township of Langa and back; a Cape Day safari which embarks travellers on a journey to a private game reserve with leopards, lions, giraffes, zebras, rhinos etc.; and a Township Diski an eco tour that includes a visit to a community garden, and a social soccer tour that invites visitors to challenge some local youth to a game of football.Camissa Township Tours also offer private tours designed according to your interests.
The Bill: The half-day township tour – there’s a morning and afternoon option - the half-day tour for adults is R520 and R260 for youth; the full day township tour combined with a Robben Island tour is R840 per adult and R420 for youth.
Note: The above prices are valid until 30 September 2017.
By Dayle Kavonic
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