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SOWETO, South Africa-"Political and social questions are welcome," said Soweto tour guide Jimmy Ntintili. The former chef introduced his company Face to Face Tours five years ago, accurately predicting that Nelson Mandela's 1990 release from prison and the country's transition to democracy would lead to a surge of tourist interest in townships.

Rather than a rote recitation of facts, Mr. Ntintili's fast-paced tours combine dry humor, a sociologist's eye for detail and an insider's compassion.

"This isn't a tour, this is research," he told a group of U.S. and British clients at the start of a half-day trip in a green minivan through the country's largest black ghetto. They each paid $21 for a tour of a vibrant amalgamation of 33 black townships covering about 47 square miles, a melting pot of nine languages and an estimated 3.5 million people.

"We'll be seeing the good, the bad and the ugly," he said, spotting a luxury car and informing the group that in Soweto, the initials BMW stand for "Break my window and take me home."

Not so long ago, the only cameras clicking in South Africa's black townships belonged to journalists, who often donned bulletproof vests to document political violence. But in these more peaceful days, townships around the country have become a hot tourist destination drawing foreign visitors eager to see cities on the anti-apartheid trail and to experience black life and culture firsthand.

Mr. Ntintili is part of a small, savvy group of black tour operators that includes former taxi drivers and even former members of so-called "self-defense units," vigilante groups affiliated with the African National Congress.

Along with Mr. Ntintili, the best-known are Paula Gumede, a black political exile who returned in 1991 and started One City Tours, a company specializing in Cape Town townships. Another service is run by former bus cleaner Nelson Zondi, whose Natal Sightseeing Tours gives insights into Zulu customs during visits to Kwamashu township outside Durban.

In addition to serving as a hopeful symbol of black entrepreneurship and racial reconciliation, these operations represent a brash and refreshing departure in a country whose tourism industry for years excluded blacks and still primarily markets itself as a wildlife destination.

"These companies are offering damn good service, which has been lacking in our industry," acknowledged Dale Pretorius, Europe general manager of Satour, the state tourism board, which began featuring township tours in its promotional literature this year.

"They're new, they're competitive and they're good because they want to get established. Anything that adds spice and razzmatazz is welcome."

After starting with just one minibus and himself as a guide, Mr. Ntintili now employs 11 full-time staffers and takes an average of 30 foreign clients a day into Soweto, including full- and half-day visits and evening crawls of shebeens, or informal bars.

The business is still too small to have a budget for mainstream advertising, so Mr. Ntintili relies mainly on word-of-mouth referrals. His one-man marketing strategy also includes distributing handbills in local hotels and traveling to international tourism conventions, mainly in Europe, where he links up with foreign operators bringing visitors to his country. The market is definitely foreign travelers; white South Africans are largely afraid to visit black townships.

The basic Soweto itinerary includes historic sites such as President Mandela's original four-room house on Vilakazi Street (and his estranged wife Winnie's nearby mansion); the memorial to Hector Peterson, first victim of the 1976 student riots; and Baragwaneth Hospital, the largest medical facility in the Southern Hemisphere. Finding that clients like to see more of South Africa than just townships, Mr. Ntintili also arranges visits to South Africa's gambling mecca, Sun City, and to several game reserves.

No tour is the same, however.

"I tell guides, `Take the people to your mother's house,'*" said Mr. Ntintili, who started his business after years of squiring white friends around Soweto. "The bottom line is use your imagination. Teach the tourist. Don't just take his money."

Engagement, not passive observation, is the result. One group's first stop is the home of a wealthy family in Diepkloof Extension (nicknamed Diepkloof Expensive), where Mr. Ntintili knocks on the door, then leads the group inside to inspect the furnishings and to smell the curry and corn porridge cooking in the kitchen. Back in the van, he waves over a doctor friend to answer a tourist's question about why black professionals stay in the township, where sprawling squatter camps, not handsome two-story houses, are the rule.

"My patients are here, and my heart is here, and my heart is very deeply rooted," comes the reply.

Passing streetside barbers, auto body shops and the Sis Miss Spaza shop, candle-lit in an old shipping container, the group's next stop is a study in contrast-a compound of 14 corrugated-iron shacks built in the yard of one of Soweto's original two-room government-built brick houses. It's a typical example of the housing shortage that remains one of South Africa's most pressing problems-and of the enterprising spirit of making do.

The group next meets Nomalady Nyawuda, who lives with her mechanic husband and four small children in one room, where neatly preserved candy wrappers serve as wallpaper and a picture of Jesus hangs over the one bed. But while the family lacks a proper house, they are making steady economic progress. Crammed in the small space are a stove, a TV and a big freezer, which Mrs. Nyawuda stocks with sheeps' heads, a township delicacy, which she sells to supplement their income.

"I didn't expect to actually walk into a shanty and say hello to people," said Jonne Ceserani, a tourist from Ashwell, England, who said he wanted to visit Soweto after so many years of seeing it featured on TV newscasts. "But I've learned that people here want to make a living, not be given it, and that they're taking responsibility for their future."

These intrusions and encounters are strangely without awkwardness, thanks to Mr. Ntintili's careful groundwork and warm rapport with residents. He asks tourists to show respect for local people by asking for, not just taking, their photographs. Equally, he demands that children respect tourists and themselves by not begging.

"The basic aim is to educate both the people in the township and the people we bring to see them," he explained later over drinks in a shebeen in the living room of a modest house in Orlando West, the oldest of Soweto's 33 townships.

Convinced that tourism should benefit the community as well as affluent visitors, Mr. Ntintili funnels some of his own profits into various social projects, including a daycare center for the elderly.

Inspired by the success of Mr. Ntintili, and by foreign tourist arrivals, which increased 24% in 1994, legions of followers are jumping on the township tour bandwagon. Big white-managed companies that a few years ago wouldn't have dreamed of taking visitors into Soweto are now hiring black guides and bringing tourists in by the busload.

One white-run Johannesburg tour guide school has introduced a two-week crash course, which will train at least 60 freelance Soweto guides by the end of 1995, and there are similar programs for would-be guides from Alexandra and Thokoza-Johannesburg-area townships that were once familiar buzzwords for crime and political violence. Satour has begun registering township specialists in its listing of tour guides (last year there were only seven out of a listing of more than 2,000). For the moment, it's a situation where experience probably counts for more than a certificate.

Township residents are literally lining up at Mr. Ntintili's door, hoping for the lucrative chance to become a guide.

"Tourism is creating new jobs and opportunities for black people, but the danger now is that you'll get a lot of fly-by-nighters, where every taxi owner wants to start a tour business, but without adequate preparation or security," warned Mr. Ntintili, in a sentiment shared by others in the industry.

"But it's a free market. Anyone has the right to do it."

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