South Africa’s Township Tours

south africa During the 2010 FIFA World Cup, all eyes are on South Africa. The country has been legally out of the apartheid system for more than 15 years, since the first free elections in 1994 elected Nelson Mandela as the country’s first black president. Since then the country has been enjoying an increase in tourism. South Africa has a lot to offer travelers with culturally diverse locals, a rich wine region, luxury train tours that take you cross country, cultural villages that show how ethnic groups traditionally lived, and plenty of inexpensive cuisine. However, one of my best experiences in the country was taking one of the many Township Tours.

I joined several other international visitors in a van tour of SOWETO – Southwestern Township. The area is made up of about 33 townships southwest of Johannesburg. Though much of the news shows the shantytowns of SOWETO, there is a lot more to see than that. We chose to take “Jimmy’s Face to Face Tours” which allowed us to get out of the van several times and interact with the locals. (Photo: Kalin & her South African fortune teller)

During the tour we stopped at a monument to the black students who died after being attacked by white policemen during the infamous 1976 SOWETO Rebellion. The students were protesting having to use the white Afrikaans language in school.

We also drove by former president, Nelson Mandela’s boyhood home, which has been turned into a museum. From there we could also see the mansion of Mandela’s former wife, Winnie, who was a warrior in her own right while Nelson was in prison. Eventually we got out of the van to visit a family in one of the shanties. They were very friendly and welcomed us into the their home to see how they live. I have to say it was very sad to see how they lived in a one-room shack with no running water. And some of the other tourists and I started wondering if we were exploiting the people. But Jimmy Ntintili, our driver and tour guide, told us that the people of SOWETO love to see tourists and suggested we give sweets to the children or buy needed toiletries or household items for the adults. He said giving money to the people wasn’t wise, saying “We don’t want to turn the people into beggars.” I decided to spend my money by paying the grandmother in the family to tell me my fortune, since that’s what she did for a living. After telling me to blow on a handful of small bones and other trinkets, she shook them up and threw them out on a cloth on the floor. I was amazed when she started to speak: “You have really bad migraines” (true at the time), “You will divorce your husband” (true – four years later). As she continued telling me about my life, I was blown away by the accuracy. It was a fun, though a bit unsettling, experience.

As we continued to walk through the area, we saw children playing football (soccer), and people going about their everyday lives – some laughter, some tears. We also saw several churches and what’s said to be the largest hospital in the world. Chris Hani-Baragwanath Hospital was originally built for white soldiers during World War II, and became the hospital for blacks in SOWETO around 1948. Jimmy said a baby is born there every five minutes! But the biggest surprise was finding out there’s a middle-class section of SOWETO where people with much more wealth live. We stopped at one man’s home in Prestige Park who didn’t even know we were coming, but Jimmy asked if we could tour his home and he was happy to oblige. He seemed to want tourists to know that not all people in SOWETO are poor. “Please come in! I am very proud of my home,” he said. The house was very nice and looked like a small, middle-class home in the U.S. – with one exception – he had a leather ceiling in the kitchen! I had never seen anything like it. You could tell from the exteriors of some of the other homes that people were very creative in making their houses unique.

The tour was a wonderful way to mingle with the locals and experience a part of South Africa that you don’t usually see on TV. There are several township tours available for visitors, including touring Cape Flats just outside of Cape Town. For more information on Jimmy’s Face 2 Face Tours, go to For more information on other township tours, including those outside of Cape Town, visit the South African Tourism site at The more you interact with the local people the more you’ll see that no matter our culture or economic status, we are pretty much the same – joys, sorrows, and all. And remember: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness” – Mark Twain.

Kalin Thomas is Women at Forty’s Travel & Leisure Editor. She is also Senior Writer/Photographer for SoulOfAmerica. Before starting her own multimedia company, Kalin spent 17 years at CNN where she won several awards for her work as producer/correspondent for CNN’s weekly travel program, CNN TravelNow. She is currently writing a book about her travels. For more information on Kalin, visit