Lately I have been struggling with the idea (and the proliferation) of “social justice tours” in South Africa. If you don’t know what I am talking about, social justice tours are tours which take the tourist through low income, economically depressed or working class neighborhoods —mostly former townships—whilst teaching them and allowing them to “witness the reality of marginalization, poverty and oppression that 48% of [the] South African population is forced to endure.” The latest iteration of this kind is that run by Media for Justice, a nonprofit run by Gillian Schutte, a well-known web commentator and her husband, filmmaker Sipho Singiswa, in Johannesburg’s Alexandra and two other black townships.
I find the concept extremely offensive, though Schutte and Singiswa suggest their tour is different from the tourist township tours where tourists are taken in buses through townships to experience ‘authentic’ South Africa. Schutte (who is usually quite outspoken about the commodification and appropriation of black struggles) and Singiswa caused a fervor on Twitter over whether they themselves weren’t just commodifying poverty and objectifying people living in townships. A friend of mine sarcastically responded: “They’d have better luck with a take-your-madam-home campaign.” Sarcasm aside, both events crystallized my discomfort with the use of the tour-the-township method in the name of social justice.
It’s helpful to start first with a bit of history: the primary purpose underpinning the geographical construction of South African society from 1860 on was segregation. But apartheid as a policy was introduced in the 1948 general elections and legislation meant to implement it — such as the Group Areas Act of 1950, the Population Registration Act, and other similar legislation — was used a tool through which the image of the ‘other’ was reproduced and affirmed. Reifying apartheid in material terms; it ceased to be just an ideology and became a reality. Instead of the swartgevaar – a term which literally means black danger – being a mythical boogey man, it became personified in black bodies and evidenced by townships. When violent protests flared up it could be rationalized as confirmation of already ingrained beliefs about the violent and primitive nature of black people.
This forced isolation came with a particular narrative through which black bodies were to be viewed, and therefore spaces where black people lived took on the characteristics associated with those bodies. Townships became dangerous, dirty places. The marches of resistance, successors of the 1949 tram boycotts, then became confirmations of an already established narrative around black bodies and black spaces. Acts of resistance such as the 1952 Defiance Campaign, the Sharpeville massacre, and Soweto uprisings became affirmations of the primitive nature of black people to a state intent on justifying its racist separatist policies.
The spectatorist method – a term I use to describe the process of observing poverty – as a means of ‘social consciencitization,’ isolates community struggles; systematic and structural oppression and marginalization are isolated to a singular geographic location (i.e. poverty only happens in the townships.) It erases the intersectional ways in which poverty and marginalization incorporates itself and infiltrates every aspect of our lives, and it erases the fact that there are no spaces unoccupied by poverty. Limiting the possibilities of understanding oppression and marginalization as an entire system that penetrates into your (the observers) daily interactions creates a compartmentalized and distanced understanding of poverty from ourselves.
If the tours are to have a ‘social justice’ component which has any chance of surviving beyond the allocated three hours, the tours need to move into the neighborhoods of the observers and expose the segregation, poverty and marginalization which exists in those spaces. Tour the central business districts of major cities and see how poverty has manifested itself, and how we have managed to grow and live oblivious to the marginalization around us. Tour factory shops and the street corners populated by unemployed construction workers waiting for an entire day in the hopes that some bakkie (mini-van) looking for construction workers will offer them a piece-job for the day. Or maybe tour the homes of wealthy white South Africans; experience how they rationalize the tension between their privilege and oblivion to the social injustices around them.
These tours, as they exist now, simply manifest already ingrained beliefs. They confirm the narrative created by the apartheid system; poverty, dirt and violence only exist in the townships. They do nothing to recreate townships as alternative spaces; nor engender an understanding of poverty as ubiquitous. They rarely allow for a look into the different ways in which people experience oppression within and outside the township (i.e. LGBTI persons, sex workers, and foreigners.) The community performs poverty, whether as tour guides or simply as members of the community invested in the economic returns of the project.
These tours extinguish the possibilities for communal, self-sustaining collaborative strategies for effective activism. Because the relationship is from the onset one of observer and observed, it removes possibilities of identifying mutual points of struggle. It sets the template for interaction at a ‘you vs. us’ level, removing the possibilities of a ‘we’ interaction.
In order to make inroads into the struggle for freedom South Africans have to understand that poverty is complex and proliferates in our ‘safe’ middle-class. We have to understand that the struggles we see as outside of us are intimately connected to our own struggle for freedom and liberation. As Aboriginal activist Lilla Watson once said “If you’ve come here to help me, you’re wasting your time. But if you’ve come because your liberation is bound up in mine, then let us work together.”