Children play beneath power lines in Khayelitsha, a township established in 1984 to house black families forced out of Cape Town.
Children play beneath power lines in Khayelitsha, a township established in 1984 to house black families forced out of Cape Town.
 SOUTH AFRICA: If you go: Cape Town, South Africa

Bo-Kaap residents show another South Africa

Email|Print| Text size + By Evan S. Kuhlman
Globe Correspondent / February 19, 2006

CAPE TOWN -- The shadows of giant buses fill the narrow streets of this tightly-knit Muslim neighborhood, blocking the sun from the hillside warren of one- and two-story homes that make up this historically insular area. It is just another day for one of Cape Town tourism's newest hot spots: the Cape Malay Quarter, known as the Bo-Kaap (''above the cape") among the locals.

With sightseeing in South Africa growing rapidly after decades in which the country was boycotted for its racial-exclusion policies, Bo-Kaap residents are struggling to adapt to the sudden intrusion of visitors who come to experience ''true South African life." But some veterans of the historical struggle for racial equality have begun to use the influx as a means of activism.

''We are the good will ambassadors of our country," says tour guide Mervin Wessels, a former student activist and high school geography teacher who turned to tourism several years ago as a way of educating people to the changes in his country since the end of apartheid in 1994.

He is not alone. Many tour guides are introducing their clients to South Africa not just as a habitat for ''big five" animals and exotic plants, but as a complex nation in the midst of transition to a multicultural democracy.

''It is important for a group to know that there are different people in different places of South Africa," says Shereen Habib, a Bo-Kaap resident and former anti-apartheid campaigner. The owner of Tana-Baru Tours, Habib has made a business out of telling her story to visitors.

''I would like people to understand that South Africa, especially Cape Town, is a community of diverse backgrounds. It's important for people to realize these people come from very different backgrounds," she says.

Shortly after his release from prison in 1990, Nelson Mandela, who in 1994 became the country's first democratically elected president, approached Habib to ask her to do her part for her country. While others channeled their political beliefs into government action or policy changes, Mandela asked Habib to bring tourists back to South Africa. ''He actually wanted me to put the area on the map," she says. ''He said to me, 'You are my girl; you have to show off this area to the rest of the world.' "

For Wessels, the decision was both personal and political. Because most of South Africa's prime attractions were closed to people of color throughout the apartheid era, tourism had long been for whites only. When the opportunity arose for black South Africans to enter the field, Wessels says he jumped at the opportunity. Today, with a university education in African studies, he knows his geography, history, and economics, but he also uses his own experience to connect with visitors.

When South Africa first faced an influx of visitors eager to see places they knew only from news headlines in the last half of the 20th century, some guides were greeted with hostility. ''It was becoming a zoo," says Wessels, recounting tales of German and Japanese tourists snapping pictures of all-black townships and impoverished squatter camps from behind the windows of luxury buses. Now, he encourages visitors to get out, walk around, and use their cameras more discreetly as he introduces them to residents.

Habib, too, says she tries to use tourism to help her community, not just put it on display. She has trained residents of the Malay Quarter to be tour guides and has worked to persuade local businesses of the importance of bringing visitors to the area.

''I can't speak about tourism and say it was my little thing, and I went about my little way -- it wasn't that. It was an inclusive community effort," she says, adding that her first reaction to Mandela's request to get involved was, Oh, no! What has he done to me?

Today, Habib's business is based on personal warmth. She invites visitors inside her home to share a meal or tea in her cozy living room. She also guides groups through the Cape Malay Quarter, making stops to show off the Bo-Kaap Museum, her mother's restaurant, and her sister's coffee shop.

''I just want to show the area off as what it was," she says.

For his part, Wessels includes tour stops at local craft centers where beadwork, weavings, and other handmade products are sold to generate income for poor women.

One such stop is the Saartjie Baartman Women's Centre in Athlone, a suburb of mainly ''coloreds" -- the term many South Africans still use for people of mixed race -- just north of Cape Town. The center serves as an umbrella group for organizations like Sonke, which promotes tourism development in underprivileged communities, for instance, training abused women to make and sell goods for tourists and to lead tours.

Wessels says he tries to broaden the experience of some visitors, who frequently come to Cape Town for one or two days, and wind up spending half their time atop Table Mountain, the spectacularly beautiful 3,500-foot-high plateau from where they look down on the city's 3 million inhabitants.

''I want to take them to the real McCoy," he says.

Khayelitsha is as real as it gets.

The sprawling township, located more than 20 miles outside Cape Town, was established in 1984 to house black families forcibly removed from black neighborhoods and squatter camps near the city center. Today, its population tops 1 million. In the middle of it is Vicky's Bed and Breakfast, established by Vicky Ntozini and her husband, Piksteel, in the mid-1990s.

''Since the democratic elections here in 1994, there are many more tourists who come to South Africa, but most of them stay in the predominantly white areas of the cities or in the carefully managed environment of the game parks," says Ntozini on her website ( ''By staying away from the townships, they miss learning about how most South Africans actually live."

Ntozini built the business out of her three-bedroom, scrap-iron-and-wood shack. This is her way of exposing visitors to the ''real" South Africa, says Wessels, who has been bringing visitors to see her no-star hotel for years.

In the beginning, neighbors jealous of the attention she received -- and the income -- had negative reactions, he says. But after Ntozini explained what she was trying to do, the community quickly backed her. Today, they are very protective of the little business.

''There is an emerging market here," Wessels says. ''The paradigm shift in tourism has been toward a more cultural experience.

''It is important that we get a holistic view of what is South Africa and what is Cape Town," he says. ''We need to make you realize that you haven't seen it all, that you need to come a second time."

Evan S.Kuhlman is a senior at Simmons College. Contact her at

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