Backstory: Touring the real South Africa

The tour starts in a wide dirt lot cluttered with trash and minibus taxis, beyond a metal goat pen tucked under a power line tower, not far from the main road through Soweto. This is where Mandla Shongwe appears, walking with a loping but determined stroll, dressed in a long white tank top, baggy jeans and floppy hat – classic South African township duds.

He's the only person to approach, even though there are a dozen guides who also notice any outsiders in this unmarked spot.

"There will always be only one person," explains Mduduzi Jack, who works with Mr. Shongwe. "This shows that there is a system in place." It is one of the ways they try to keep their impoverished community more popular than the next squatter camp, he says. They want visitors to feel comfortable.

Informal settlements – the unregulated clusters of shacks that sprout on vacant land, often without electricity or running water – are becoming increasingly common tourist destinations, as South Africa's growing number of international visitors ask to see "real" communities and the underside of this post-apartheid Rainbow Nation.

Here, residents of the Elias Motsoaledi Informal Settlement have taken control of the trend – putting together a system of tours that brings some money into their struggling community.

Today, it is Shongwe's turn in the rotation.

His visitors usually look relieved when he approaches and introduces himself. Often, they get out of their cars or tour vans nervously, wondering what they're doing in this dirty, crowded lot, with no tourist signs in sight. Maybe they've come here because they heard about this tour from someone else – its popularity has spread by word of mouth. Or maybe another guide has brought them here as part of a longer tour of Soweto, the black township that was the heart of the anti-apartheid struggle.

Shongwe, gesturing for his visitors to follow, walks toward a rutted dirt road that slopes away from the lot, a dusty seam in a colorful quilt of never-ending aluminum shacks. Children with skinny legs dusted reddish brown from the road look up. Some wave. Women walk slowly with packages on their heads, ignoring camera-toting tourists. They're accustomed to visitors.

He begins to point out the sights: the yellow portable toilet shared by 100 people and cleaned weekly, the rusty tap that supplies water for all who live in this section, the water sanitation towers on the horizon that mark the end of this sprawling squatter camp.

"You can take pictures," he says.

Although there are no formal studies tracking squatter camp tours, the city's tourism association has estimated that visits to Soweto – a community of well over a million people – have increased more than 30 percent in the past five years. And while most of these tours focus on historic landmarks, such as Nelson Mandela's former house, many also stop at Elias Motsoaledi or other informal settlements, say tour guides.

Anna Johansson, a Swede, found herself in Elias Motsoaledi when the guide she hired for the day brought her here to one of Shongwe's colleagues. "This tour was amazing," she says, walking back to her van. "I have never seen such poverty – it is very strange to me. It is so interesting to see it for myself – not just on television."

Most of the time, visitors are international tourists like Ms. Johansson, guides say. But sometimes they are South Africans participating in corporate team-building trips.

Ken Creighton, the director of KDR Travel, which runs tours in Soweto, says a visit to a squatter camp can help both international visitors and locals understand the challenges and struggles still facing South Africa. It can also be inspiring – to step into this different world and find many people who are friendly, intelligent, and motivated.

"It's just an interesting, different place to visit if you're used to living in a white picket fence suburb," he says. "We always find that people come out of Soweto feeling positive about it. They always leave with a whole different approach to South Africa and Johannesburg and where they stay."

Residents in the Elias Motsoaledi Informal Settlement were quick to spot the trend. In the mid-'90s, soon after the settlement formed and when postapartheid tourism was beginning to grow, a community youth group decided that rather than have tour guides come into their neighborhood, they would take control of tourism themselves.

"We saw the tourists driving by on buses, and the guides were giving them information inside," Mr. Jack says. "We knew those tour guides were not from here. We knew it would be much better if the tourists came to us. Those guides were explaining the conditions that we live in – we knew we could explain those conditions better, because we actually live here."

The youth group – called "Uluntu," the Zulu word for humanity – elected representatives to talk to the provincial tourism association. They asked that registered guides bring tourists by the settlement. The youth group also elected a dozen volunteer guides from the neighborhood who they deemed trustworthy enough to put tourist donations in a general community fund. (At the end of a tour, a guide asks whether a visitor would like to make a donation, and then asks how much is a personal tip, and how much is for the community. Shongwe says the community ends up with around $1,400 a month, which is used for food parcels and other projects.)

Residents agreed to let visitors into their houses, knowing that the tourists might leave them a tip, too. They admonished their children not to beg.

Soon, word spread about the tour.

"We like to share the belief that there is a difference between being poor and miserable," Shongwe says, as he walks past the colorful aluminum shacks.

Elias Motsoaledi, named for one of the anti-apartheid fighters imprisoned with Nelson Mandela, sprouted in a vacant patch of land in Soweto in 1995, Shongwe says. Apartheid had ended the year before, and blacks from rural areas were taking advantage of their newfound freedom to move to Johannesburg – the "city of gold."

That's when Shongwe moved here, he says. He came from a rural province, hoping to make his fortune. His father was already here, working in a mine near Johannesburg – a major employer of black men during apartheid. They and nine of Shongwe's siblings lived together in a one-room shack, while Shongwe looked for a job. Because the new black-led government had promised every South African a house, they expected that their dwelling would be temporary. But by 1997, they and many others realized that jobs and houses would be hard to come by. Shongwe started volunteering as a guide.

"Do you want to go into one of the shacks?" he asks. "Pick any one."

In an aluminum-sided dwelling, spotlessly clean, Eric Tyalo sits on his bed – one of the only pieces of furniture that could fit. He lives here with his wife and two children and has a story similar to Shongwe's. He came to Johannesburg because it was the city of opportunity. But he couldn't find a job or afford a real house.

This isn't the first time he has welcomed a foreign visitor into his shack. "We see so many," he says. "At first, we were reluctant to accept white people coming into our community. We were really afraid of white people. Now we believe that white people are friends."

Tourist tips, he says, help make ends meet.

Outside, Shongwe points out the shebeen – the shack that is now a bar – where patrons use a radio (powered by car battery) to play music in the evenings. He points out the metal chain-link fences surrounding the shacks, and says that those are not for security, but for keeping out animals such as dogs and goats. He walks back up the dirt road, to the car lot and bids farewell.

Then the tourists drive away, and he joins his colleagues, waiting for the next ones to come along.

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