South African townships still dangerous post apartheid
Township visits are now celebrated as a legitimate tourist experience, but travelling at night through these underlit and overcrowded areas is tempting fate, says Graham Boynton.
Cape Tourism, the South African province's very professional tourism promotion arm, is unequivocal in encouraging foreign visitors to travel out to the notorious Cape Flats and visit the Gugulethu township.
According to its brochure "the community has embraced the tourism industry, so there is no shortage of restaurants, jazz clubs and B&Bs.
"For the more intrepid traveller," the brochure trills, "take a ride in a taxi or even visit a traditional healer."
I have been in and out of South Africa's townships for decades, from the dark and dangerous days of apartheid - when it really was an edgy, front line experience - to more recent times, where township tourism is celebrated as a legitimate tourist experience. I certainly would not drive around Gugulethu or any of the other Cape townships on a Saturday night.
I last stayed overnight in a township five years ago, in Vicky's B&B in Khayelitsha, right beside Gugulethu. It is the most advertised township B&B in South Africa and travellers from all over the world stay in this "humble shack made out of tree trunks, corrugated iron and hardboard".
I found it a singularly unedifying experience and did not find the streets around Vicky's particularly safe for inexperienced foreigners. I was particularly concerned for a young Dutch backpacker who was staying at Vicky's at the same time. She was oblivious to any potential dangers and went out drinking alone at a nearby shebeen because she said she wanted to "hang out with real South Africans."
I left early the following morning and as far as I know nothing untoward happened to her. However, the people who picked me up and took me to Cape Town – and they were black South Africans – said they thought I was crazy staying in a township overnight, even at a famous establishment such as Vicky's.
South Africa's crime statistics make frightening reading – more than 18,000 people are murdered there every year. Very few victims are foreign visitors, but it does seem to be tempting fate to travel through these overcrowded, underlit townships on a Saturday night, whatever the brochures say.