Be a tourist

2008-10-16 00:00

While dramatic events are taking place on the national and the international scene, ordinary life goes on, often quite untouched by the news which makes the headlines. Today I want to write about tourism. Mind you, there is nothing merely everyday or parochial about tourism. It is reputed to be the world’s biggest industry — although one cannot help wondering how it will be affected by the financial and economic crisis. It seems that the Summit of IBSA (India, Brazil and South Africa), which took take place in New Delhi yesterday and which President Kgalema Motlanthe was to attend, was, among other pressing issues, to consider an agreement on tourism.

Some people regard tourism as an essentially frivolous activity; when I was young I held this view myself. Of course some tourism is indeed little more than casual relaxation: travelling, sunbathing, buying a few kitsch mementoes, a superficial glance at things that other people say are significant and taking a few quick photos before rushing on to the next stop. But for many thoughtful people tourism, while retaining its overall ethos of relaxation, is truly a learning experience, something which can en-large the mind, the imagination and the sympathies. In our world which has become a global village, tourism is arguably more significant than ever before. If we are to avoid constant strife and misunderstanding, it is important that those who are able to travel as tourists should try to understand the geography and the history of a variety of cultures.

My focus here, however, is local. In the past few weeks two significant KwaZulu-Natal tourist booklets have appeared. The first is the latest edition of the great Midlands Meander brochure. The second is the brochure of the new Freedom Route, which was launched re-cently in the Pietermaritzburg City Hall.

After the dominance of apartheid, which few international tourists felt like observing, South Africa has lagged behind somewhat in the tourist industry. But by many accounts our own Midlands Meander is one of the world’s success stories. As the brochure puts it eloquently: “From the original six artists and simple brown paper map, the Midlands Meander has evolved into a vibrant tourist route that offers an interesting range of crafts, art, accommodation and experiences.” As the attractive, detailed and elaborately illustrated brochure shows, the 433 sites offer a cornucopia of exciting cultural offerings and activities. Merely to read and look through the brochure is an experience in itself.

The dazzling variety of the illustrations might at first give one the impression that the midlands area is a frenzy of activity, but that isn’t so. The sites are all separate — one need visit no more than one or two (and there are no entrance fees) — and indeed the brochure puts some emphasis on the beauty of the hills and the fact that midlands people live “at a gentler pace” and conduct their “business in harmony with [their] community and the natural environment”.

A visit to some of the meander sites is a truly enriching experience, especially for those who live the hurried and sometimes narrow life of cities and towns. Those who like the midlands and become interested in something of its history would enjoy reading the fascinating Historical Meander Through the Midlands of KwaZulu-Natal, elegantly and often amusingly written by Bill Bizley and Pat McKenzie.

The Freedom Route is of course rather different, although not so different as one might suppose. It too offers to enlarge the mind and the sympathies, in this case by showing South Africans and people from other countries glimpses of some of the places where the freedom struggle had its various conceptions and developments. Despite the recent tensions and anxieties generated in the political and judicial fields, South Africa remains a place that most thoughtful people admire and are fascinated by; and KZN is rich in political-cultural history. Who were the people who began the anti-apartheid struggle, and how did they manage to carry it on in such a way that the seemingly inevitable bloodbath was averted? What was the underlying spirit of their opposition? And where are the places where significant events occurred? The Freedom Trail offers tours that include visits, in and around Durban, to the Kwa Muhle Museum, the Luthuli Museum, Cato Manor, the Inanda area (associated with Mahatma Gandhi and John Dube) and other townships such as Clermont and Umlazi; and, in and around Pietermaritzburg, the old prison, various significant sites in Edendale and Imbali, Sobantu (which also produced its struggle heroes), the Gandhi statue and the railway station where he first decided to combat racial injustice, the Alan Paton Centre and Struggle Archives at the University, and the Nelson Mandela capture site just outside Howick (well into Midlands Meander territory).

Most of us know all too little about these people and these places. It’s worth embarking on the Freedom Route.

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