Objectifying people in townships

2014-10-31 00:00

LATELY, I have been struggling with the idea (and proliferation) of “social justice tours” in South Africa.

These are tours that take the tourist through low-income, economically depressed or working-class neighbourhoods — mostly former townships — while teaching them and allowing them to “witness the reality of marginalisation, 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 non-profit organisation run by Gillian Schutte, a well-known Internet commentator, and her husband, film-maker Sipho Singiswa, in Johannesburg’s Alexandra and two other black townships.

I find the concept extremely offensive, although Schutte and Singiswa suggest their tour is different from the 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 fervour on Twitter over whether they 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 crystallised my discomfort with the use of the tour-the-township method in the name of social justice.

The spectatorist method — a term I use to describe the process of observing poverty — as a means of social conscientisation isolates community struggles; oppression and marginalisation are isolated to a singular geographic location (i.e. poverty only happens in the townships). It erases the many ways in which poverty and marginalisation incorporate themselves and infiltrate 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 marginalisation as an entire system that penetrates into your (the observers) daily interactions creates a compartmentalised and distanced understanding of poverty from ourselves.

If the tours are to have a social justice component that has any chance of surviving beyond the allocated three hours, the tours need to move into the neighbourhoods of the observers and expose the segregation, poverty and marginalisation that 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 live oblivious to the marginalisation around us. Tour factory shops and the street corners populated by unemployed workers waiting in the hope that a bakkie driver looking for workers will offer them a job for the day.

Or maybe tour the homes of wealthy white South Africans; experience how they rationalise 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 exist only 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 (i.e. LGBTI people, 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 self-sustaining communal 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.” — Africa is a Country.

• T he blog Africa is a Country is not about famine, Bono, or Barack Obama. It was founded by South African Sean Jacobs. URL:


Join the conversation!

24.com encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions.

24.com publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire 24.com network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.