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A Day in Soweto

As the white van turns left off of the M12 into Soweto, South Africa’s largest township, an awkward silence falls over the group of American tourists.

“So Joe, what is it that your government is doing to improve the lives of everybody in your country?” Joe Motsogi, owner of JMT Tours and Safaris, asks himself on his headset.

For Joe – who points out that the government is spending millions of rand on various housing and development projects at every stop – a tour is not only about the sights and sounds of Soweto, but about the future of his country.
At times he seems overly optimistic about a country whose daily headlines routinely involve triple murders and disturbing rapes, but Joe keeps a positive attitude to make sure tourists will come back a second time.

“I am not trying to hide crime,” he says, “but it is important to remember we are ambassadors of our country.”

Joe, who is also chairman of the Gauteng Guides Association, tries to be enthusiastic about SA to help ensure that tourism continues to grow. Otherwise, the industry that he has seen develop over the past 10 years in Soweto and across the country could crumble – and take thousands of jobs with it.

From Diepkloof to Orlando West, Joe proves himself to be a treasure trove of facts, statistics and personal stories about every corner of Soweto. 300 churches, 264 primary schools, 70 high schools, one university, 18 state clinics and seven libraries grace the township. Not only can Joe recount all the numbers, but his own story illustrates the history and future of Soweto. Thirty years ago, Joe was part of the student movement that helped organize the June 16th uprising, which many credit with speeding the downfall of apartheid.

“I came from a past whereby people died in front of me and I was fortunate enough to survive,” he says.

As a political activist, he couldn’t get a job until 1979, when he started working in the liquor industry. While working at South African Breweries, he began taking visitors to SA around Joburg, and decided to begin his own tourism company with his wife, Sophie, in 1997.

“We want people to understand the culture of ubuntu – humanity – and show visitors the good hospitality of Soweto,” he says.

Joe begins each tour by driving through all parts of Soweto – from a more upscale area in Diepkloof where gated homes start at R400,000, to a 10-minute walking tour in the Motsoaledi informal settlement, where people use outside water pumps and toilets. He takes people to the Hector Pieterson Memorial, the Nelson Mandela family home, and the Baragwanath Marketplace, and drives by the houses of Desmond Tutu and Winnie Mandela. Then it’s off to Wandies Place for a meal.

Perhaps the visit to Motsoaledi makes the best example of why tourism is so important in a place like Soweto. A group of local “volunteers” take turns walking tour groups through their neighbourhoods, in the hopes of receiving a gratuity from the visitors. Khawulani Moyo, 23, is just one person who benefits from what Joe calls “spin-offs” – informal economic activity generated by the tourism industry. Moyo brings tourists past self-made shacks of corrugated metal and wire and explains that the people of his community heat their homes through candlelight and paraffin stoves – there is no electricity. They use buckets for showers and old newspapers as wallpaper.

As a final stop among the shacks, tourists enter the home of “Alfred”, where it becomes obvious that not everybody in SA has benefited equally from 12 years of democracy. While Alfred does not have running water or heat – amenities many in SA take for granted – he makes sure his garden is well-kept and his windows are adorned with beautiful drapes. The visit to these informal settlements comes as a shock to many tourists, who often spend their nights in upscale hotels in Sandton, north of Joburg. But this is one of the realities that, by visiting, tourists are helping to change – even if they don’t know it.

By spending their money in townships, they are boosting the local community and creating jobs, according to Judy Pilay, a representative of South African Tourism, which sponsored the May 6-9 Tourism Indaba in Durban.

“The numbers speak for themselves,” she said, citing the increase of visitors to the country by 9 percent, to 7.3 million, in 2004 to 2005. “Tourism brings important revenue to South Africa.”

The Indaba focussed on growing the industry, its infrastructure and support systems – especially in light of the 2010 World Cup – and celebrated achieving the target to attract seven million visitors to SA in 2005.

In the meantime, Joe is looking after his company, and helping to train others to prepare for the World Cup. Along with other tour operators, including his 22-year-old son, he is beginning to build capacity to provide for the influx of tourists. As he dropped off his tour group at their final stop, the Apartheid Museum in Gold Reef City, he looked back at his van and said, “Tourism must be backed up by knowledge, but it starts with passion.”

(Mike Cherney, a fellow Medill student, contributed to this story.)