Maybe it’s because I’m white, born and raised in southern Africa. Maybe it’s because, in more than 25 years as journalist, many of those covering horrors across Africa, I have built up a thick, cynical skin.
Whatever the reason, I’m with Emzini Tours on a trip through Knysna’s hilltop township expecting little.
Township tours are, to my mind, something the foreigners love. They can see the legacy of apartheid, the poverty, and they can feel bad. Or they can indulge their need to imbibe the supposed vibrancy of local culture.
And there’s always the sense tourists are treating the township part of their itineraries the same way they’d do the national parks. Different place, different species?
Why do we – South Africans, and specifically white South Africans – need to do this sort of thing?
We are only too aware of the grinding poverty in our towns and cities, of the gap between rich and poor. Why must we take the guilt trip?
Then there is the reality that there are horrendous social problems in these places: drunkenness, robbery, violence and abuse. And things don’t seem to get any better.
How can we – a few tourists traipsing through a squatter camp in search of their poverty “fix” – make the slightest bit of difference?
But as we sit in the modest township house of tour leader Ella Mahlulo, I realise: I am already halfway down my own road to Damascus.
With sweet sticky buns and vetkoek on the table and a cup of sweet, hot tea in my hand, I listen to the woman with the sunshine smile talk frankly about her struggles in life. (How on earth she still manages to laugh is beyond me.)
But then she picks up a drum and, with a young girl, gives us a stirring rendition of a Xhosa classic, The Click Song, in a soaring, pure voice. It could be so cheesy, but it’s not. It connects white and black in a way millions of mealy-mouthed mutterings by politicians could never do.
In the end, it’s a song of hope. And, quite unexpectedly, I find a lump in my throat. Hold on. White cowboys don’t cry in a black woman’s township house. Where’s that cup of tea? Where’s the camera?
For the past two hours I have been privileged to be part of an amazing experience.
Emzini Tours was begun by Ella and her friend Penny Mainwaring as a business three years ago, but one founded on a shared belief in doing the right thing and in trying to make a change, however small.
And, in the process, they bring real meaning to the often-overworked phrase so beloved of corporate social investment experts – “putting something back”.
As a social worker and someone who is well-known in the community, Ella was concerned about the hunger among the young children whose parents were unemployed,
So she then started a soup kitchen from her house, initially feeding three children.
This quickly mushroomed to more than 30 kids a day – and it became clear her house wasn’t big enough.
Two English visitors agreed there was a need and dipped into their pockets to pay for a shipping container which was painted in bright colours as the “official” soup kitchen.
Ella, who comes from what she says is a background of abuse inher past, would often talk to visitors about the terrible, booze-fuelled violence which was taking place in the township. Many of the victims were women and children who could not escape their environment. What they needed was a safe house.
More foreign tourists listened and saw the need and, within a short time, money had been raised to buy the land for the building of a safe house. More donations meant that a mini-safe house, which can accommodate up to six people, was soon built.
Things have now got to such a stage that Ella often receives calls during the night to take in women and the children who are being assaulted. The stout fence, with padlocked gate, erected around the safe house has already warded off many an angry man in search of revenge.
Men with bad attitudes are one of the main problems in the township, says Ella, because they often feel disempowered and angry about their circumstances. But someone like Ella, a woman, is not the person who can talk to them, who can penetrate centuries of male tradition. Now she is looking for the right man to be a counsellor – who can listen, sympathise, but who can also make it plain that anger cannot be vented on vulnerable people such as women and children.
Other tourists were also moved by the young children’s plight, children who, despite the government’s commitment to free education for those who can’t afford it, struggle to get a decent start on the schooling ladder. Emzini thus set up an education fund to help those most in need.
All the projects are run with transparency as the keynote – donors receive regular reports and a stream of digital photosexplaining exactly where their money has gone.
It’s true it’s not only the foreign visitors who support the projects. A number of Knysna residents donate food, clothing and blankets, and local doctors, vets and animal welfare offer their services for free. But Ella and Penny would like to see more South Africans on their tours, and more people spreading the message inside the country.
And when you visit the projects, you don’t get the sense you’re a gawking tourist… it’s more that you’re there as a visitor and a friend. In the true sense of that other overworked word, ubuntu.
If you are ever depressed about what the future holds for South Africa, go to the pre-schools and crèches Ella will show you in the Knysna township. There is an innocence and curiosity – and a love for people, not skin colour – which breaks through even the thickest cynicism and leaves you humbled. And also determined that these youngsters, these open books, are owed something by the rest of us… they are owed a truly better life, and not a better life as a political slogan.
It is something I think about as I sip the sweet tea.
I remember the little three-year-old girl who, according to Ella, was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. She is shy. But she has a beautiful smile. These days, she can smile… but a few months ago, she was like a trapped animal. Ella and those around her are healing little girls like this.
There is a difference in Knysna and tourism is helping realise that difference.
Penny, an animal lover, has taken up the cause of the township dogs and now, with the help of sponsors, is able to regularly distribute dog food and weatherproof kennels.
When Emzini Tours’ blue kombi arrives in the township, the dogs appear from all over and follow Penny the Pied Piper and her dog biscuits. The fact that Emzini does wonderful work in the Knysna township doesn’t detract from the reality that the tour can be a helluva lot of fun.
They will take you to the local businesses – a tip here… the dressmaker (Ma Maduna)does wonderful traditional skirts and tops and shoes, nogal! – where you can buy what is on offer, from products to food and drink at the shebeen. You can chat to a local Rasta and get your hair permed in a container-based hair salon.
You also get a straight-talking, unvarnished view of the township from people who know it.
You will hear that foreigners – and a number of Somalis and Ghanaians have moved in in recent years – are not regarded as outsiders but as part of the community.
There was not much problem with violence here in the wave of xenophobia which swept the rest of South Africa, says Ella.
There is also acknowledgement that the ANC, when it controlled Knysna, did really make a difference by erecting houses and bringing in services.
But the party neglected its supporters politically and their sense of betrayal meant that, in the local elections earlier this year, the DA took over.
If it doesn’t deliver, it will also get kicked out.
For South Africans, and especially non-African South Africans, Emzini Tours will take you out of your comfort zone; it will force you to confront the stereotypes you have about other people and about our townships.
It will remind you – because you have forgotten – that, under the skin, we are all the same.
Sometime during the three-hour tour you will have that moment which makes you stop, pause, and think: I am grateful for how well off I am; this woman’s got rhythm and soul… or: when I look into the faces of these three-year-olds, I see hope.
And, as you sit, sipping the sweet tea, on the lino floor and with the pulsing drums and soaring harmonies flowing around you, you realise: I feel that hope too.
l Emzini Tours co-founder Penny Mainwaring is my sister-in-law. While you may be tempted to accuse me of nepotism, please do not do so until you have done the tour and can come back and say, honestly, that there is not something special happening in this scrappy little township.
If you are heading down Knysna way at the end of the year, and if being surrounded by the trappings of success (and excess) over the|holidays makes you yearn for|something else, experience Emzini.
You won’t be bored, you will be challenged.
You might even be changed.