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Digging deep - taking a South Africa township tour with Uthando

I'd read about "township" tours - visiting the sprawling settlements which inch up to the edges of South Africa's big cities - but I was interested in more than a voyeuristic look at South Africa's great economic divide.

Uthando, 2017 winners of the African Responsible Tourism Awards for Best Tour Operator for Impact in Urban Areas, works with 41 social, agricultural, and cultural projects in a number of Cape Town townships helping create and celebrate different lives for the millions of South Africans who live in Khayelitsha, Gugulethu, and other townships.

The journey from apartheid to contemporary South Africa

Our tour guide in Uthando, South Africa

Xolani, our guide, picked our group up from Cape Town's central glassy hotels and drove us directly into another world. I'd visited Johannesburg's Soweto on a township tour but it was a curated experience on Soweto "main street" with Desmond Tutu's house, Nelson Mandela's home, and the Soweto strip of restaurants. With Xolani, whose home is Khayelitsha township, we'd be taking a tour deep into the heart of this settlement - hitched to the southeast side of Cape Town - and home to more than two million souls.

"Uthando donates 60% of its proceeds to projects. It's not a hand out, but a hand up."

Xolani explained, talking about the non-profit organisation's ethos of bridging philanthropic tourism with community projects.

Township Uthando, South Africa

I'd expected a more gentle introduction to contemporary South African politics but Xolani, whose name means "peace" in the Xhosa language of his native tribe, was frank and informative and got straight to the point:

"Between 1948 and 1994, we had a neo-Nazi policy of racial segregation. Some 150 laws were passed including the prohibition of mixed marriages, the Group Areas Act which saw non-whites sent to the outskirts of the cities which is why we have the townships, and then there was the Race Classification Act where people were classified by skin colour."

Township jobs and hope

Township Uthando, South Africa

"Our townships were dark places, and people were fighting and resolving things by the barrel of the gun. I grew up with that. The Bantu Education Act of 1953 made sure black and white could not mix educationally. There was no focus on quality education for black people. People were illiterate as we didn't have quality education so this created conditions where black youth were good for unskilled labour only."

Xolani told us.

Uthando, through their huge scope of partner projects, are ensuring that a wide variety of skills are cultivated amid all social groups in the townships. South Africa's unemployment rate is 27.7%, Xolani informed us, so any upskilling projects make a difference.

Cultivating new roots at the Ikhaya Kulture Garden

Khayetlisha, established in 1983, means "new homes" but it was only ever meant to be a temporary set up, Xolani told us. As we drove into the dense residential area I was shocked seeing a sprawling township settlement for the first time. Rows upon rows of dishevelled small tin shacks stand and tilt cheek by jowl, with the occasional clearing which housed toilet cubicles and a water tap.

Township Uthando, South Africa

Electricity poles poked skywards into a clear blue sky with the sun beating down on the corrugated iron rooftops. It's shocking that 24 years after the first post apartheid government took office that millions are still living in such decrepit conditions.

We drove over a bridge emblazoned with the words "The People shall share in the Country's Wealth!" painted by famous South African street artist Faith47. These words - a founding statement from South Africa's Freedom Charter - provided serious food for thought surrounded by millions of tin shack homes.

Khayetlisha's Ikhaya Kulture Garden, Uthando, South Africa

At Khayetlisha's Ikhaya Kulture Garden we met Xolisa BanganiI whose mission is to make "gardening cool" and by doing so is fusing in art elements. We sat down on tree stumps amid the garden greenery, and the first green leaves we'd seen since leaving Cape Town.

"Youth unemployment stands at 55% so this kind of project is encouraging young people to achieve."

Xolisa explained. Xolisa, a poet and artist himself also explained:

"We had also seen a huge gap between people and their connection to nature and we wanted to change stereotypes and for people to cultivate gardens so to make it cool we fused in art elements."

Ping ping table used by children at Ikhaya Kulture Garden, Uthando, South Africa

Our view, amid the enveloping cool and shade of the plants, was of ping pong tables being used by local children - decorated with the help of street artists. Xolisa recalled:

"This patch was a dump. People thought we were nuts planting food here and couldn't believe we could grow food in the sandy soil."

To prove his success Xolisa guided us around the vegetable plot where we fingered the broccoli, aubergine, cauliflower, and potatoes while explaining:

"It's all organic here, and one of our roles is to help people prepare food in a natural, healthy way. Most Khayatelisha people can't tell the difference between organic and non-organic food so we're educating people.

"We're also focussing on indigenous food which is in danger because of climate change."

Growing spinach at Ikhaya Kulture Garden, Uthando, South Africa

At Ikhaya Kulture Garden, they're tempting dune spinach to grow, a wild shrub with a succulent leaf whose natural habitat is coastal sand dunes.

Veggie soup, beads, and a boutique store

"Lulu" - Lulama Sihlabeni, greeted us at our next visit at the eKhaya eKasi centre, a "Home in the Hood" project, which seeks to develop skills for local women.

Boutique at eKhaya eKasi centre, Uthando, South Africa

Director Lulu spoke to us next to the project's boutique store laid out inside a shipping container. She explained:

"This project, co-founded by some Californians, is about providing employment in the township.

"Our first focus is on women's skills. Many women grew up doing bead work as a hobby but now they are making an income - selling through our store, or at markets."

Women bake project at eKhaya eKasi centre, Uthando, South Africa

We tour the boutique with its colourful gifts, jewellery, mobiles and t-shirts while Lulu also told us that the project's women bake, create silk screen prints, and help with a children's literary project. OAPs also come to the centre for two hours a week for yoga, massage, and crotchet, too, we learnt.

We climbed to the centre's rooftop garden, a perfectly organised oasis with netting protecting all the vegetable trays, and a refreshing breeze blowing in.

Rooftop garden at eKhaya eKasi centre, Uthando, South Africa

"Our 12 women involved in the project grow carrots, beetroot, cabbage, and Swiss chard, and we make soup three times a week to serve to the community."

Lulu explained.

Christmas decorations, Uthando, South Africa

Christmas celebration

Our next stop was far more active as we joined an end of year Christmas party at the Sinovuyo Seniors Old Age Project. The seniors - mostly all women - wore their best dresses and smart hats. The atmosphere in the room was fantastic as the a capella group "Major Voices" performed a dazzling all-singing all-dancing set for the group.

Christmas party at the Sinovuyo Seniors Old Age Project, Uthando, South Africa

It didn't take long for the ladies to get up and dance and soon we are all invited to join in, too. It was a wonderful, heart-warming moment as we danced with the ladies, then with the singers, and then in a big circle for the finale. "Sinovuyo" means joyous which summed up perfectly the spirit of the celebration.

James Fernie, Director of Uthando, gave a speech to the pensioners:

"You may not have met Mandela, but all these people are Mandela. The value system that is sitting here can guide us through."

Christmas party with the Major Voices group at the Sinovuyo Seniors Old Age Project, Uthando, South Africa

James then offered a voucher to all the seniors at the party "to help out over Christmas." This prompted more applause and another reason to jive and jiggle to the tireless guys of the Major Voices group whose Christmas party vibe was warm and inviting.

Afterwards, I spoke to James. He explained Uthando's raison d'etre:

"Every business on the planet should have a Fair Trade philosophy if the earth and all who inhabit the earth (besides human beings) are going to survive and thrive. Now is the time for genuine caring, sharing and respect for people, animals, and mother earth. This is the ethos that underlies Uthando and how we try our best to be the change that we wish to see in the world."

Uthando, which means "love" in the Xhosa language is spreading love far and wide. By taking part in a Uthando tour, it's important to know the tour fee gives a helping hand to the township residents of South Africa.

Claire Boobbyer

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Claire Boobbyer

Claire Boobbyer

Cultural Explorer

A self-confessed wanderluster and devoted culture lover, Claire writes about her frequent travels...

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