Where do you draw the line between tourism and voyeurism? The Auschwitz extermination camp is open to public visitors and schools. Yet when I took a guided tour, the sight of people talking and laughing or posing for photographs could seem to cross an invisible boundary.
In Britain, yesterday’s horror is today’s National Trust snow globe. But when we are talking less about history than current affairs, the issue is more tricky. A BBC man reporting from the worst-hit areas of New Orleans recoiled at the sight of a bus full of spectators on the “Hurricane Katrina tour”.
This week I found myself in Soweto, shuffling awkwardly into a cramped, tin-roofed shack, trying to make conversation with a woman so she would not feel like a sociological specimen in her own home. Put “Soweto” into Google and you may be offered “Property in Soweto”, “Dating in Soweto” and “Soweto Tours”. Not everyone’s idea of a holiday. Soweto is a world-famous brand, certainly, but generally for reasons that no one would want to shout about.
The origins of the South Western Township lie in the forced eviction of black families from their homes in central Johannesburg. Sophiatown, for example, the seat of black culture, was bulldozed and replaced by a whites-only suburb. The riots of June 1976, in which children such as Hector Pieterson were killed by police bullets, put Soweto at the heart of the struggle against apartheid.
It became the biggest black urban settlement in Africa, and synonymous with the moral violation of official policy. Sprawling over almost 100 square miles, this shantytown had scant electricity, running water or sanitation.
But with the election of Nelson Mandela came an attempt to heal this scar on South Africa’s conscience. New houses were built and basic services improved for the estimated 2-3 million residents. One of Africa’s biggest shopping malls, with an eight-screen cinema, created new jobs when it opened in 2007.
The first Soweto books festival and Soweto theatre are due to arrive next year. The Soweto Open tennis tournament was held recently, although attendances were minuscule, and the revamped Orlando stadium will be used as a training venue for the 2010 World Cup, although it won’t be hosting games.
So the organised Soweto tours are not intended, at least, to be poverty porn. “People come here with a perception and they are wary,” the driver-guide told us – an American and two British tourists and me. “But afterwards they come back and say, ‘Why was I given such information?’ The government needs to do a better job about promoting modern Soweto.”
There is no single narrative, I found, about modern Soweto. Yes, the shopping mall was gleaming, but across the road were some down-at-heel buildings and bored-looking youths slouching against piles of tyres, seemingly unable to shop if they wanted to.
We were driven through freshly minted streets that looked the part of cosy suburbia: homes with front gate and drive, garden and garage. But a few minutes away we looked down on grim concrete rows of housing where people live cheek-by-jowl with little privacy.
We passed a station where market traders set out their stalls with a hint of chaos. “Do not feel uncomfortable about coming on a tour of Soweto,” said our guide. “The people here welcome you and understand that it’s good for you to be here, spending money in their restaurants.”
He stopped the bus at a small lane and said this was where we had an opportunity to meet a Sowetan and see inside their home. A local guide would take us there and we could give him a gratuity if we wished. We did not have to take the tour if we felt it inappropriate.
No one did, or no one said so. The local guide led us down a rough, uneven pathway, talking as he went. A woman stood filling a bucket at the only water tap that services the neighbourhood. We were led through a gate on to a patch of land that had been curated, apparently with some pride, into a communal garden.
We turned into a small house, boxy and makeshift, with beds and furniture crammed into every corner. Standing in the kitchen was a large, middle-aged woman wearing a sweater and keeping an eye on her toddler. Apparently she volunteers to open her home to tourists.
To nose around in silence would have been too downright weird. We tried, haltingly, to pay compliments and make conversation. The woman answered patiently but inscrutably. It was as if neither party was quite sure of its role in this peculiar social transaction.
One of our group pressed a coin into the hand of the toddler, and we left, not quite sure what we had learned but vaguely persuaded that we had learned something. Our guide was grateful for our tips and delivered us to traders hawking locally made handicrafts.
The tour continued to the excellent Hector Pieterson memorial and museum and the Regina Mundi church, a rallying point during the struggle, now hosting a terrific photography exhibition. Lunch was at a restaurant on Vilakazi Street, beside the home of Desmond Tutu and the former home of Nelson Mandela.
Did we know more by the end than before we started? Yes. I understand the objections about rubbernecking voyeurism and exploitation, but believe they are outweighed. The journalist in me says that more knowledge is intrinsically better, because the alternative is ignorance.
How often have you heard someone hold forth at a dinner party: “What do you know about X, Y or Z? Have you ever actually been there?” What do you know about Soweto unless you have actually been there? Better, surely, to see for yourself, as long as you don’t trust everything you see unquestioningly.