Cape Town Township Tours
Full Day Township and Robben Island Tour
Half Day Township Tour
CAPE TOWN TOWNSHIP TOURS
A tour of one of the big townships in Cape Town is an opportunity to learn more about its history and experience first-hand the way of life of thousands of people who call the sprawling settlement their home. There is some debate as to whether township tours are moral or insensitive but the consensus is, when conducted in an appropriate manner, they can be extremely valuable on a number of fronts.
Why you should go on a Cape Town township tour
Firstly, they’re educational. They provide insight into the past, present and future of these busy urban hubs. Once places of desperate poverty and home to Cape residents who were forcibly removed to bleak segregated townships during the cruel apartheid era, visitors witness a sense of hope, growth and prosperity as the towns undergo urban renewal and are reinvigorated through the tenacity and resolve of the residents.
Secondly, they’re inspirational. Township tours promote empathy and understanding of the conditions the families endure and respect for their determination to create better lives for themselves through entrepreneurship, hard work and community spirit.
Last but not least, they’re beneficial. The communities benefit financially from visitors eating and drinking at the restaurants and taverns, donations to community initiatives and buying souvenirs from the township entrepreneurs. Many of the township tours are run by reputable tour operators who themselves reside in the township.
Are Cape Town township tours safe?
A tour of the Cape Town townships is safe as long as you book through a reputable tour operator. These operators make your safety a priority and know which areas are crime hotspots and which are safe to visit.
Your guide has grown up in the township you visit and is a respected member of the community. The homes and taverns you visit have been carefully selected and you only visit places that are happy to participate in the tour itinerary.
What to expect of a Cape Town township tour
The tour guide either picks you up from your accommodation in Cape Town and drives you to the different townships or they are there to meet you as soon as you arrive if you choose to drive to the township in your own car.
Your guide stays with you for the duration of the tour; walking through the dusty streets and telling you more about the history of the township, visiting members of the community in their homes and having lunch or drinks at a street tavern.
It’s highly recommended that you visit the Cape Town townships with a guide who works for a reputable tour operator. It’s not only your safety that is a concern but also how you behave and interact with the community on your visit that’s important.
You’re a stranger in a town that doesn’t like to have its poverty exposed and for people to be treated as zoo exhibits. You’ll be guided to places and homes that participate in the tour itinerary and welcome you. Please remember, you’re expected to treat each person you meet and interact with respectfully.
Read a visitors account of a tour of Langa township.
District Six Museum
Most Cape Town township tours start with a visit to the District Six Museum, located a short 2-kilometre drive from Cape Town’s central business district. It’s an incredible facility that captures the history of the area during the turbulent years of apartheid and stories of the people who were forcibly removed from their homes under the Group Areas Act, 1950.
The Group Areas Act was one of the most infamous of the apartheid era. It prevented non-Whites from living in areas classified as White areas. Specific urban areas were assigned to different ethnic groups and people were forcibly removed from their homes in Whites-only zones and relocated to settlements that were anything but desirable.
In its formative years, District Six was an impoverished inner city settlement that was mostly inhabited by Coloured (mixed race) people. It may have been a poor area but it was renowned for its vibrant spirit and eclectic community.
Lying at the feet of Table Mountain, District Six was home to merchants, artisans, freed slaves, laborers, musicians, artists, immigrants and native Africans. The majority working-class Cape Coloured community welcomed into their district Whites, Blacks, Indians and Jews and for many years, it was a harmonious residential hub.
District Six was seen as an unwanted eyesore by the wealthier Capetonian residents. The outbreak of a plague in 1901 gave city officials an excuse to move Black residents – mostly migrant labourers – out of District Six under the guise that the conditions were unsanitary and likely to cause the spread of the disease.
A new township on the infamous Cape Flats was set up essentially to ‘quarantine’ Black District Six residents, albeit for “their own safety”. The Coloured residents that remained behind retained its rich cultural heritage, although the district continued to decline.
Apartheid gained a stronger hold on the country and in 1950, the Group Areas Act was passed. By 1966, District Six had been officially designated a Whites-only zone and forced removal of its interracial communities began in earnest two years later. Forced removals were justified by the apartheid government on the basis that District Six had become a slum and a hotbed of immoral and illegal activity.
Over a period of 16 years between 1966 and 1982, more than 60 000 District Six residents were forcibly relocated to townships built on the notorious Cape Flats. The area was unfit for habitation but the government continued with their plans to relocate whole communities to areas that were over 25 kilometres from their old homes and places of work.
Bulldozers were bought in and family homes in District Six were flattened. Only places of worship were not destroyed. For many years after that, District Six lay untouched and became a dustbowl. The empty abandoned area was a permanent scar on the city and served as a constant reminder of the heinous acts of the apartheid government.
Today, District Six remains relatively undeveloped and its former residents have not returned to the area. The District Six Museum and The Fugard Theatre were established in an old Methodist Church that was left untouched by the bulldozers.
The museum serves to preserve the unique culture of the vibrant District Six community and provides visitors with unique insight into the pain and suffering that its inhabitants endured as a result of the forced relocations. The Fugard Theatre hosts thought-provoking plays, many of them with a political context to remind people of the past and give hope for a brighter future.
Interesting information about the Cape Town townships you’ll visit
The majority of non-White inhabitants were forcibly relocated to townships that were set up in the infamous Cape Flats. As the name sounds, it was a vast stretch of wasteland that was flat, barren and essentially uninhabitable. The Cape Flats lie east of the northern and southern suburbs of Cape Town, about 25 kilometres from Cape Town City Bowl.
Townships were established according to designated race categories. There were settlements for the “influx” of Black males, predominantly migrant laborers and the Coloured and Asian communities that had been forcibly removed from places like District Six.
Today, township tours focus on the urban settlements that have a rich cultural and political history. These sprawling areas are still home to some of the poorest communities in the Western Cape but inroads have been made to improve infrastructure and the basic standard of living.
Here are some interesting snippets on the Top 3 Cape Town townships that visitors are taken to on a guided tour.
The name Langa means ‘sun’ in the local African language; however, for many years, the sun didn’t shine on the inhabitants of this cramped, deeply-impoverished settlement.
Established in 1919, Langa is the oldest township in South Africa. The township was hastily established after the first wave of Spanish Flu highlighted the inhumane living conditions of predominantly Black people living near the N2 highway. Langa was designated as an urban settlement for Black South Africans.
The original structures put up in Langa were shanty huts. The roads were unpaved and the government provide few resources for a decent standard of living. The township had no electricity and water had to be fetched from a few tap points.
The majority of people who were forcibly relocated to Langa were migrant Black laborers. They were housed in barracks which were separated from each other by a high, un-scalable fence.
There was little privacy in the barracks and women, including wives, were strictly forbidden from visiting the men. Gatherings were also strictly controlled and the brewing of traditional beer was prohibited. Only primary schools were set up in Langa, until 1937 after a group of clergy and parents relentlessly petitioned for schools that offered secondary learning.
Langa was the epicenter of resistance during the brutal apartheid era and is rich in political and cultural history. Today, Langa is a vibrant township with a warm and welcoming community who have fought hard to overcome hardships that threatened to destroy their spirit and tenacity.
Khayelitsha means ‘new home’ in Xhosa; although for the vast majority of its first inhabitants, their ‘new homes’ was nothing more than a tented camp. The sprawling township was originally built under the principle of racial segregation, enforced by the Group Areas Act. Today, Khayelitsha is the second-largest Black township in South Africa after Soweto in Johannesburg.
Located on the barren wastelands of the Cape Flats, Khayelitsha was originally established to accommodate Cape Coloureds. Many of them were forcibly relocated to the new development from Old Crossroads to relieve overcrowding or they moved voluntarily to escape the Witdoeke (White Handkerchief), a notoriously violent vigilante group.
In 1984, the National Party dropped the Coloured-preference policy for the area and conceded Khayelitsha residents could apply for 99-year leaseholds. By 1986, some 8 300 people had occupied 4 150 serviced sites, each with a tap and toilet. A further 13 000 residents rented 5 000 core houses which were small cement-brick structures.
Khayelitsha has grown rapidly since the 1990s, after the influx control regulations were abolished. The population has mushroomed to over 450 000 residents, making it one of the fastest-growing urban settlements in South Africa. The majority of the Khayelitsha community are Black South Africans, and predominantly Xhosa-speaking.
For first-time visitors, Khayelitsha may be an uncomfortable experience. It appears to be a sprawling mass of shanty huts with unpaved dirt roads and poor infrastructure. The overriding sense is the community is trapped in an endless cycle of dire poverty.
However, there is much hope for the people of Khayelitsha as they rally to improve their livelihoods and standard of living. Since the dawn of democracy, the Khayelitsha community has harnessed its collective entrepreneurial spirit and the township today supports a thriving community of artisans, informal traders, small business enterprises and restaurant, tavern and guest house owners.
Gugulethu is an energetic community, affectionately known as Gugs. It’s located adjacent to Cape Town International Airport and is home to over 100 000 people. It’s one of the oldest townships in South Africa and one of the fastest-growing.
The name Gugulethu is a contraction of ‘igugu lethu’ which is the Xhosa word for ‘our pride’. Today, the sprawling township is a combination of extreme poverty and a vibrant community with good future prospects. It has its roots in the migrant labour system and still today, many of its inhabitants have arrived in the Cape in search of work from rural Transkei or the former homelands of the Eastern Cape.
Along with Nyanga, the other historic township, Gugulethu was established in the 1960s to relieve overcrowding at the migrant barracks in Langa township. At the time, Langa was the only Black settlement in Cape Town. During the apartheid era, Black South Africans were not allowed to live in the city of Cape Town and were moved out of the city precinct to areas like Gugulethu on the Cape Flats under the notorious Group Areas Act.
The original homes were pre-fabricated galvanised iron sheds set up for Black residents who were moved from Windermere when it was declared a Coloured area. Each iron shed could accommodate a family of four, usually families who were eligible to be moved into permanent housing when it became available. There were single-quarter barracks for men who worked as migrant labourers.
Gugulethu has grown rapidly, particularly after the dawn of democracy when the influx control regulations were abolished. Like Khayelitsha, Gugs can be quite overwhelming for first-time visitors as many of its residents appear to live in abject poverty. Despite dire living conditions, Gugs is home to a lively community and you’ll be inspired by their enterprising spirit and enthusiasm to improve their lives.