Article written

  • on 28.10.2014
  • at 10:30 AM
  • by Kevin Hind

A “take your madam home campaign” instead? A comment on social justice tours in townships 0

Lately I have been struggling with the idea (and the proliferation) of “social justice tours” in South Africa. If you don’t know what I am talking about, social justice tours are tours which take the tourist through low income, economically depressed or working class neighborhoods —mostly former townships—whilst teaching them and allowing them to “witness the reality of marginalization, poverty and oppression that 48% of [the] South African population is forced to endure.” The latest iteration of this kind is that run by Media for Justice, a nonprofit run by Gillian Schutte, a well-known web commentator and her husband, filmmaker Sipho Singiswa, in Johannesburg’s Alexandra and two other black townships.

I find the concept extremely offensive, though Schutte and Singiswa suggest their tour is different from the tourist township tours where tourists are taken in buses through townships to experience ‘authentic’ South Africa. Schutte (who is usually quite outspoken about the commodification and appropriation of black struggles) and Singiswa caused a fervor on Twitter over whether they themselves weren’t just commodifying poverty and objectifying people living in townships. A friend of mine sarcastically responded: “They’d have better luck with a take-your-madam-home campaign.” Sarcasm aside, both events crystallized my discomfort with the use of the tour-the-township method in the name of social justice.

It’s helpful to start first with a bit of history: the primary purpose underpinning the geographical construction of South African society from 1860 on was segregation. But apartheid as a policy was introduced in the 1948 general elections and legislation meant to implement it — such as the Group Areas Act of 1950, the Population Registration Act, and other similar legislation — was used a tool through which the image of the ‘other’ was reproduced and affirmed. Reifying apartheid in material terms; it ceased to be just an ideology and became a reality. Instead of the swartgevaar – a term which literally means black danger – being a mythical boogey man, it became personified in black bodies and evidenced by townships. When violent protests flared up it could be rationalized as confirmation of already ingrained beliefs about the violent and primitive nature of black people.

This forced isolation came with a particular narrative through which black bodies were to be viewed, and therefore spaces where black people lived took on the characteristics associated with those bodies. Townships became dangerous, dirty places. The marches of resistance, successors of the 1949 tram boycotts, then became confirmations of an already established narrative around black bodies and black spaces. Acts of resistance such as the 1952 Defiance Campaign, the Sharpeville massacre, and Soweto uprisings became affirmations of the primitive nature of black people to a state intent on justifying its racist separatist policies.

The spectatorist method – a term I use to describe the process of observing poverty – as a means of ‘social consciencitization,’ isolates community struggles; systematic and structural oppression and marginalization are isolated to a singular geographic location (i.e. poverty only happens in the townships.) It erases the intersectional ways in which poverty and marginalization incorporates itself and infiltrates every aspect of our lives, and it erases the fact that there are no spaces unoccupied by poverty. Limiting the possibilities of understanding oppression and marginalization as an entire system that penetrates into your (the observers) daily interactions creates a compartmentalized and distanced understanding of poverty from ourselves.

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