Johannesburg’s Airport Authority has an exhaustive list of safety tips for tourists flying into South Africa’s financial centre. One of the most striking of these pointers is ‘don’t display too much wealth’.
Words of caution like these are meted out primarily owing to the increasing crime in South African cities. The gaps between the rich and the poor are widening. The legacies of the policies of discrimination and apartheid continue to keep certain groups of people on the fringes of development, exacerbated by unequal development policies.
In this context, post-industrial cities like Johannesburg and Cape Town epitomise the dualistic nature of urban growth. The differences between the rich and the poor reflect overtly in the layout of the city and its neighbourhoods. So there are districts or areas consisting only of exclusive apartments with high gates and sophisticated alarm systems; and others with a higher concentration of people living in community settlements. Simply put, these cities are demarcated into the ghettos of the rich and those of the poor.
Driving into the heart of Johannesburg from its international airport provides a visual experience of this. So, one drives by Alexandria which is one of the biggest townships characterised by rows of houses clustered together. Within a couple of kilometers, one enters the sanitised district of SandtonCBD which is the city’s new Central Business District, marked by the tall towers of the multinationals of the world.
Given the high incidence of poverty and its exclusive containment to some districts, it is not very surprising that both Johannesburg and Cape Town are two of the most sought after holidaying destinations for what is known as ‘poverty tourism’ or slum tourism’. Jakarta in Indonesia, Lagos in Nigeria and Mumbai are some of the other popular choices.
These vacation choices may be motivated by attempts at reconciling the differences of wealth, income and lifestyles of different people. The differences seem to generate a sense of discomfort, curiosity even, especially given the close proximity at which they present themselves. For instance though Mumbai is not as spatially segregated as South African cities, it is often called the ‘city of contrasts’. For in Mumbai the rich and the poor co-exist at even closer quarters - in fancy residential towers, flanked by slum settlements.
The idea of slum tourism has received much flak for promoting a kind of commodification of poor people. However the trend need not be dismissed as just plain voyeurism. The motivation driving the need to seek these experiences stems from the irreconcilability of differences in any available framework. In many cases, it is motivated by just the simple question of how is it that we came to perpetuate such vast differences between the rich and the poor. While the practice in itself has several questions of ethics associated with it, the sense of curiosity driving it needs to be looked at in detail.
In this sense, slum tourism is quite similar to a tourist visiting a museum. The tourist seeks to know more about a time and space that he does not already know enough about. This comparison is important in the face of virtual experiences replacing real ones with an increasing speed, a case in point being virtual tours of museums replacing physical visits to not only museums but also other archaeological and historical sites.
In the context of slum tourism or poor people - regarded as 'the undesirables', technology poses a further risk. In a recent article, writer Evgeny Morozov refers to the new trend of ‘smart glasses’ that help us see the world and capture photographs of it the way we program it to do. It won't be shocking then, he says, that in a couple of years, these glasses will be equipped with the ability to erase real but undesirable elements from our perception. Poor and homeless people would then easily be obliterated from our vision, erasing the problem of poverty and homelessness in a quick sweep.
In face of trends like the above, it is ironical that we need to welcome ideas like that of slum tourism because at least in a sense, they bring about some amount of physical contact between different people. The lack of this contact is in fact the reason why cities with extreme differences between the rich and the poor have such high crime rates. The crime is not always directly the result of differences in incomes, but largely promoted by a sense of distrust, built on lack of communication between the different groups as evidenced from the physical differentiation of areas where the rich and the poor live.
In this context of distrust and alienability of ‘the other group’, not only does the perpetrator of crime get profiled as being part of some set race, class, caste, but increasingly the victim too gets defined as the one appearing to be rich. Hence the advice, of dressing down when visiting these cities - lest your privileges be taken away from you.