Photo shared on Emoya Estate’s Facebook page.
 
 
Sleeping under a corrugated iron roof, relying on candlelight rather than electricity, cooking on an old gas stove… This is the ‘shanty town’ experience offered by a hotel chain in Bloemfontein, a city in central South Africa. Tourists are encouraged to experience the lifestyle of “millions of South Africans living in precarious housing situations” — but in fake surroundings, not in a real township — for 80 euros a night, no less. Our Observer, who has spent some time living in a real township, found this to be in rather poor taste.
 
This offer, known as the “Shanty Town”, is the brainchild of Emoya Hotel in Bloemfontein. It is marketed as the “experience of a lifetime” on the hotel’s website. The hotel chain simultaneously boasts of the Shanty Town’s authentic feel and the fact that it is “the only slum in the world equipped with with under-floor heating and wireless Internet access”. The so-called slum was built in the middle of a nature preserve, and offers a five star service (breakfast included) for 80 euros per night, which is the median monthly salary for a South African.
 
An advertisement for Shanty Town on the hotel’s YouTube channel.
 
The Colbert Report, a satirical American TV show, poked fun at the concept earlier this month. The show’s coverage sparked a growing controversy in South Africa. Media outlets have criticised what they see as attemps to make money out of poverty.
 
The owners of the hotel chain have responded to the harsh criticism in the local press, claiming that “the Shanty Town concept has in no way a racist undertone and makes in no way a mockery of poor people, black or with, who may be living in shanty towns. The idea was instead to arouse sympathy for millions of people in South Africa living in poor conditions.”

“The experience of living in a slum is a way to open yourself up to others, and it allows you to see things from a different perspective”

Julian Hewitt chose to live in a South African slum — a real one — in August 2013. For a month, he lived in the middle of the Mamelodi township near Pretoria with his entire family. This experience was meant to help develop their sense of solidarity with those who live in townships, and it was documented on his blog, “Mamelodi for a month”.
 
Broaching the subject of poverty is very difficult in South Africa. When my family and I embarked on the challenge of living for a month in 9 square metres, without any electricity and very little money, we elicited very negative reactions. Since our experience was discussed far and wide, people said that we were showing off our neighbours’ poverty, that we were mocking them, but in actual fact, it was quite the opposite. We wanted to understand their experience in order to better help them. We decided to stop sharing pictures of our experience for a while. Social inequality is such a big issue in South Africa, it is extremely sensitive, and the issue must be approached tactfully.

"This place is not in the least authentic, since human contact is a key element of living in a township"
 
I have found that residents of townships are open to the efforts of those who are trying to put themselves in their position and understand their difficulties. The problem with the “Shanty Town” initiative is that the goal is really unclear: it gives the impression that simply by being in a place decorated to look like a township, one’s awareness of the real difficulties of the poor will increase. It’s offensive to portray their lifestyle in this way. And the fact that the hotel points out that it is the only so-called slum in the world to feature floor heating and Wi-Fi access, or that it is a perfect place for team-building exercises, is just in very poor taste, plain and simple.
 
What I find particularly sad is that this place is not in the least authentic. Human contact is a key element of living in a township. The experience of living in a township allows you to open yourself up to others, to see things from a different perspective. I wonder whether the company plans to use any of the money they earn with their Shanty Town to help township communities around Bloemfontein [of which there are many to the southeast of the city]. “
 
The latest economic reports show that there hasn’t been any decrease in inequality in South Africa over the last few years: 85% of black South Africans are poor, whereas 87% of white South African have middle-range or high incomes. According to the South African charity Niall Melon Township Trust, nearly 12 million South Africans live in townships, out of 51 million.
 
The latest economic reports show that there hasn’t been any decrease in inequality in South Africa over the last few years: 85% of black South Africans are poor, whereas 87% of white South African have middle-range or high incomes. According to the South African charity Niall Melon Township Trust, nearly 12 million South Africans live in townships, out of 51 million.

Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Alexandre Capron (@alexcapron).