Most South African townships are built along similar physical lines. They consist of a lot of bland structures that satisfy the basic need for accommodation but nothing more. In terms of economic character, there is nothing much that differentiates one township from another. Recently, however, some townships have come into their own and taken initiatives to enhance their economic landscape and make them stand out from the rest.
Every November, the Soweto Marathon continues to embed itself into the hearts of South African running enthusiasts. The marathon had some problems a few years ago in terms of organisation, but these seem to have been permanently sorted out and the race is attracting big names again. The true value of the marathon does not lie in the race itself but in what the race can do for the potential that lies dormant in the areas where the marathon takes place. London, New York, Amsterdam and Berlin host marathons that attract the biggest stars in the running world and, if the organisers of the Soweto Marathon can benchmark themselves against those top cities, the benefits for the township economy will be immense.
The Tembisa Street Mile is another world-class sporting event that takes place in a township with a huge population but which has not developed a distinct economic character. The fifth edition of the race managed to attract top African runners such as Namakoe Nkhasi, of Lesotho, and 2014 South African marathon champion Desmond Mokgobu. The race is already backed by the likes of TomTom, aQuelle and supermarket chain Spar. The exposure that this event gives to the township around the time of the race can only lead to the development of the economy of Tembisa.
Townships must continue to do tourism, based on their historical relevance, but coupling this tourism with world-class events does more for the township economy than mere exposure. Also, the residents of the area get a chance to exploit the opportunities that the event offers – for the duration of the event, they display their wares and sell them to tourists.
The township of Mofolo, in Soweto, has also gone a long way towards developing its own economic character through the hosting of a world-class event. For the second year running, this township has hosted the Abantu Book Festival. This literary festival is fast becoming a feature of the economic landscape of the township during the month of December. The festival, the brainchild of acclaimed South African author Thando Mqolozana, has seen the who’s who of African literature share the stage in a previously nondescript township.
Zakes Mda, Thandiswa Mazwai, Niq Mhlongo, Redi Thlabi and Zukiswa Wanner, as well as Lagos-based author Adebayo Abayomi, of Stay With Me fame, are some of the big names that, for four days, descended on the Eyethu Lifestyle Centre in the township. The centre is adjacent to the now-dilapidated popular struggle-era Eyethu cinema. World-acclaimed Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga was the keynote speaker on the opening night at yet another iconic economic landmark that cohosts the literary festival, the Soweto Theatre.
While township venues have in the past hosted events attended by big names, not many such events are repeat events. Not many happen consistently at a standard that can attract large, almost- permanent audiences that are willing to note the events in their diaries a year in advance. These places have, however, shown that, despite space limitations, this can be done.
Not all townships can host a world-class literary festival or marathon, but nothing should stop any dusty township from seeking to develop itself into a place with a unique economic attraction that will not only revive the township economy but also drive others to seek the same excellence in their own initiatives. Most of the patrons who attend these events spend a few days in the area, exploring it as tourists, but there is nothing that says they will not seek to return – either as investors or as patrons at those events.