Cultural tourism is fraught with all kinds of ideological pitfalls. Visit a classic 'cultural village' and you'll be treated to an admittedly fascinating visual feast of fabulous costumes, bare-breasted dancing girls and animal-skin-clad warriors brandishing stabbing spears and singing rousing war songs.Now these things are all a part of South African culture and many of these practices are still maintained - even in the cities. But there is more to African Culture than beads and breasts and beating drums. And even the iconic Ndebele artwork, for which South Africa is renowned, is used in many very non-traditional ways.Contemporary African culture is a vibrant combination of the old and the new - a synthesis of traditional beliefs with both colonial and modern ideas. So, for example, many local people belong to African revivalist churches, such as the Zionist Christian Church and the Shembe Church, that combine elements of Christianity with older cultural elements. And this extends to all elements of material culture as well.The Zulu people, for example, have immortalised a style of dress that combines the practicality of western clothing, like khaki pants and cotton waistcoats, with vibrant décor in both beads and appliqué.Now the best way to experience contemporary culture is just to meet people, but that isn't always easy. One way to be sure to meet a good cross-section of people is to do a township home stay or a rural village stay rather than just checking in to the nearest Hilton or Holiday Inn. Granted, it's usually not exactly luxurious, but it's clean and adequate - and the main aim is to meet people.For a shorter, quicker and far less intense experience, do a township tour.
It's hard to escape the sense that you're being voyeuristic and treating people like animals or scenery but most township tours are really very well run, and the guides are usually part of the community. There is a great tour operator in Port Elizabeth, that was the first cultural tourism product in South Africa to get Fair Trade in Tourism accreditation. Soweto tours are legendary and offer fabulous insights into struggle history, local lifestyles, visits to artists' studios, shebeens, music tours and the like. Similar trips are run in almost every major city and - quite honestly - any that don't, in some way, plough back into the community won't last long.But, always bear in mind that culture is just an expression of the way people live their lives, and it is dynamic. So don't make the mistake of thinking an experience is not authentic if it doesn't involve skins and beads.For more info and tips about township tours view Travel Matters - Township Tours.