There was a time when “township tourism” meant peering from the window of an air-conditioned minibus, jumping out periodically to snap a few photos and taking a brief wander to a local school or tavern. These days the term is out of vogue, having been replaced with more appropriate monikers like “grass roots” or “community tourism”. Across the country there are restaurants, cafés, galleries and designer stories popping up on the outskirts of cities, offering visitors the chance to step into people’s lives and join them rather than observing them from afar.

On a recent roam around the Northern Cape, I had the great pleasure of visiting The Workshop ko Kasi, a community enterprise just outside Kuruman. The chaotic mining town isn’t normally at the top of the average South African bucket list, and I must admit that when I’ve passed through before I’ve generally left with a sense of relief to be moving on. But after spending time at The Workshop, I drove out of Kuruman feeling utterly inspired.

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Launched in 2017, the project is the brainchild of Mpho Cornelius. A Kuruman local, he was working in the tourism industry in Jo’burg when the idea for The Workshop began to take shape. “We always struggled with the Northern Cape offering,” she explains, “and I got tired of hearing the way people talked about my home province – as hot and dusty and boring.” So armed with the makings of an idea, she moved back to her home town and has quickly built a space that is part community centre, part tourist site and unquestionably Kuruman’s star attraction, winning two national Lilizela Tourism Awards in its first year.

In April, Cornelius opened the final piece in The Workshop ko Kasi puzzle – a traditional African spa. This is not traditional in a “take some South African ingredients and use them in massage oils in a five-star spa” sort of way. It’s a spa like you’ve probably never seen before. For a start, it’s built out of old tyres. Like the rest of The Workshop, the spa has a miniature carbon footprint, constructed almost entirely from recycled and natural ingredients – namely rocks, tyres and earth. And the therapists who work here are not trained in fancy academies, but right here by community elders. “Usually in villages or communities in South Africa there is one woman who knows how to massage,” says Cornelius, explaining that the skill is often passed down from grandmother to granddaughter. A few older women and herb healers have been sharing their skills, and the spa can now cater for up to 20 clients at a time. Customers range from couples to brides and even new-born babies as massaging a child after birth is an old African custom.

The oils and butters showcase African ingredients and are sourced locally from young woman entrepreneurs. The spa will provide an income for 20 local people.

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“It really is one of a kind,” beams Cornelius. “We want to keep it truly authentic – a platform for these women to offer traditional massages and to share and take pride in their talents and culture.”

There’s also a café serving familiar foods with a traditional twist and monthly pop-up markets which provide a launch pad for local crafters and entrepreneurs. Poetry readings and storytelling nights, full moon picnics and stargazing evenings are also held regularly, as are guided tours of the township and nearby villages. Using go-karts and donkey carts in place of air conditioned minibuses, these are township tours as they should be.

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