updated 1/12/2007 1:28:13 PM ET 2007-01-12T18:28:13

Major Ndaba dons his wild cat skin hat, stands by his "lucky charm" baboon skeleton and poses for the cameras of visitors intent on experiencing a South Africa far removed from game reserves and glistening beaches.

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Ndaba's dark herbalist store, crammed with tree bark, animal horns and dozens of different powders and potions which he claims will treat everything from AIDS to infertility to flu, is a regular attraction on tours into the sprawling settlements set up by the old apartheid government which are still home to the majority of the population.

Township tourism, which has increased hugely in popularity since South Africa's multiracial elections of 1994, is now a multimillion dollar business.

Soweto, the heart of the anti-apartheid struggle, is now Johannesburg's top tourist attraction, according to local authorities. Tours pass by Nelson Mandela's first home, that of his former wife Winnie Madikezela Mandela and Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu, as well as monuments to fallen heroes of the struggle against racism.

Even in Cape Town, which lacks the historical significance of Soweto, about 25 percent of foreign visitors take time out from the stunning scenery and beaches to trawl the dusty streets of the wind-swept Cape Flats.

Cape Town's tourist office estimates that nearly 320,000 foreign visitors went on a township tour last year; more than 80 percent of its 250 licensed tour operators offer such "cultural experiences."

There are no reliable figures on the economic impact of the tours, which cost on average $40 for a half-day visit and more for overnight stays in basic but clean houses or shacks.

But Simon Kumanya, who runs a craft stall on a dusty corner in Langa, shows the importance of the tours when he explains that the carved wooden and exquisitely beaded souvenirs he sells provide work for about 20 people.

"The Germans are my most important customers," he said, flicking an ostrich feather duster and straining his voice above the belting music from a nearby minibus taxi.

City officials are anxious to encourage the tours, especially in the run-up to the 2010 World Cup. The benefits trickle down to the poorest of the poor, with schools and child-care centers funded by some of the profits and donations.

"Township tours spread the tourism dividend to the townships. We are simply never going to unlock the huge potential of this city and province if we confine it to Table Mountain and the Waterfront," said the incoming head of Cape Town Routes Unlimited, Sheryl Ozinsky, in a recent newspaper editorial.

But there have been some bad incidents. In November, a group of Germans was robbed by armed thugs as they visited a school in Langa, and a Dutch group was attacked outside a restaurant there. Langa was the first township developed after the 1923 Urban Areas Act tried to force Africans to live in specific locations.

A year ago, German tour operators on a fact-finding visit were robbed in the Khayelitsha township.

The negative headlines caused a dip in visitors but - officials insist - are the exception and not the rule.

"Crime is a very real threat to continued tourism growth, not just in the townships. It would be a tremendous pity and ultimately self-defeating if ... we simply throw up our hands and confine the tourism experience to a few high-security areas," commented Ozinsky.

She pointed out that a similar spate of robberies had happened at the Kirstenbosch gardens, but there were no calls for people to stop visiting there.

Instead, the tourist authority is distributing 100,000 leaflets with street-wise tips and contact phone numbers to boost safety this summer, which runs December through March in this Southern Hemisphere country.

Many tour operators also now stick to one easily policed route rather than taking visitors through densely populated shack areas, and have stopped evening visits to shebeens, or taverns, according to Khanyiso Kenqa of Cape Capers.

Kenqa, who lives in Langa, insists that visitors are safe because the community wants the tours, and thieves who prey on visitors risk the wrath of "street committees."

"Townships earn a lot from tourism. We won't let them get away with such things," he declared.

But the low-risk approach carries the risk that many of the tours now have a sterile, packaged feel.

Rahel Hager, a visitor from Switzerland, said she found a guided stroll around the "informal settlement" of Imizamo Yethu in the tourist village of Hout Bay, more fun and more informative than the air-conditioned minibus tour of bigger townships.

But all such visits are likely to provide an insight into South Africa's race relations that the foreigner would otherwise miss.

Many tours begin in the District Six Museum - testimony of the brutal clearance of nonwhites from their vibrant, downtown multiracial community and their removal, according to color, to the Cape Flats townships.

Apartheid authorities used the "pencil test" to determine the color. If it stuck in a person's hair, he or she was classed as black. If it slipped through, they were mixed race and had more privileges, Kenqa tells a stunned German couple.

The minibus passes through Gugulethu, where the streets still have the prefix NY to a number. "Native Yard," explains Kenqa. He points out the monument dedicated to Amy Biehl, an American student who was murdered while working with disadvantaged communities in 1993 by a black mob in an outburst of racial tension. Her four black killers were pardoned by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up to heal the wounds of apartheid and, more poignantly, were forgiven and embraced by the Biehl family who themselves became an international symbol of reconciliation.

Kenqa goes on to discuss Tik, a highly addictive synthetic drug that has infiltrated the mixed-race community, in particular. Gangs such as "The Americans" and "Ghetto Kids" fight for control of the drug.

Next to a disused power station in Athlone, makeshift tents are half buried in bushy scrubland. "A circumcision village," points out the guide as he explains the ritual - including six days in the wild without food or water - marking the passage from boyhood to manhood in his Xhosa culture.

In Langa, visitors are invariably invited to see a vibrant local school and one of the hostels that housed men who worked in Cape Town and were separated from their families in rural areas by apartheid's policies.

A dorm where three men once lived is currently home to an extended family of 10 - an indication of contemporary housing shortages.

But Pumeza Cakasajo said she didn't mind the invasion of strangers into the tiny room. "It's a good experience for people to come here and we know the community benefits at the end of the day," said the 26-year-old as others in her family continued watching the small crackly television as if oblivious to the intrusion.

Nearby, modest new houses stand testimony to the government's determination to replace the hostels - and ultimately the shacks - with decent homes.

Around the corner is the familiar sight of a woman sitting in a doorway having her hair braided. Farther down the road comes the smell of barbecued meat and the sight of market traders removing fur from sheep's' heads to prepare the popular boiled dish fondly known as a "Smiley."

Ndaba, the herbalist in Langa, claims he inherited his skills and knowledge from his grandparents, from the other side of their grave.

He displays a modern business savvy, with a small sign in his store displaying charges for tour groups to visit. But he prefers to emphasize the folkloric.

With many South Africans still visiting traditional healers, Ndaba's customers include locals who want to ward away evil spirits and men suffering from impotency, he says.

He indicates the horn of a springbok deer with its tip cut off. When filled with potion, it is the equivalent of the suppository, he gesticulates.

"It's very effective. The medicine goes straight to the kidney. It's our injection."

Among the small group of foreigners, there are no takers.

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