Scampering through SowetoReading Time: 7 minutes
Soweto is one of the biggest townships of South Africa. Historically it was a shanty town that housed black people who moved to Johannesburg from different parts of Africa to work in the gold mines. In the mid-nineties, due to the shortage of housing there were developments built which also provided better standard housing.
Against the advice we had received, my friends and I wanted to get a more authentic experience of Soweto. We decided not to go on the sightseeing bus tour, but to take a cab in the hope of getting there and finding a local to take us round. We were dropped off at the Nelson Mandela House on Vilakazi Street, a tourist strip, aligned with stalls, restaurants and museums. As we walked around, we noted that the streets were very clean and people were generally welcoming.
The township is so full of character-expressed through the community interactions, the creativity and the ideas shared here. It turns out that many people who grew up here choose not to move out of the township to the suburbs of Johannesburg which has resulted in some local South African well known figures who still reside in the townships, even after making lots of money. There is even an area known as the ‘Beverly Hills of Soweto’ which is on a hill and has bigger more spacious houses.
We walked to the Hector Pieterson Museum. It was opened in 2002 in memory of Hector Pieterson, a 13 year old boy that was killed when the police opened fire during a student protest, which was captured in an iconic image published round the world showing the 1976 Soweto uprising. The imagery in front of the museum shows where he was carried by his school friend which I found quite chilling.
At the museum we asked the guard about local bike tours and he make a few calls for a couple of guides to come meet us. I would not really advise anyone to do what we did if travelling alone but we had the confidence (or stupidity) of consensus. He introduced us to a couple of people-one with a fancy looking brochure but standardised tour and another with no brochure but used word of mouth to outline what he did. We decided that as we were already taking a risk we would go for the non-standard tour with Mlungisi who offered to build our requests into the tour. Mlungisi had grown up in Durban and moved to the Soweto melting pot in 2008.
We had wanted to go to Orlando Towers to get a viewpoint of Soweto but as we did not have enough time to do this on the day he offered an alternative, Oppenheimer Tower in Jabulani. Our real immersion started on the journey to get there, we were introduced to the local way of stopping Taxis (minibuses/matatu/combis) on the road. The direction your finger points tells the driver where you would like to go therefore you have to know what you are doing.
Bricks from houses demolished in Soweto during forced removals in the 1950s were used to build Oppenheimer Tower. The Tower had 49 steps to the top, which represent each of the different suburbs in Soweto. Mlungisi outsourced the Soweto history lesson to the guide at the Tower who had grown up in Soweto who told us about the changes the township ad seen in the last 50 years as well as some interesting details about Zulu culture such as the reverence held by the grandmother in the family and the rituals she performs or when a new child is born, the umbilical cord is buried close to the maternal home. ‘The mine owners used the tower to view what was happening in the suburbs of Soweto’ explained the guide. We could see why as the view spanned miles and miles across the township.
On returning to Vilakazi Street we went round the Mandela House which has now been turned into a museum. I found this very interesting as I had previously just read Mandela’s auto-biography therefore I kept trying to visualise different activities mentioned in the book and where they happened in the house.
Although it was interesting to be able to walk around the house it felt quite strange and intrusive as there were family photographs and furniture in the house (I know what you are thinking………yes you are right it still didn’t stop me taking pictures).
I think the fact there were also many other people walking around and taking pictures also made it weird (splinter in neighbours eye and log in my eye malachi applies here).
Following that we then took off on a bike tour where our guides (Mlungisi had invited his friend Kwazi to help out) provided a running commentary about the historical events in different parts of the township, the local schools and activity centres, pointing out the houses of well known figures that live or have lived in Soweto and anything they thought we may find of interest. We asked lots of questions and we were pleasantly surprised to get satisfactory responses to most of them, reflecting their knowledge of where they lived.
The township holds historical significance as it was home to some of the anti-apartheid activists including Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu. A couple of other internationally known figures to come from Soweto include Archbishop Desmond Tutu, host of the American Daily Show, Trevor Noah and the internationally renowned Soweto Gospel Choir. Soweto is also one of the founding places for Kwaito music- a combination of house music and South African hip-hop. Although we did not get the chance, Mlungisi and other locals told us that, in the evenings, the streets fill up with all sorts of beautiful cars belonging to people coming to enjoy the Soweto nightlife from different parts of Jozi.
There is also the dark side of Soweto which includes prevalence of HIV, high unemployment, drugs, crime and prostitution to fund the drug habit. It was a little disturbing to note that there were some young people who were hooked on Nyaope (also known as whoonga– whose ingredients may include cocktail of anti-retroviral drugs, milk powder, rat poison, bicarbonate of soda and pool cleaner.) and other recreational street drugs. This then led to an unending revolving cycle.
Towards the end of the tour we were introduced to the Kota, which is a bit like a heart attack in a bun. It was made up of quarter loaf of bread holding together cheese, a russian sausage, eggs, atchar (South African spicy pickle sauce) and chips but at the amazing price of 5rand (25p).
Our guides offered to give us an experience of taking the local taxis into the town center, which they were sure we would not have at any other point. People gave my friends and me a double take, probably because they did not expect to see a white person catching a taxi especially not from this bus stop.
Having thoroughly enjoyed and learned so much, but feeling that we had barely scratched the surface Kwazi and Mlungisi agreed to take us away from the tourist strip the following day and show us another part of the township.
Walking about a different part of town was interesting, it was not as built up as Vilakazi Street and we saw more people getting on with their daily life. We had plenty of stares as we played pool in a local bar, which I am sure does not have many (if any) tourist visitors.
A local lunch of phutu, goat head; tongue and liver, was enjoyed in a sharing plate as we talked and people watched from a bench on Vilakazi Street. We must have looked friendly and welcoming as people came to the table and started talking to us. It would have been lovely to stay longer and more spend time with some of the people we met.
We managed to go to Orlando Towers which was formerly a coal fired power station but has now become a landmark of Soweto with beautiful murals and offering adventure activities such as bungee jumping, abseiling, zip lining and SCAD (suspended catch air device) falling. We did not go up for a view point but it was nice to be so close and study some of the artwork and lush long grass therefore jumpshots and selfies were in order….
While spending time with Mlungisi and Kwazi in Soweto we shared our personal experiences, food, laughter, experienced physical strain (cycling) and discussed some difficult issues (such as education, drugs, prostitution and HIV). They gave us a very brief insight into their world which I will forever be grateful for. Their faces will forever be etched in my heart and I cannot think of Soweto without thinking of them. This experience reminded me that behind the media headlines are individuals with independent passions and dreams. People with a desire to laugh, to welcome and personal stories that are not being shared.