For PnP Travel Ideas Magazine March 2014
Soweto (South Western Townships), once dusty, desolate and submerged in poverty with a reputation for being dangerous, has blossomed with vibrancy and artistic vigour, a welcoming place containing some of the most important historical sites in South Africa.
“Do you know that this bus is going to Soweto?” the driver asks in a fatherly tone when we board the Rea Vaya, the local service, from Ferreirasdorp in the Johannesburg inner city. Accompanied by local guides Tania Olsson and Jo Buitendach, an archeologist and founder of Past Experiences, a walking tour company, I stifle a giggle. Olsson and Buitendach have been visiting Soweto for years and take groups there several times a week.
We pass the dull, densely clustered hostels that housed migrant mineworkers, a grim reminder of a horrible past. FNB (Soccer City) stadium, an enormous calabash structure, is a far more positive image of modern-day Soweto. Covered completely in vibrant graffiti, the now defunct Orlando Cooling Towers, are the most recognisable symbol of Soweto. These days, adventurers can bungee jump, free fall, and play paint ball from the towers, with a chilled beer and plate piled high with 7-colours rice after the fun, at Chaf Pozi near the entrance.
We get off at Boomtown and walk past locals carrying large, variegated umbrellas, a defence against the blazing sun. “Shoot me,” some say out loud, smiling broadly, a response to seeing my camera.
To the side of the road is a memorial of sorts, that sets out Soweto’s history, and here lies a small statue of Hastings Ndlovo, the first child to be shot during the Soweto Uprising in 1976. No photograph was captured, unlike that of Hector Pietersen, and so many do not know of his death.
Stencil billboards and signage, spray-painted on the outer walls of homes and public spaces fits in with the aesthetic of the area.
“Shoot me,” says a man in a white tank and blue jeans that end neatly at his ankles, sitting at the bus stop with two friends on Vilikazi street.
And, so I do.
On Vilikazi Street
In Soweto, I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Vilikazi Street. It’s bustling from the morning with groups of tourists, at midday as children pour out of schools and in the evening, with the numerous restaurants and bars serving good South African food, inexpensively. Sunday mornings are the quietest, as can be expected, with staff cleaning up tables and mopping the floors, a sure sign of a night of revelry.
The first draw card is the fact that two Nobel Peace prize winners used to stay on this street, a feat that exists nowhere else in the world. While Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s house isn’t open to the public, Nelson Mandela’s is. It has been converted into a museum and it’s here at 8115 Orlando West, that you can experience the space he lived in with Winnie Mandela, and look over various personal artefacts, and donated items that pertain to his life.
Adjacent to Mandela House, once you have spent enough time entertained by the double-jointed pantsula dancers and elderly pennywhistle player who honed his skills in the heyday of Sophiatown, walk to the Mandela Family restaurant. It’s a good spot for a first try of Soweto ‘street’ foods like the kota, a take on bunny chow, usually filled with mince and mash, chips and polony or a mild curry sauce.
I spend a Saturday afternoon, opposite Mandela House at the family residence of Lerato Motau, an artist and self-confessed ‘colourist’. She embroiders in neon thread over jewel-toned cushions, and even over her acrylic paintings on large canvasses. In this house, that her parents have owned since 1977, she hosts up to 200 people on what she calls, ‘friendship tours’. Using a selection of bright thread, felt, buttons, beads and baubles, each person is tasked with making something for another, taking their personality into account. What would have been a self-conscious task, had it been for oneself, is now a magnanimous act, as heads bend forward and even the most reluctant handicrafter is lured in. “The in and out stitch is your friend,” says Lerato.
Later, she takes the class to visit the artwork made by vendors (intricate papier mâché, beadwork and paintings) as well as the sculptures that dot the street. Two bulls fashioned in iron represent Tutu and Mandela, and at the bottom of the street the word ‘Vilikazi’ is carved in stone, represented by the letters of sign language.
For those who seek out the strange, one house offers a snake show for paying customers. However, I found some of the most interesting goings-on at the shebeens and spaza shops in the streets around Vilikazi.
The evening carries a somewhat electric promise of fun and good times. While there is no ocean or mountain view, patrons scramble to get a road-facing table at Sakhumzi, a restaurant popular with tourists during the day, and locals at night. On Mondays it serves its famed special that includes mogodu (tripe), chicken feet, trotters, giblets, dombolo (steamed bread) and pap. Those who have left Soweto to live in the plush Johannesburg suburbs, descend upon Sakhumzi, and Nambitha up the road to indulge in home cooking, and nostalgia.
A prominent weekend activity involves locals showcasing their luxury cars, of which there is no shortage on Vilikazi Street.
Honouring the Past
The Hector Peterson memorial is an open-air museum, which details the events of the Soweto uprising in a stark, almost prison-like setting. On hot days, young children from the area splash their hands in the fountain’s waters and offer to rap popular songs for your, and their entertainment pleasure. They remain blissfully unaware of the extent of the sacrifices made for their own freedom today, as can be expected from very young children.
“Who’s the boy? Who shot him?” asks a foreign African teenager, as she and her brothers pose next to the iconic photograph by Sam Nzima, sombre expressions on their faces.
The Regina Mundi Catholic Church that housed many during the attacks by the police, on that fateful day, and during the tumultuous periods of unrest, is pocked with bullet holes. A working church today, it’s well worth a guided visit.
The Pimville Lads
Three lads from Pimville, Soweto are slowly changing the way we view townships and African life, by creating stylised, sartorial visuals of themselves in ordinary settings. The portraits encapsulate their experience of Soweto and the places they visit, without altering the grittiness and sometimes, shabbiness, of the setting. These images have come to represent the I See a Different You (ISADY) vision.
I sit down on a park bench in Pimville and chat to twin brothers, Innocent and Justice Mukheli and their good friend, Vuyo Mpantsha,
We discuss life in Soweto and how they return every weekend to spend time with friends and family or to cycle for hours. Much of their inspiration for the work they do with the ISADY, and during their day jobs as art directors, is drawn from their experiences in Soweto.
“In Soweto, we learned how to be street smart. It was a love-hate relationship at times, but we are who we are because of it,” says Innocent.
They suggest I visit the Soweto theatre before I leave; it is the artistic heartbeat of the area.
No one Owns Soweto
On my last morning, Florence Mondi, who runs the charming bed and breakfast, and my home during my stay, Flossie’s in Pimville, tells me about her life in Soweto. Ultimately, she is positive over the future. ”We are unique, we are diverse. No one owns Soweto. Everyone can call it home,” she says.
I leave with that thought, and on my way to Freedom Square, where the 1955 declaration of equality lies embodied in the Freedom Charter in Kliptown, I vow to return to Soweto.
Flossie’s B&B: www.flossie.co.za
Soweto backpackers (they run great bicycle tours of Soweto): www.sowetobackpackers.com
See all the sights, and learn about the history and engage with locals with Past Experiences walking tours – www.pastexperiences.co.za