As I sit in what is possibly the most comfortable chair in the stylish and sustainable Hotel Verde in Cape Town, I am so tempted to sum up my South African experience and give you an overview of this amazing country, but this would mean cheating you on of the last six full days and all the innovative strides South Africa is taking towards an exciting future. So I take you back to Day 2 which takes us into the heart of Soweto on the trail of heroes, warriors and legends.
On Day 2, following a hearty breakfast at the hotel, we set out for Soweto. As we make our way on N1 the excitement is steadily building up – the anticipation of seeing a district so famed for its place in the shaping of South African, and to an extent world, history. Although perhaps calling Soweto a district is an insult as with 4,5 million population, its own hospital and university, as our guide Sibu says, “it is a city within a city.”
We begin our journey in Diepkloof, named the “Beverly Hills of Soweto” and certainly with its fine houses and freshly manicured expanse of green gardens, it lives up to its name. We hear of Sowetans who made their fortunes all over Johannesburg and come to spend it in their own neighbourhood, where the house prices are around $250,000-300,000. We can’t resist taking some shots of the most expensive house in Diepkloof (below) owned by one 28-year-old David, referred to by our guide Sibu, as the “Robin Hood of Soweto.”
After a whistlestop tour of Diepkloof we are than met with the opposite end of the spectrum – the government- built hostels for the far less privileged. A little better looking than shanty town shacks, with no access to water or power.
In Motsoaledi, the township named after Elias Motsoaledi, the South African anti-apartheid activist who spent 26 years in prison and passed away on the same day Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as the President of South Africa, we are taken around a few streets.
Motsoaledi was established in 1993; because of the political violence before the elections of 1994 between IFP and ANC, few from the hostels settled here, later joined by those who arrived in Johannesburg to find work, housing and better education. To ensure justice in the township which boasts a population of 18,000, there are street committees who not only make sure settler have more or less the same size of land but who also negotiate with the municipality to donate chemical toilets.
While there is no electricity, it is surprising to find out that there was once power supply from the outside until 2010 when people starting electricity from the lines and City Power disconnected electricity. Each and every street has one communal tap, although recently families have come together to save money to install tap in their houses.
While I am curious to find out if there was any resentment between the “haves” of Diepkloof and the “have-nots” of the hostels it was interesting to find out people living here look up to the those living in the lap luxury just on the other side of the road as some kind of local champions.
As we take our mini tour and paid a visit to one of the homes, we are surrounded by kids. Visitors to the township are discouraged from giving them any money so as not to encourage them to start begging for a living.
We cannot talk of Soweto without talking about the hospital and the university, namely Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, the biggest hospital on the southern hemisphere and University of Johannesburg. Both hold a pride of place for the community and both are huge sources of employment for the community dwellers. Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital boasts 2000 employees and see on average 2000 X-rays a day.
As we stop by the university I look over and spot Old Orlando Power Station, home to the Orlando Towers bungee – another to tick off my “fcuk it” list which I wrote about a while back over at RoomSuggestion. A little bit of fluttering eyelashes at Sandisiwe later, it’s done. We opt for lunch at the towers to allow me to bungee jump for the first time but that’s yet to come. Before then of course there are more places to see in Soweto, one such of course the famous Vilagazi Street.
Next up is Regina Mundi Church, the largest Catholic Church in South Africa. Located in Rockville, Soweto, due to the role it played as a place of gathering for the people of Soweto in the years before, during, and after the anti-apartheid struggle, it is often referred to as “the people’s church” or “the people’s cathedral”. As political meetings in most public places were banned, the church became the main place where Soweto people could meet and discuss.
During the Soweto uprising of 16 June 1976, when students were shot by the police in Orlando West, many demonstrators fled to Regina Mundi. The police entered the church, firing live ammunition. While no one was killed, to date, the church itself, as well as its furniture, decorations, and the symbols including the marble altar and the statue of Christ bear the ravages of the day.
Vilakazi Street, our next stop, needs little introduction as the only street that was home to not just one but two Nobel winners, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Soweto’s celebrated son and world icon Nelson Mandela. Here we visit Mandela’s famed house, now a museum, 8115 Vilakazi Street, Orlando West, Soweto.
It is heartbreaking to see a freedom fighter, world leader, South Africa’s hero confined to such a small abode, and yet inspiring to see how he lived far larger than his home on Vilakazi Street and of course beyond the four walls of his cell on Robben Island.
We walk through to rooms in quiet contemplation taking in the relics of the Mandela family life from a bygone era. Here you will find Zindzi’s bed, Madiba’s boots, Winnie’s stove in the tiny kitchen/hallway.
Outside is a tree planted by Madiba himself under which his children’s umbilical chords are buried and now under its shadow is a sign to commemorate the icon: Rest in Peace, Tata Madiba.
We leave 8115 Vilakazi in a sombre mood which is not likely to lighten up anytime soon as we pass by Walter Sisulu Freedom Square in the heart of Kliptown, home to ANC’s biggest congress in 1955 which over 3 000 representatives of resistance organisations, the Congress of the People, draw up the Freedom Charter, an alternative vision to the repressive policies of the apartheid state. The charter, however, was not to be implemented until 1994. Kliptown is also the oldest residential district of Soweto, and was first laid out in 1891 on land which formed part of Klipspruit farm. Squatter camps began forming as early as 1903; during the apartheid the district was divided into zones to keep ethnic groups separated and create conflict between them.
While Kliptown has seen a government led regeneration, including a large-scale housing project, our guide is quick to point out that the houses built back in 1903 are still intact while the houses the government has recently built start crumbling down within the first six months to a year. We also pass by squatter camp built right next to a swamp with a population of around 20,000, and often ravaged by fires during the winter months. We are told that the internationally acclaimed South African production Tsotsi was filmed here with promises from the producers to regenerate the area and that the inhabitants are still waiting for the promised help.
We also pass by Sophiatown, the legendary cultural hub that was destroyed under apartheid, rebuilt under the name of Triomf, and in 2006 officially returned to its original name. One of the oldest black areas in Johannesburg despite the violence and poverty, it was the epicentre of politics, jazz and blues during the 1940s and 1950s. It produced some of South Africa’s most famous writers, musicians, politicians and artists including Hugh Masekela, Abdullah Ibrahim, Jonas Gwangwa and Miriam Makeba.
In Orlando West, we make a quick stop in front of Winnie Mandela’s home, and the gates briefly open, it feels almost probable we might just catch a glimpse of the legendary anti-apartheid warrior, but alas the gates close as soon as they’ve opened and we make our way towards Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum.
Killed at the age of 13 when the police opened fire on protesting students on 16 June 1976, Pieterson and the iconic image during the 1976 Soweto uprising by Sam Nzima of the dying Hector being carried by another student while his sister ran next to them, published around the world, became a symbol of resistance to the brutality of the apartheid government.
On the morning of 16 June 1976, between 10,000 and 20,000black students walked from their schools to Orlando Stadium for a rally to protest against having to learn through Afrikaans in school. After chaos ensure and Pieterson died, the violence escalated, as bottle stores and beer halls—seen as outposts of the apartheid government—were targeted, as were the official outposts of the state.
Inside the museum, the trail outlining to beginnings of Soweto to the aftermath of Soweto Uprising begins with researcher, historian and Soweto Uprising participant, Sifiso Ndlovu’s words:
“The stories that individuals tell of the Soweto revolt are about a political and social experience and about a place and time. But they are also about pride, commitment, growing up, anger, truth, deception, punishment, discovery, love, suffering, sacrifice, forgiveness and retribution They are the evidence of the human texture of historical experience.”
A one-hour long tour is perhaps not long enough to fully digest the history of Soweto and the uprising, it is more than enough to understand the trials and tribulations of this young democracy and its people, and it is grounding for any visitor as at the end you will need to sit down and contemplate, even for a few minutes, just how far South Africa has come and the road it is yet to travel on, putting its bleak past behind.
But it is not only history on the menu for Day 2 in Johannesburg as we are in for a treat at lunchtime at Chaf Pozi. Its name roughly translated into English as the “hiding place”, Chaf Pozi is the place to enjoy beer and brai situated beneath the iconic Orlando Towers. A selection of barbeque meat with traditional South African dish, pap (made from ground maize) with coleslaw, gravy and a side serving of adrenaline as, keen to get through one more item on my “fcuk it” list I take to the top of the towers and jump 105m – yup, a whole 105 metres.
A 105m. jump truly deserves replenishment so I then join my fellow journalists to enjoy the brai. Even without the adrenaline adventures Orlando Towers has on offer from bungee to base jump to free fall, this is an amazing place to spend the whole afternoon enjoying good weather, good food and drinks and good company.
With South African celebrating its 20 years of democracy and national elections looming just around the corner, Binedell is optimistic about the country’s future and economy despite the high unemployment rate. He also emphasises that South Africa’s economy is dependent on the future of Africa’s economy more than ever and the country needs to take its relationships with rising economic powers, Nigeria in the West and Kenya in the East, seriously in order to continue its economic progress.
As we round up our chat, I can’t help but feel excited – we are right here in the southern tip of the African continent, with its history still looming large, its future still unwritten, forging ahead, and our journey has just begun. Little do I know the next few days will only fuel this excitement of being in the epicentre of amazing things waiting to happen.
Bungee images courtesy of Orlando Towers
All other images: Sinem Bilen-Onabanjo