In Search of Soul in Soweto

When you travel to South Africa you won’t want to miss going on a safari or experiencing the majesty of Cape Town’s Table Mountain.

However, if you really want to understand the soul of the ‘Rainbow Nation’, as post-apartheid South Africa is known, you need to explore the townships that sustained it during the insidious apartheid era.

There is a township (or several) on the boundary of almost every major South African city. Ramshackle and sprawling, these townships mushroomed to house the workers who serviced the whims of their apartheid-era taskmasters.

Born and raised in South Africa, I had experienced a sizeable chunk of the country before migrating to Australia in 1988 as a teenager. Having been back several times to visit family and friends, it recently struck me that, despite all those return journeys, I had yet to experience the nation’s heartbeat: its townships.

Deemed no-go areas as recently as a decade ago, South Africa’s townships now encompass a thriving day-tour trade, and local entrepreneurs have begun operating B&Bs and hostels where intrepid travellers can enjoy a more immersive experience. So, with tourism now booming in the townships, I felt it was time to discover a new dimension of a destination I thought I knew well.

My journey takes me to the South African township of Soweto (an acronym from South West Townships) on the south-west fringe of Johannesburg. Occupying 150 square kilometres, it is estimated thatalmost 65 per cent of Johannesburg’s population calls Soweto home.

Freedom Found

On the way to Soweto I pay my respects at the Apartheid Museum. Opened in 2001, it is appropriately located in the no-man’s-land between Soweto and Johannesburg. Constructed of white concrete blocks encased in mesh, and enclosed by eight-metre-high walls, the museum has a penal austerity about it. At the entrance are seven concrete columns, each engraved with the core values of the constitution written after the transition to majority rule in 1994: democracy, equality, reconciliation, diversity, responsibility, respect and freedom.

In the shadow of the columns is a row of faded green wooden benches with the words ‘whites only’ stencilled on them. They face a shallow pool of reflection, beyond which is a granite slab etched with a quote from Nelson Mandela: “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

After purchasing an entry pass from the on-site ticket booth for around A$5, visitors are randomly assigned a ‘race card’ and consequently experience apartheid from either the black or white perspective.

Those holding the white cards meander through exhibitions chronicling the advantages of being a white citizen of the old South Africa: better access to jobs, a higher standard of education, first-world living conditions and so on. I happen to be assigned a black card, so I learn stark lessons about how entire races were treated as commodities to provide raw manpower for mines or sculleries. 

Halfway through the museum these two paths converge in a symbolic journey towards reconciliation.

The abhorrence of the apartheid era is displayed in detail through the museum. One of the most notorious early racial classification procedures was the ‘pencil test’. If a pencil was inserted in someone’s hair and remained in place, it signified frizzy strands and therefore classification as black or coloured (mixed race).

For all its fastidious detailing of the pain and suffering wrought by apartheid, the museum chronicles its downfall with objectivity. Reverence is given to Mandela and F.W. de Klerk, the leading lights in a revolution that was bloodless despite the large scale and savagery of the oppression that prompted it. Photographs of serpentine queues at polling stations where the majority of South Africans were voting for the first time in their life are on display. Reportage portraits of a beaming Mandela sharing a joke with the Afrikaner he replaced as the country’s leader hang next to old ballot sheets featuring political parties that were once banned.

Like the majority of those on my organised excursion, I feel humbled and hopeful after the experience. Most day tours of Soweto operating out of Johannesburg offer a detour to the Apartheid Museum, which forms an experience-enhancing prelude to what’s down to the road.

Home Sweet Home

Soweto is a conglomeration of 39 suburbs and, from a distance, is a vast smudge of smoke created by its hundreds of thousands of oil lamps, coal stoves and cooking fires. The township is a collage of tin shacks, litter-strewn wasteland and brick-box bungalows. In a town of this size, in a country where race is no longer an impediment to prosperity, there will always be some haves and plenty of have-nots. Three million people call the place home, but it’s not all poverty and despair.

Wandering along what I’m assured is a typical suburban street, it becomes apparent that what the owners of these bungalows lack in financial wealth they more than make up for in pride. House after pristine house is set behind a modest yet lovingly tended sprinkling of flowering plants. Many have lace curtains in the windows and garden furniture that speaks of long, lazy days under South African skies. Neighbours gossip over fences and children kick footballs around. Far from the crime-ridden ghetto I was expecting, I’m greeted not with weapons and intimidating demands but with smiles and waves. Sowetans thumb their noses in delight at the simplistic stereotypes that tourists tend to bring with them to this area.

The north-east skyline of Soweto is dominated by a pair of cooling towers, one of which is painted with a bright mural, commissioned by a local bank in 2003, to reflect the vibrancy of the neighbourhood in which the towers stand.

These towers are a concrete reminder that good can come from bad, as the towers never provided electricity for the township of Soweto over which they loomed. Instead, they exclusively served the Johannesburg CBD and were a daily reminder to Sowetans of who possessed the power.

Now that the power has been returned to the people, ingenuity runs rampant through Soweto’s streets. Neighbourhood entrepreneurs have set up shop around busy intersections, offering a staggering array of goods and services.

The authentic Soweto equivalent of a shopping mall consists of a line of freight containers that serve as business premises for everything from mobile phone dealerships to hair salons and boutiques. Doors and even shopfront displays have been cut into the metal walls of the containers and some are branded with handpainted logos and slogans. Affordable, transportable and impervious to the elements, many of these containers also function as cafes and bars.

One enthusiastic entrepreneur tries to tempt me with “the freshest barbecue chicken in town”. This involves my selecting the unfortunate live fowl from an overcrowded cage beside an oil-drum fireplace. Sensing my hesitation, the proprietor attempts to sweeten the deal with a ‘try before you buy’ poultry liver appetiser. Overcome by a sudden bout of vegetarianism, I politely decline.

Nobel Endeavours

The Orlando West section of Soweto lays claim to having the only street in the world that two Nobel Peace Prize laureates have called home. From this neatly nondescript patch of middle-class Soweto came two men – Bishop Desmond Tutu and Mandela – whose humanity was made all the more remarkable by the callousness of a regime determined to deprive them of their rights.

Mandela lived at 8115 Vilakazi Street in Orlando West during the 1940s and ’50s with his second wife, Winnie Madikizela. However, during his ensuing years as a freedom fighter, he seldom stayed at the house, leading a life on the run until his arrest and imprisonment in 1962.

Today, Mandela House is a museum of deplorable tackiness that hardly befits the man whose life it purports to celebrate. Think perspex jars filled with dirt ‘direct from the Mandela backyard’ for sale. That said, an extensive refurbishment of the house in 2009 saw a modern visitors centre established with a small memorial garden tracing the Mandela family’s history.

The next stop on my tour – Regina Mundi Church – is a more profound experience. Two gargantuan steel blades come together like hands in prayer to form the roof of the church. Here, beneath its vaulted recesses, Bishop Tutu, bathed in the subdued sheen from the lemon-coloured stained-glass windows, orated from the pulpit with firebrand that advocated sanctions against the apartheid government.

The church also provided sanctuary for protesters pursued by shotgun-wielding police. Bullet holes in the building are a testament to the sieges it witnessed during the infamous riots of 1976.

During my visit, I encounter a statue of Christ standing sentinel over neighbourhood choir practice. A group of 50 girls in smart uniforms shuffle into the front pews, followed by an equal number of boys. It is obviously the low point of their school day, but then they begin to sing.

The girls’ voices blend into a symphony of the sweetest soprano, which is given depth by the bass of the boys singing a few phrases behind. The result is a traditional ‘call and response’ gospel tune that fills me with joy and has my eyes brimming with tears. I don’t understand a word of it, yet it stirs within me a sense of elation for which I am wholly unprepared.

The Last Supper

With all this revelation, I’ve worked up a mighty hunger, so I end the day with a very late lunch at Wandie’s Place in the nearby suburb of Dube. Perhaps Soweto’s best-known eatery, it provides a superb viewing spot at twilight for watching the town take its foot off the peak-hour accelerator. Commuters leap lazily from minicabs, flicking smiling jibes and laughing farewells over their shoulders.

Our meal is served as a buffet, which comprises a dozen three-legged cast-iron pots arranged in two rows. Because prime cuts of meat were usually beyond the budget of your average township chef, many have perfected the art of slow cooking. Pepper-scented chicken curries are served beside tomato-laced mutton stews with pearls of glistening oil, while bubbling biryanis have me planning second helpings before I’ve started on the first. The fare is accompanied by pap, a white maize staple that is cooked with water until it reaches a consistency that is perfect for mopping up the flavoursome sauces.

I can hear my arteries hardening as dish after dish is piled on my plate, and I take the opportunity to reflect on my Soweto experience with a pair of frost-kissed Castle Lager longnecks. In the course of just one day, South Africa’s blackest town has stolen, broken and melted my heart and then coated it with cholesterol.    

Words by David Smiedt - Published in Voyeur May 2010
Quick Facts 
Population 3,889,000
Time Zone GMT + 2
Languages Nguni, Sotho, English, Afrikaans and Tshivenda
Currency Rand
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