One of the high points of my trip to South Africa was Soweto.
The drama involved with going there almost superceded the actual experience. It’s difficult to understand why so many people were eager to dissuade us from checking out the place made famous (or infamous?) by the deaths of people like Steve Biko and the 1976 Soweto massacre. Need we write about Nelson Mandela and his links to Soweto?
Soweto is an acronym for South Western Township. Somehow I prided myself on knowing quite some history – reality? I didn’t know anything about this until I walked into the Saturday embrace of Soweto. There’s a legend that says Soweto means ‘So Where To?’ Sipho swears this is totally untrue. Well he should know.
We hired a tour guide for the day and a party of 13 somehow slunk to 5. Now I can not explain why so many did not want to proceed with the journey but the fact is they didn’t. It never crossed my mind not to. There were too many people relying on me, not to mention gatherites!
So off we went. The journey lasted all of about 25 minutes from our Randburg-based hotel. The landscapes were just glorious. We entered from the northern part and our guide took us through the middle class section. It was definitely not what we had all expected.
In all the news commentaries that most of us remember, we saw the shanties, the slums, the deplorable living conditions of some people and we just assumed that was the hallmark of Soweto. We had expected a sweltering township where very little worked, where everyone was isolated and fire frothed from every Sowetan mouth.
We had prepared ourselves for a backlash of pain; hostility and demonstration of torment. However just like we found in another of the seemingly notorious towns, very little of what we expected was on display.
First-off – Soweto is far more developed than we all think. Yes, you still have some shanties made from corrugated iron sheets, in certain sections but frankly it was not the dominating picture.
Soweto is a town with character, with soul. Bricks are the in-thing in South Africa for construction and this was amply evident. Lovely terraced houses, immaculately ‘manicured’ lawns. We simply stared at ourselves and felt stupid! Our guide seemed to see this and even though he didn’t say anything, we could glimpse the satisfied grin that lit his features as he regaled us with tales of the struggle. He took pride in telling us he was a product of Soweto. Proud, amiable and knowledgeable chap.
He took us to the biggest hospital in Sub Saharan Africa – I forget the name now. He also said it was the biggest as far as Australia. What we saw was massive as we stood on the overhead bridge and surveyed our surroundings. It had been a military hospital serving a military base that stood nearby. That seemed to answer the question of how something that massive was sited in a place with such scorching history.
We were tempted to try the local alcoholic brew “nquomboti” – not sure the spelling is right – made famous by the South African songstress Yvonne Chaka Chaka but somehow we declined. I looked covertly at the old men and women who sat and gisted around the brew. Wizened, some reeked rather powerfully of sustained patronage; their eyes glinting under the influence.
We walked through the markets. The scantily clad women, so unselfconscious; they generously displayed their ‘ripe gifts’ as they moved from one stall to another picking bananas, tomatoes, oranges. To another side, under a make-shift tent, a man grilled red meat and the aroma – and smoke – carried into our noses and eyes without let.
Being big ‘behind’ is a national treasure. It differentiates the South African woman in some ways. Note I said differentiate, not define. From Soweto to Alexandria, to Randburg, it could not be faulted. After a while, we got to relax and were no longer ‘oppressed’ by every swing of the million bodies on display.
There’s so much more! Next time! My fingers are itching to tell this story!
*Some of the photographs in these tales were taken by my colleague, Victor Okhai, himself a director of note in Nigeria.
Next on Soweto Tales 2: The tragedy of Hector Peterson and Mandela’s House