During my last trip to South Africa I was lucky enough to be able to visit Soweto for an afternoon, in the company of a local resident who was born and bred in the township, and who has just begun their Henley MBA. After so many trips to Johannesburg, it was certainly good to see such an important aspect of the history and identity of the region and the scene of so many important moments in recent South African history.
Much of the sprawl that makes up Jo’burg and its many satellite districts and townships are built on the gently rolling slopes and subtly varied hues of the Witwatersrand hills. This reveals, as you drive, vistas of urban spread which also keeps a feeling of space and openness. It might not have the manicured lawns and razor-wire walls of the more expensive districts of other parts of the city, but in its own way Soweto is no different.
The name comes originally from its designation as the South Western Township, and is actually a collection of districts of varying age, size and – above all – character. Today Soweto is home to about 2 million people, and the first impression is of a lively, open and welcoming place; as I found. Before arriving there, my guide took me to the City. There’s a contrast here to the hectic and heightened tension of the grid-pattern of the downtown, or City, of Johannesburg, where the Victorian architecture of finance, commerce and state function tower imperiously above (but do not encompass) the messy, dirty and noisy street markets and tiny shops down below. Few South Africans spend much time in the City, which is where immigrant populations from all over the region come to trade or to beg, or to seek a better life perhaps.
On to Soweto itself, with a stop to see “Soccer City”, or the FNB stadium. This was the venue for the World Cup and – as I learned – was designed to resemble a vessel for drinking (beer?). Thankfully, being empty, there was no sound of vuvuzelas being blown (how we loved listening to those…!). The first stop was to take a look at the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, which is the third largest in the world, largest in Africa, and an important centre for medical training and research.
Soweto is a place where people are comfortable with making do with what is available and making life more pleasant by being out and about and in communication with each other. Do I know this for sure? Well, no, of course not, but this was my impression as we walked around this area, through a market and taxi rank and past the houses where necessity and basic entrepreneurial spirit blossoms into simple businesses offering everything from haircuts to mechanics, all in the front yard. Statistically, Soweto probably appears to have high unemployment, but this may be deceptive since a whole sub-market of cash services supplies the township with just about everything it needs. And there were some signs of new building and of improvements to facilities and services.
Signs, too, of locals making use of the landscape as we passed a Soweto landmark – the old cooling towers of the derelict Orlando power station, now painted and set up for bungee jumps.
We went to visit Maponya Mall, a shopping centre opened in 2007 and the first actually based in Soweto. The “sawubona unlungu” was the friendly greeting called out to me as we left by the guard on the gate. It means, literally, “I see you, white person!”, but translates more to “greetings, white person”… yes, I was the only white person in the mall! On the way out, I stopped to admire the statue commemorating the shooting in 1976 of school child Hector Pieterson, who was shot and killed by South African police when he was 13. In that year, I was also 13. The image is an iconic one, the moment captured in a photograph, Hector’s sister running alongside as bystander Mbuyisa Makhubo carries him. As iconic as the little girl in Vietnam fleeing naked and terrified from the napalm bombing of her village. And just as powerful. Now we all have cameras and capture millions of images every day, we sometimes need to remember how powerful and rare these images used to be. Hector’s name dominates many parts of Soweto and is remembered in museum and school-building. Only one or two names outshine his, I suspect, and they are Tutu and Mandela, and every visitor to Soweto ends up in Vilakazi Street, where Mandela’s house stands (as a museum now) and Tutu’s residence still is (he apparently complains about the noise from the adjacent restaurants, bars and souvenir shops. Two Nobel Peace Prize winners in one street? Sowetans don’t let you forget this is the only place in the world where this is so!
While there, you may also be told to go and taste goat’s head, or sheep’s head. Apparently a local delicacy. I declined. But, I would be more than happy to go back and be persuaded again.