Sowetan for a Day

Soweto, the largest township in South Africa, is a country unto itself. About a million people live there — the same population as Swaziland. It’s a cultural and economic hub for black South Africans, and legendary for the historic events that happened there in the decades leading up to the end of apartheid.

Soweto is just a few miles from Melville but I had only been there once on a brief drive-through with Joe. I decided Mom’s visit would be a good opportunity to see more of Soweto.

My friends at the Melville Visitors Centre recommended that I book a tour through Taste of Africa, a company that specializes in cultural tours of Soweto. Rather than riding a tour bus, waving at people through the window and stopping at a couple of museums (which is what many Soweto tours consist of), Mom and I were paired with Caroline, a woman who has lived in Soweto all her life. Our day began at Caroline’s home at 9:00 a.m.

Mom with Caroline (left) and Caroline’s son Ivan (right) in their living room in Soweto.

We chatted at the house for a little while and then took off on foot. Our first stop was Oppenheimer Gardens, a city park across the street, where we received a tour of the Oppenheimer Tower and the Credo Mutwa Cultural Village.

Judging from the number of visitors in the park that day and the dearth of information I found online (it’s not in Wikipedia!), the Oppenheimer Tower is relatively unknown. It was built in 1957 to honor Sir Ernest Oppenheimer, a mining magnate who worked to alleviate the housing crisis in Soweto. It’s built from materials from old Soweto shanties that were torn down and replaced with permanent homes.

Oppenheimer Tower.

We followed Lebo, the guide at Oppenheimer Gardens, up the 49 stairs of the tower (one for each of the 49 townships that make up Soweto). When we got to the top we discovered an amazing 360-degree view of Soweto.

Soweto as far as the eye can see.

The cultural village at the foot of the tower, which is a collection of sculptures and traditional African dwellings, was created by the Zulu Shaman Credo Mutwa in the 1970s. Each part of the village has a specific spiritual meaning — I won’t try to explain it all because I’ll get it wrong and make a fool of myself. But it was fascinating and I’m grateful to Lebo for explaining everything to us.

These statues depict something similar to the trinity in Christianity.

Lebo explains a painting by Credo Mutwa that predicted the Sept. 11 attacks. Just to the right of his head you can see a depiction of a plane flying into a sky-scraper. Seriously.

We left the Oppenheimer Gardens and cruised down the road, greeting people and waving to kids in a schoolyard. Eventually we got to a main road, where we caught a taxi to Kliptown.

Our taxi speeds past a guy driving a horse and cart. Taxis, or informal minibuses, are the main mode of transport in Joburg. They’re usually white vans and people pack in shoulder-to-shoulder. This was my first time riding in one.

The back row of our taxi. That’s Caroline on the left.

Kliptown is the oldest district in Soweto and was also the site of the Congress of the People, a gathering of about 3,000 people who got together in 1955 to write the Freedom Charter. The charter was written to refute the apartheid government and later became the Foundation of South Africa’s constitution in 1996.

We wandered through Kliptown’s Walter Sisulu Square and looked at the monuments to the Freedom Charter. At the edge of the square is a free museum about the Congress of the People. The museum is built on the site of an old hardware shop that was owned by an Indian family called the Jadas, who played a significant role in planning the Congress. Like lots of other things in Soweto, there is very little about this museum online. But it’s beautifully put together and we learned a lot there.

The museum has a room filled with these wire figures representing different members of the Congress of the people. I loved them.

We were exhausted and hungry. We waded into the Kliptown taxi rank and rode to our next stop — lunch at the Hostel.

The taxi dropped us off under this overpass, which we had to walk across to get to our lunch destination. Mom was hungry and taking no prisoners at this point.

The Hostel is a typical Soweto lunching spot — a small shack serving traditional South African food with benches and tables outside. You can also buy your own meat and braai (grill) it yourself.

Offal for sale in a separate area of the Hostel. We didn’t try any but I thought it made an interesting photo.

We chowed on chicken and beef stew, pap (maize porridge), mashed pumpkin, and coleslaw. Satiated, we taxied to our final destination — Vilakazi Street.

Vilakazi Street, home of Desmond Tutu and the former home of Nelson Mandela, is Soweto’s biggest tourist attraction. Caroline calls it the Beverly Hills of Soweto. It was a nice way to end the tour, but we didn’t feel the need to go to the Mandela Museum or eat at the famous (and overpriced) Sakhumzi Restaurant. We strolled up the street and Caroline told us about the 1976 Soweto Uprising, which began at the high school there. She was 13 when the uprising happened and explained what a sad day it was for her and everyone in Soweto.

Grafitti commemorating Hector Pieterson, a 13-year-old boy who died in the Soweto Uprising. He was killed by police as schoolchildren protested Afrikaans as the medium of education in black secondary schools.

We sat down on a bench outside the Hector Pieterson Museum and watched the other tourists snap photos. We said goodbye to Caroline, who would be taking another taxi home, and climbed into the Landrover that would take us back to Melville. We watched the rain and thought about everything we saw and did in such a short time — it was only about 2:00 p.m.

Next on the vacation schedule: a two-hour nap.

Souvenirs for sale outside the Hector Pieterson Museum.

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  • Reply Tilly Bud January 20, 2011 at 3:22 pm

    That was fascinating. I knew the famous bits (1976, etc) but not the rest, especially the million people!

    Your Mom looks young.

    • Reply 2summers January 20, 2011 at 6:22 pm

      You’ve just made mom’s day.

  • Reply Francis January 21, 2011 at 2:18 am

    This is such a beautiful country. Thank you for showing it with those wonderful pictures. And i agree that your mother look really young. 😀

    • Reply 2summers January 23, 2011 at 10:42 am

      Thanks! You’re making my mom very happy.

  • Reply lisa@notesfromafrica January 21, 2011 at 11:06 am

    Thanks for taking us on your tour of Soweto. Loved the photos and your descriptions.

    P.S.: Your mother does look young – and lovely!

  • Reply lemon123 January 21, 2011 at 1:05 pm

    I enjoyed traveling to Soweto with you. You mentioned so much I would like to recall here in my post to show that your post is really appreciated it. Those souvenirs look like they are handcrafted. The pieces are beautiful. I am reminded of crochet and bead work. I loved the wire figure. That’s amazing. I especially liked seeing a closeup of Caroline. She seems like a very friendly hostess. Her teeth are beautiful. Her home is austere. Yet, it is so colorful and neat. Thanks again for sharing. Oh yes, the Tower is magnificent. Forty-nine steps one for each township? And the view, I didn’t expect to see all those homes.

  • Reply Rebecca January 22, 2011 at 12:43 am

    Great post! I went to Soweto in July and it sounds like we did very similar tours! I was the same as you – didn’t want to be on a bus looking at everything and everyone through a window. We caught the minibus taxis all the way there and back (and yes, white South African friends did look at us in shock and thought we were crazy) and then spent the day with a lady who lives in Soweto. We visited the tower too – and like you, no tourists there at all! Caroline’s description of the street as the Beverly Hills of Soweto is so accurate! We skipped the museum too and headed straight down the street to walk the main areas involved in the Soweto Uprising. Such an interesting, eye-opening day.

    • Reply 2summers January 23, 2011 at 10:46 am

      My South African boyfriend has never ridden a minibus taxi before and he’s lived here his entire life. Glad you also enjoyed your tour :)

  • Reply Marcelle February 2, 2011 at 3:15 am

    Ride that e-taxi! Yahoo! I love your African experience.

    • Reply 2summers February 2, 2011 at 11:40 am

      Thanks! I was always nervous about riding taxis before but now I’ve become braver about it.

  • Reply Jayne February 4, 2011 at 1:11 pm

    This is a wonderful post about a fascinating tour. I wish I saw as much of Soweto as you seem to. Thanks for writing about it.

    I would have passed up on the offer of offal too!

    • Reply 2summers February 4, 2011 at 1:16 pm

      Thanks so much Jayne. It was a great tour. I would have liked to visit an informal settlement (squatter camp) like you did, but we ran out of time — my mom was exhausted from jet lag. Next time!

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