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Inside Mandela House, a museum on Vilakazi Street in Soweto

A Visit to Mandela House on Vilakazi Street

Sometimes in my quest to discover all of Joburg’s hidden places, I miss out on the un-hidden ones. Such is the case with Mandela House, the Mandela family’s former home on Vilakazi Street in Soweto. It’s probably one of the top five tourist sites in Johannesburg and not only had I never blogged about the house before this, I’d never even visited.

Nelson Mandela and his family lived on Vilakazi Street between the 1940s and the 1990s. The house is now a museum run by the Soweto Heritage Trust. It’s a small, one-story red brick house and there’s nothing particularly remarkable about it, other than the fancy fence around the property and the many photos and plaques covering the walls inside.

Outside the Mandela House museum in Soweto
Outside the Mandela House museum.

Vilakazi Street is hugely popular with foreign tourists and student groups and it’s always choked with buses and souvenir salesmen. I’d also heard (although I can’t actually remember from who) that the house isn’t all that interesting. I guess that’s why I didn’t go for so long.

But I finally wandered in earlier this month and realized I’d been completely wrong. The beauty of this house lies in its simplicity and I think it’s a stunning tourist destination. I loved visiting Mandela House and I’m going to recommend it to everyone from now on.

A Walk Through Mandela House

This is the understatement of the century, but the Mandelas did not have it easy during their residence in Soweto. Nelson Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island for most of the time, leaving his wife Winnie to raise their children alone and endure constant harassment from the authorities. Winnie herself was imprisoned multiple times, often in solitary confinement.

This will probably sound melodramatic, but as I walked through the three-room house (four if you count the shower room), I felt the presence of this family that made South Africa the country it is today. I’ve been to the Apartheid Museum and Constitution Hill and Liliesleaf and the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but none of those places gave me that intimate feeling I felt at Mandela House.

The outside of Mandela House, with photo of Winnie Mandela
The entrance to Mandela House, decorated with a photo of Winnie Mandela as a young woman.
Inside Mandela House
Inside the house. I love the photo of Nelson Mandela with his dog, shot by legendary photographer Alf Kumalo.
Desk in Mandela House
I overheard a tour guide say all the furniture in the house belonged to the Mandelas. (Guided tours of the house are complimentary but I chose to walk around on my own.)
Back of Mandela House
The back of the house.

I visited Mandela House on a weekday (I strongly recommend this as Vilakazi Street is mad on weekends), which meant there were several school groups visiting when I was there. I think watching the kids was my favorite part. The children — many of whom were extremely tiny, and all of whom were born long after Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first democratically elected president — marched solemnly through the house and lined up outside to listen (some more attentively than others) to their guides explain the history of the Mandelas and their fight against apartheid.

Kids in the Mandela House garden with a statue of Winnie Mandela
Kids sit in the Mandela House garden near a statue of Winnie Mandela. The one boy has a temporary Nelson Mandela tattoo on his cheek.

In short, don’t be a fool like I was and wait nine years to visit Mandela House.

Mandela House is at 8115 Vilakazi Street. Admission is R40 for adults from African Union countries and R60 (about $4) for overseas adults. Children, pensioners, and students pay R20. Visit for more information.

Video Town in La Rochelle

#JoziWalks: Exploring Johannesburg’s Forgotten Frontiers

Last weekend the Johannesburg Development Agency sponsored 13 walking tours all over the city as part of an initiative called #JoziWalks. The weekend was meant to encourage Joburgers to get out of their cars and engage with urban communities in ways they might not do otherwise.

Kids in Noordgesig during the #Joziwalks eventKids in the Soweto suburb of Noordgesig. 

#JoziWalks was an incredible opportunity for me. I’ve been on many walking tours in Johannesburg but #JoziWalks offered tours in places I’d never been, and the tours were free. The only bad part was most of the tours happened concurrently and I had to make agonizing choices over which ones to participate in.

I eventually settled on a Saturday morning tour of La Rochelle, a suburb in the south of Joburg known for its Portuguese culture, and a Sunday tour of Noordgesig, a suburb on the edge of Soweto that played a big role in the anti-apartheid struggle.

#JoziWalks La Rochelle

Our tour of La Rochelle was led by Judith Muindisi of Tsica Heritage Consultants and Calvin Montgomery of the Southern Suburbs Heritage Society.

La Rochelle, just south of the city center, is best known for Parreirinha, Joburg’s most famous Portuguese restaurant. I myself had only been to La Rochelle once before, to eat dinner at Parreirinha. (Incidentally La Rochelle is right next to Turffontein, where I recently visited the Turffontein Racecourse.)

Dining room at Parreirinha in La RochelleThe dining room at Parreirinha. Fun fact: This building was a prison before it became a restaurant in 1975.

La Rochelle, together with neighboring Rosettenville, has always been a gritty, working-class neighborhood populated by immigrants — Irish, then Portuguese, then a mix of African immigrants including Nigerians and Mozambicans.

The La Rochelle of today has taken “grittiness” to a new level. As we walked along La Rochelle’s main drag, Johannesburg Road, and the adjacent Dias Street, I felt I was in a forgotten place. There are ubiquitous piles of trash (Judith says waste removal is sporadic), broken windows, smoldering street fires, and a general feeling of lawlessness.

Video Town in La RochelleOn the border of La Rochelle and Rosettenville, at the end of the Dias Street Mall. 

But like the other “forgotten” Jozi neighborhoods I’ve visited, La Rochelle has a lot worth remembering: delectable Portuguese pastries, funky shop names, crazy churches, elaborately painted tiles, and quirky architecture. I loved every minute of this walk.

Portuguese pastries on Johannesburg Road, La RochelleCustard tarts from Portugal Bakery and Confectionery on Johannesburg Road. I brought one of these home for Ray and he nearly died of gratitude. We might have to make another pilgrimage soon: Portugal Bakery and Confectionery deserves a post of its own.

Ministry sign on Johannesburg Road in La RochelleI suspect there are fascinating stories waiting to be told inside this building.

Christ Believers MinistriesChrist Believers Ministries.

Hollywood HouseHollywood House.

Dias Street Mall, La RochelleThe Dias Street Mall, a dilapidated pedestrian shopping street.

Car wash in La Rochelle
The Jet Joe Car Wash and Soap Shop. I’m guessing it used to be a fast food joint.

Sao Vicente La RochelleStaff at Sao Vicente, another legendary Portuguese restaurant.

Edwardian house in La RochelleAn Edwardian-style house, built in 1906. 

Park in La RochelleTile work in the park at the center of La Rochelle.

Our tour concluded at the Faraday Taxi Association across from St. Patrick’s church, where we enjoyed a Pan-African lunch with Nigerian, Zimbabwean, and Portuguese dishes.

#JoziWalks: Noordgesig

The Noordgesig tour was led by heritage consultant Jaques Stoltz, together with a group of community leaders.

Street in NoordgesigA half-dismantled mine dump looms behind a street in Noordgesig. Mine dumps are giant piles of waste generated from Joburg’s gold mines, which were used to separate white-only Johannesburg from non-white areas on the fringes of the city. Today, the mine dumps are slowly shrinking as companies re-process the waste in search of traces of gold.

Men walk past a house in NoordgesigDapper men walk past a dapper house in Noordgesig.

Not only had I never been to Noordgesig before this tour, I had never even heard of it. (I also didn’t have a clue how to pronounce it. I still don’t.) In many ways Noordgesig is also a forgotten place.

Noordgesig was founded in the 1930s as a “coloured” township, and eventually became part of Soweto (SOuth WEstern TOwnships) when Soweto was officially formed in the 1960s.

I use the South African spelling of “coloured”, in quotation marks, because this word has a uniquely South African context. Historically, “coloured” in South Africa refers to a mixed-race person — someone who cannot be classified as “black”, “white”, “Indian”, or any of the other racial classifications so important to apartheid and pre-apartheid South Africa. (Never mind that it’s usually impossible to identify a “coloured” person simply by looking at him/her. But it goes without saying that South African racial classifications never made sense.) The word “coloured” continues to be used in South Africa today, although many people historically classified as such have shunned it.

I provided this clumsy explanation because the history of South Africa’s “coloured” communities is complicated and often overlooked. This is probably part of the reason why the existence of Noordgesig — which is right next to Orlando, Soweto’s most famous township — had passed me by until now.

Unfortunately I got the time wrong and arrived in Noordgesig an hour late, a bit frazzled. So I didn’t absorb everything. But here’s a quick rundown of what happened:

1) We walked past the homes of several prominent anti-apartheid activists, many of whom played a role in the 1976 Soweto Uprisings, as community members provided historical context.

2) There was a marching band!

3) The group participated in a ceremony honoring late great South African flyweight boxer Jake Tuli, who lived in Noordgesig for much of his life.

Another Noordgesig street scene.

Noordgesig houseTribute to the Orlando Pirates, one of Soweto’s legendary soccer clubs.

Noodgesis Brass Band ready to performThe Second Noordgesig Brass Band Brigade, preparing to march.


Band marchesThe band marches.

Band playingI’ve got lots more band photos but let me stop now.

Boxing memorabilia in Jake Tuli's houseBoxing memorabilia inside Jake Tuli’s house. I love boxing almost as much as I love marching bands so this part of the day was also really exciting for me.

Jake Tuli house and plaqueUnveiling a historical plaque with Tuli’s family. 

Walk Jozi

I’m thrilled to have been part of this exciting Jozi weekend. Thanks to the Johannesburg Development Agency, the Johannesburg In Your Pocket Guide, and all the tour guides and participants who made it happen. I hope you do it again, and maybe spread the tours out over several weekends so I can do all of them rather than just two.

If you missed the #JoziWalks, I have good news: There are great walking tours happening nearly every day in Johannesburg. To get yourself started, check out my posts on JoburgPlaces, Past Experiences, MainStreetWalks, Dlala Nje, and Roving Bantu Tours.

Get walking.

The Box Shop exterior

#Gauteng52, Week 11: A New Take on Vilakazi Street

Welcome to Week 11 of my #Gauteng52 challenge, for which I will visit and blog about a new place in Gauteng Province every week for 52 straight weeks. This week I visit the Box Shop, a shopping center and coffee shop on Vilakazi Street in Soweto.

A few weeks ago I met up with my friend Andile, a.k.a. @may_i_take_apicture, to talk about a new project he’s working on called Imagine Soweto. Andile is cycling 150 kilometers around Soweto and taking 150 pictures — about four pictures for each of Soweto’s 38 townships.

Andile BhalaAndile Bhala, a.k.a. the Man With the Red Bag, in his home township of Orlando West.

Andile was looking for some advice on blogging for his Imagine Soweto project. I agreed to give him some in exchange for an introduction to a new place in Soweto for my #Gauteng52 project. We wound up having coffee at the Box Shop, a relatively new development built from shipping containers on Vilakazi Street in Orlando West.

The Box Shop exteriorThe Box Shop on Vilakazi Street.

Vilakazi Street is legendary as the only street in the world where two Nobel Prize winners (President Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu) lived at the same time. Vilakazi is one of Joburg’s biggest tourist attractions — some might say too touristy. The eastern end of the street is often choked with buses unloading foreigners eager to visit Mandela’s former home and eat an overpriced meal.

I’ve never thought of Vilakazi Street as an area where local Sowetans meet up and hang out with each other. That is, until I visited the Box Shop, which is about half a kilometer up Vilakazi Street from the busy area around Mandela’s house.

The downstairs half of the Box Shop is a small store selling locally made clothing and design items. The upstairs is a coffee shop/café called Kofi Afrika. That’s it. (Although when I was there in February it looked like there were a couple of new spaces under development.) Nothing fancy but the place has a nice vibe. It feels local.

Kofi Coffee at the Box Shop on Vilakazi StreetOverlooking Vilakazi Street from the balcony of Kofi Afrika.

I met Andile for coffee at Kofi Afrika on a quiet Saturday afternoon. There were about half a dozen people there, pecking at laptops and sipping caffeinated drinks. (The Box Shop has free wifi.) I ordered an iced coffee and it was great — good African coffee, ice, and milk. This was a major discovery because decent iced coffee (as in actual coffee and not sugary, coffee-flavoured milkshakes) is nearly impossible to find in Johannesburg.

Iced coffee from Kofi AfrikaMy iced coffee. Unfortunately I forgot to take a picture before stirring it up — iced coffees look much prettier pre-stir.

Kofi Afrika has a simple food menu — a few sandwiches and salads — but I didn’t try the food. There is also a great view looking down on the Vilakazi Street action.

View of Vilakazi Street from Kofi AfrikaThe view over the western end of Vilakazi Street from Kofi Afrika. Vibey but not too crowded.

Andile and I stopped briefly at the shop downstairs but I didn’t have time to take a proper look. I did meet Ben, the owner and creator of the Box Shop.

Ben at the Box ShopThis is Ben. I only met him for about 30 seconds but he seemed really nice. The clothes looked beautiful too.

We were in a hurry to get outside because there was a dance troupe coming up the street and Andile and I wanted to take pictures. The dancers were all girls, accompanied by boys playing drums, and they had matching outfits and batons. In America we would call them majorettes but I’m not sure what they’re called in South Africa.

The troupe was led by a tiny girl who looked hardly old enough to walk, let alone dance. She was probably the cutest dancer I’ve ever seen, and she had attitude.

Dancers on Vilakazi StreetThe dancers. Those tiny velcro sneakers…I die.

DancersThese girls were rocking it and they must have been HOT. It was sweltering that afternoon. I asked around but couldn’t figure out where the dancers come from. They collected donations in a hat, which I happily contributed to.

So this is what I love about the Box Shop. It’s far enough away from the touristy madness that I could enjoy a tasty, affordable iced coffee in peace. It was close enough to the touristy madness that I could enjoy the overflow street entertainment. All of this, combined with pleasant conversation about blogging and photography, made for a perfect afternoon.

Little girl dancerI see big things in this kid’s future.

The Box Shop is at 7166 and 7176 Vilakazi Street, Orlando West. Follow them on Facebook or call +27-11-048-9900 for more information. You can also follow Kofi Afrika on Facebook or call +27-84-665-2400.

Read all of my #Gauteng52 posts and check out the interactive #Gauteng52 map.

The Orlando cooling towers in Soweto

Soweto, the Adrenaline-Seekers’ Capital of South Africa

I was in a speeding car with three other people, careening toward the Orlando Towers — a decommissioned-power-station-turned-entertainment/adventure-center — in Soweto.

“I wonder if they’re going to make us bungee?” someone asked.

“There’s no way I’m doing that,” said Meruschka, as she wove in and out of traffic in our Volkswagen rental.

“Me neither,” said Jenna.

“I don’t want to do it,” said Paul.

I sat in the back seat, trying not to feel carsick, only half paying attention to the conversation. “I’ll do it,” I said, not really thinking I’d have to.

The Orlando cooling towers in SowetoThe Orlando cooling towers in May 2014. I didn’t have time to take proper photos during my most recent visit. (Read about the history of the Orlando Power Station.)

View from the top of Orlando TowersView from the top of the Orlando Towers in September 2015, when I took photos with a group of bloggers during the Soweto Wine Festival. (We didn’t jump that day.) The narrow walkway in the middle is the part that you bungee from.

Looking down from the Orlando TowersLooking down from the top of the tower, also shot in September 2015.

Meruschka had invited me and two other friends to participate in an Amazing-Race-type treasure hunt around Joburg called KnowJozi, sponsored by Bidvest Car Rental. There were eight teams of four people, each team armed with a Bidvest rental car and a series of clues to lead us around the city. None of us had any idea what we would be doing (in fact we didn’t even know who the sponsor was) until we arrived at the Soweto Theatre at 9:00 that morning.

I agreed to participate in KnowJozi because: 1) I hadn’t had the chance to hang out with Meruschka for a while; and 2) I’m always up for the challenge of proving that I know Jozi. I didn’t think there was any way that the people organizing the event would ask us to dive 100 meters off a giant cooling tower with no time to physically or emotionally prepare ourselves.

I was wrong.

When we arrived at the Orlando Towers, we found out that one member of each team must jump. (Well I guess we didn’t HAVE to jump. But we certainly didn’t want to look like wusses in the eyes of the other teams.)

I had already volunteered, so…I jumped.

Jumping off Soweto’s Orlando Towers

Unlike the last time I bungee-jumped, off the Bloukrans Bridge in South Africa’s Western Cape, I didn’t have a go-pro and we weren’t allowed to take phones or cameras to the top of the tower with us. But my team did record a few video clips from below, and I put together an 18-second film. Enjoy.

I just bungeed.
Published on Instagram after my jump.

[On an unrelated note: The advertising rights to the Orlando Towers, previously owned by FNB bank, have been purchased by Vodacom. I assume that both towers will eventually be repainted, but right now one of the towers is only partially finished and the other hasn’t been started yet. So far, I think the new design is hideous — let’s hope it improves.]

After my bungee, we ran back to our car and spent the rest of the morning racing around town doing various things. I can’t remember much of it, as I was carsick and in a post-bungee daze. But it was fun.

I enjoy bungee-jumping. I never expected I would and it’s still not necessarily an experience that I would seek out if it weren’t presented to me. But I like that terrifying feeling of diving head first into thin air and then hanging there, suspended, looking at the world upside down. It’s strangely beautiful. Also, I thought that the Orlando bungee-jump might seem anti-climactic after the Bloukrans jump, which is the highest commercial bungee-jump in the world. But it wasn’t. Upside-down Soweto is every bit as beautiful as upside-down Bloukrans — just in a different way.

Heather bungee-jumping off OrlandoThat’s me.

Saturday’s experience got me thinking about how cool it is that Soweto, South Africa’s largest township, has become a haven for adrenaline junkies. In addition to bungee-jumping from the Orlando Towers, you can free-fall inside one of the towers (I found this idea terrifying, but my friend Adriaan did it this weekend during the Bidvest thing and said it wasn’t so bad), as well as abseiling, base-jumping, and paint-ball. Soweto Outdoor Adventures, also located on the grounds of the Orlando Towers, offers quad-biking tours, go-karting, camping, and various other adventurous activities.

Orlando Tower free-fallA look inside the tower where the free-falling takes place.

Then there are the bicycle tours offered by Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers, which are not strictly adrenaline-inducing but still super-fun and — at the very least — a great workout.

MK marching in Soweto on the weekend of Nelson Mandela's deathOne of my favorite photos of all time, which I shot during a bicycle tour with Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers in December 2013.

I’ve said this before, but tourism in Soweto isn’t all about history and the legacy of apartheid. It’s also about food and culture and adventure and fun. The history brought me to Soweto in the first place, but the fun keeps me coming back.

Who knows…maybe I’ll bungee over Soweto again someday. I might even free-fall.

My Orlando Tower bungee-jump was complimentary. Opinions expressed are my own.

10 New Discoveries in Soweto

As mentioned previously, I spent 72 hours in Soweto as part of a campaign promoting the Soweto Wine Festival. It was an epic journey.

Before this trip I thought I knew Soweto, kind of. I’d been there a lot, doing a lot of different things. But #72HrsSoweto held many surprises. Almost everything we did over the course of the weekend was new (or at least partially new) to me.

Here are ten new things I did during our #72hrsSoweto weekend.

1) The Soweto Hotel

The Soweto Hotel, the only 4-star hotel in Soweto, is on Walter Sisulu Square in Kliptown. If this hotel were anywhere else it would feel like any Holiday Inn. But the Soweto Hotel’s location makes it special.

Kliptown is the oldest and most historic township in Soweto, and still one of the most disadvantaged. There’s a bustling market right below the hotel that provides excellent people-watching, as well as a monument and museum honoring the Freedom Charter. Staying there is an experience.

03 Soweto-Hotel-room

My room at the Soweto Hotel.

02a Kliptown-sunset

Sunset over Kliptown, from my balcony at the Soweto Hotel.

2) The Soweto Wine Festival

I’d been hearing about the Soweto Wine Festival for years, but it had never occurred to me to go because I didn’t associate Soweto with wine. But this was a super-fun event and there was a lot more to it than wine.

The festival was packed with people and there was great local music, food, and crafts in addition to top-notch South African wine. I’ll be back next year.

22 Cape-Point-pour

Pouring Chardonnay.

27 Urban-Village-Lerato

The Urban Village, one of the great bands that played at the festival.

37 Kofifi-blue-car

These classic car enthusiasts, part of a group called the Kofifi Movement, were the coolest people at the festival. 

38 Kofifi

One more Kofifi shot.

3) Dinner at Soweto Backpackers

I’d been to Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers once before when I did their Soweto cycling tour. But I’d never hung out there in the evening. We had dinner at the backpackers and there was such a lively, welcoming vibe there, even on a rainy Thursday night.

04 Lebos-music

Impromptu live music at Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers.

05 Lebos-Black-Label

The entertaining singer/guitarist, whose name I didn’t get.

4) Regina Mundi Church

Regina Mundi, which means “Queen of the World” in Latin, is the largest Roman Catholic Church in South Africa. It’s awe-inspiring. I’ve been meaning to visit the church for years and I’m so happy that I finally got the chance on this trip. (Thanks to Nokuthula and her team at So We Too for taking us there.)

10 Regina-Mundi-outside

Regina Mundi.

12 Regina-Mundi-inside

The church seats 2000 people comfortably but has been known to fit up to 5000.

11 Regina-Mundi-Danny

Danny, our tour guide at Regina Mundi.

5) June 16 Memorial Acre

The June 16 Memorial Acre is a new memorial to the 1976 Soweto Uprising, located adjacent to Morris Isaacson High School in White City. We only visited the memorial briefly, and we were all so cold (it was truly frigid that day) that it was difficult to take in all the historical placards and public art. But the Memorial Acre tells a fascinating story and I don’t think many people know about it. It’s at the corner of Mputhi and Pula Streets.

13 June-16-Memorial-Acre

The June 16 Memorial Acre, which houses the June 16 Memorial and Youth Institute.

15 June-16-display

There were many beautiful murals and things to read but I was too cold stay outside for long.

6) Magwinya

According to Google:

Magwinya are the township version of vetkoek. Vetkoek (pronounce ‘Fet-cook’ and literally means ‘fat cake’) is a uniquely South African deep fried bread.

[SIDE NOTE: I was mercilessly teased on Twitter for referring to magwinya as “fried bread”. Now I see that Google agrees with me! Ha.]

I’ve had vetkoek many times but never magwinya. It’s served at roadside eateries in Soweto, with processed cheese and fried polony (the South African version of bologna). Delicious.

16a Fat-Cakes


7) The Soweto Theatre

I still haven’t been to a performance at the massive Soweto Theatre, a beautiful venue with avant-garde architecture. But we did make a brief stop there for a photoshoot.

16b Soweto-Theatre-jump

Natalie and Keenan, jumping in front of an artsy wall inside the Soweto Theatre.

 8) Orlando Towers

I did not bungee-jump from the top of the iconic Orlando Towers; it was too cold and there wasn’t enough time. But we rode the elevator to the top and took pictures, which was awesome.

19 Orlando-Towers-from-above

View from the top of Orlando Towers.

9) The Eyethu Cinema

This historic movie theatre is next to the Eyethu Lifestyle Centre. I love exploring old buildings so the cinema was a highlight. Unfortunately the theatre has fallen into disrepair but it could be turned into something amazing. I have high hopes.

23a Eyethu-Theatre

The Eyethu Cinema. Here’s an interesting blog post about the building’s history.

24 Andy-in-theatre

Inside the theatre. 

10) Cycling without gears: Fixin Diaries

Gear-less bicycles — or “fixies” — are uber-fashionable right now, especially in Soweto. As an old-fashioned cyclist accustomed to 24 gears at my disposal, I always thought fixies were a bit silly.

Then I took a ride through Soweto with Fixin Diaries, a company in Pimville that builds customized bikes and organizes group rides. I loved my super-light, single-gear bike and had the most amazing time riding it through the townships. (Fortunately we didn’t have to ride up any hills.)

The ride was my favorite part of the weekend after our incredible night at Trackside.

29 Cycling-Heather

Me and my single-gear bike (technically not a fixie because it has brakes).

32 Cycling-Andy

Andy. (Don’t worry Mom, I didn’t ride like this.)

34 Cycling-Natalie

Natalie. We all loved this ride so much.

I’m always amazed by how many Joburgers I meet who have never been to Soweto. I don’t want to sound preachy, but…Please, people. There is a whole world to explore in Soweto and it’s right here. Choose one of the things on this list and go do it. Or just drive to Vilakazi Street (Soweto’s biggest tourist attraction, which I haven’t even mentioned in this post) and walk around. You’re missing out.

For a few more photos from the weekend, check out this little video I put together (with Ray‘s help) about #72hrsSoweto. I recorded the music during the Urban Village performance at the festival:

My stay in Soweto was courtesy of Gauteng Tourism, in association with the Soweto Wine Festival and Destinate. Opinions expressed are my own.

The Best Night Ever in Soweto

It was the first night of the #72hrsSoweto campaign, the day before the start of the Soweto Wine Festival. It was freezing cold, raining, and I was ridiculously underdressed.

We had just finished a home-cooked meal — lamb stew, pap, spicy chakalaka, steak, and vegetarian curry — at the legendary Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers, followed by live music and poetry around the fire. Our group was preparing to leave. I shivered, thinking about burrowing under the covers back in my room at the Soweto Hotel.

“We’re going somewhere else now,” one of the other bloggers told me. I sighed. Maybe I’m too old for this campaign, I thought. It was already past my bedtime. But I dutifully climbed into the van with the rest of the group.

A few minutes later, the van stopped. We piled out into the drizzle and I followed the feet of the person in front of me, picking my way around mud puddles in the darkness. We walked inside a gate, into a haze of herby smoke, and through a doorway into a bright yellow room. The room was warm and filled with music.


The emcee and the DJ, Kuttin’ Keith (otherwise known as the healer).

It was hard to take it all in at first. The room was small and the walls were lined with people and bookshelves. There was a DJ in the corner and an amplifier in the middle of the floor. A guy held a wireless microphone and rapped. It was the prettiest rap music I’d ever heard.

A woman dangled her baby to the beat. Others held up cell phones to record the music. No one blinked an eye at the arrival of a large (mostly white) group of bloggers and photographers. A lot of people smiled at us.

“It just got a whole lot brighter in here,” said the emcee into the microphone. We laughed.


We were mesmerized from the moment we arrived.

A metal tray appeared, stacked with tin cups. Natalie, one of our campaign’s organizers, poured wine into the cups and distributed them. (We were here to promote a wine festival, after all.) I took a couple of sips and abandoned my cup behind a loudspeaker. I was too excited to drink and needed both hands to take photos.


I didn’t get the names of all the performers. But this guy was one of my favorites.

The sound system was perfect, just loud enough to reverberate through my bones but not loud enough to make me feel like I needed earplugs. One guy rapped for a while, then another guy sidled up and took the mic. The DJ held it all together.

The music was perfect. The atmosphere was perfect. I forgot about being tired and cold. I stood on a crate for a while, trying to get a good shot of the whole room by holding my camera above my head. I gave up and plunged into the crowd.


The Zookeeper.


It was all perfect. All of it.

“Where ARE we?” I yelled into the ear of someone next to me.

“In DU-bay!” he yelled back. (Dube is a township in Soweto. Although I actually think we were in Orlando West.)

“Ok, but what’s the name of this PLACE?”


The venue is called Trackside. (Here’s the Trackside website, although there’s not much on it. I think the best way to follow Trackside is on Twitter and Instagram.) I believe there are railroad tracks outside the venue but I never saw them. Anyway, I love Trackside. I love it so much.


Trackside joy.

The rappers finished up and made way for the headline band, Radio 123. I’m no music critic so I won’t try to describe Radio 123’s sound, other than to say it was rock, funk, jazz, and hiphop all mixed together. They had great vocals and bass and a guy who played trumpet.


Radio 123.

I squatted in the middle of the floor to take photos. A guy tapped me on the shoulder. I thought he was going to ask me to get out of his way, but instead he pointed to the ceiling. The roof was leaking and he didn’t want my camera to get wet.


I risked the leaky roof to shoot this.

I was sad when Radio 123 finished their set, and I was sad to learn that the evening was coming to an end. It was only midnight! I could do this for at least a few more hours.

Then Andy Carrie took the stage.


Andy Carrie (right) and a guy whose name I never got.

Up until now I had known Andy Carrie only as an Instagrammer, @andycarrie_on. Andy was part of our group, not a booked musician at Trackside.

It turns out that Andy Carrie is an incredibly badass drummer.

As soon as Andy started, the rappers flocked to jam with him. They all improvised together, syncing perfectly with the DJ, for about 30 minutes. It was magical.


Magical, I tell you. Pure magic.

Eventually we left, drove back to the hotel, and I really did burrow under the covers in my room. Thus ended the best night that I’ve ever had or ever will have in Soweto.

I’ll have a lot more to say about the Soweto Wine Festival and the #72hrsSoweto campaign in a future post. For now, that is all.

Trackside is at 8365 Twala Street, Soweto. My stay in Soweto was courtesy of Gauteng Tourism, in association with the Soweto Wine Festival and Destinate. Opinions expressed are my own.

72 Hours in Soweto

Like many newcomers, Vilakazi Street in Soweto was the first real tourist attraction I visited upon moving to Joburg. Here is the blog post I wrote about that visit, just a week after I arrived. (I’m a little embarrassed by the pictures and the words — I’ve come a long way since then.)

Soweto — which is technically part of Joburg but really a city-state unto itself — is a legendary place, with a population larger than many small countries and a larger-then-life history to match. I live 20 minutes from Soweto and have been there many times over the years. I’ve done walking and cycling tours in Soweto. I’ve gone to concerts and art exhibitions in Soweto. I’ve participated in numerous instawalks in Soweto. I’ve done photography jobs and charity events, run races, and visited doll factories in Soweto. But I’ve never spent the night.

So when I received an invite to be part of a social media campaign for the Soweto Wine Festival, I jumped on board. The festival is this weekend and I’ll be spending three full days sipping wine and participating in all kinds of exciting Soweto-based activities.

The best thing about this weekend is that I get to stay at the Soweto Hotel in Walter Sisulu Square, which is one of the most historical sites in Soweto and also where the wine festival is taking place. I stopped briefly in Walter Sisulu Square a few weeks ago and noticed that it has recently undergone a major upgrade, with new plantings and beautiful new public art. I’m looking forward to staying there and exploring in more depth.


Back in July I met Sipho (left) selling memorabilia in Walter Sisulu Square outside the monument to the 1955 Freedom Charter. Sipho asked me to take his photo next to this statue of Walter Sisulu.

I’ll be blogging about the Soweto Wine Festival next week and also posting on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter during the weekend itself. Follow along on the hashtags #72hrsSoweto and #SowetoWineFest.

In the meantime, I thought I’d share a few of my favorite Soweto pictures that I’ve taken over the years.

MK marching

Soldiers march down Vilakazi Street, honoring Nelson Mandela the weekend after he died. Orlando West, 2013.


Ladies in a taxi. Somewhere in Soweto, 2011.

Girl and grannie

A girl and her grannie. Kliptown, 2013.


Omphile, aka @omphibear, one of my favorite instagrammers and an all-around fabulous woman. Kliptown, 2014.

Peaking kids

Little spies. Somewhere in Soweto, 2013.


Friends. Left to right: Kabelo, Zandi, Carvela, and Phili. Kliptown, 2013.


School boys, too cool for school. Baragwanath Taxi Rank, Diepkloof, 2014.

People outside shebeen

Passing the time. Somewhere in Soweto, 2013.


Cute kid. Kliptown, 2014.

As I gathered these pictures, I noticed that every one of them depicts a person or people. This says something about what makes Soweto a wonderful place to visit. Soweto is all about the history, the culture, the people, and the attitude. This weekend it will also be about the wine.

I can’t wait for 72 straight hours of Soweto.

Cycling Though Soweto on Mandela’s Weekend

I’ve been invited to be a Gauteng Tourism Authority ambassador. I don’t think I’ve ever been an ambassador for anything before so this is pretty cool. It basically means that I get to do some fun things around Gauteng Province (the province where Joburg is) and tell you about them. So here goes.

The first task of my ambassadorship was to visit Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers and take a cycle tour around Soweto, which is great because I’d been meaning to do this forever anyway. I feel like I don’t go to Soweto enough and this past weekend was the perfect time to go, as Nelson Mandela lived in Soweto and I was keen to see how people were celebrating his life there.

Kids at Lebo's

Kids at Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers.

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Soweto iPhonography

I’m interrupting my Namibia series for this important announcement: 2Summers has procured an iPhone.


There are many secrets locked inside this mysterious machine that I have yet to discover. I don’t know how to activate the 3G, or to switch the ringer on from silent. But there is one thing I can say for certain: The camera works.

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The Power of the Picture

My first memory is of standing in the yard when I was about three years old, having my picture taken by my father. I spent hours in Dad’s basement darkroom, watching images come to life in trays of chemicals. We had slide shows in the living room every Sunday night.

I’m a photographer’s daughter, and a childhood without photographs is unthinkable to me. But there are lots of kids in the world, especially around here, who have never had their picture taken. Help-Portrait is trying to change that.

Help-Portrait recruits volunteer photographers to visit economically underprivileged communities, take pictures of kids (and adults) who live there, and then return later to deliver the prints to their subjects. For many of the recipients, this is the first photo of themselves that they’ve ever received.

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South Africa is a Beautiful Place

On Wednesday morning, my friends Bing and Tein Po picked me up and took me with them to Soweto. We went to a part of Soweto called Zola, where we visited the cooperative that produces Shwe Shwe Poppis.

A woman sews a Shwe Shwe Poppi.

These funky poppis (an Afrikaans word for doll) have a fascinating story. The designs for Shwe Shwe Poppis are based on drawings by children from a crèche (daycare center) at the African Children’s Community Education and Feeding Scheme. Skilled craftspeople create the poppis using shwe shwe, a colorful cotton fabric used in African textiles. The dolls are sold all over the world; proceeds support the craftspeople and their communities.

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The ANC Football Divas Do Jozi

Yesterday, thanks to my new friends at, I attended a “Rediscover Joburg” tour hosted by the mayor of Johannesburg. The purpose of the tour was to showcase various development projects in the city to members of the media and other invited guests. It was also a farewell tour for the mayor, Amos Masondo, who steps down this Tuesday after 10 years in office.

I showed up at the Joburg Theatre, the tour’s starting point, with no idea what to expect. When I saw the buses, I knew I was in for an exciting day.

The bus I rode during the Rediscover Joburg tour.

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