Soweto has a poor history. Created in the 1930s as a place for separating black South Africans from the white population, with a so-called `sanitary corridor’, meaning a river or other geological feature to keep those whites safe from black influences, the township represents all that was wrong with apartheid.
Given its name Soweto, which means South West Townships, in 1963 the township was a place of exclusion. Not just dividing blacks from whites, but dividing families too. Often men, who needed the work available in Johannesburg, were separated from wives and children and forced to live in overcrowded dormitories, with families banned from visiting.
I have visited Soweto a couple of times. Initially, I was apprehensive, having read so many negative things about the township, but my views have certainly changed now that I have experienced Soweto for myself.
On my first trip I did a quad bike tour of the town. Sure, there was the anticipated spooky section, but mostly Soweto consisted of neat homes in which owners took a lot of pride in their dwellings.
The centre of Soweto is Vilakazi Street, where Nelson Mandela’s house is located.
These days it is a shrine to the great man. A humble place of deep contemplation. Not that he spent much time there, as he was gaoled for 27 years.
Vilakazi Street is vibrant. Street performers entertain with harmonic songs; there are some great shops in the area; street stalls sell an amazing assortment of South African souvenirs. The place just buzzes with life.
During my second visit to Soweto, I enjoyed a tuktuk tour of the area, which was great because I didn’t have to concentrate on the driving. Plus, I discovered that, unlike quad bikes, tuktuks don’t upend and fall on top of you when you attempt to climb a too-steep dirt trail.
I was fine, but I did feel sorry for the quad bike.
This tuktuk tour was organised through Lebo’s Backpackers, and provides plenty of jobs for Soweto locals.
What a fabulous way to get to know Soweto as seen through the eyes of a local.
Everyone was good natured and welcoming. We stopped to converse with the locals, and to swap jokes with the kids. It was during this excursion that I realised that Soweto was a truly inspiring place, where you could feel a true sense of community.
The people of Soweto have a heart. They are proud, but have a sense of enjoyment, and are so welcoming to outsiders.
Back at Lebo’s we stayed for dinner. It was Sunday, and on Sunday nights, after the meal, people sit around the fire and listen to stories, or sing songs.
My dinner companion was an elderly gentleman who had been an activist in his youth, when he was beaten and gaoled by the white nationalist minority government. He was a friend of the murdered activist Steve Biko and his brother was Hector Pieterson, a 13 year-old student who was shot dead by police at Orlando West High School in 1976.
I would have expected him to be angry and bitter. He was sad, but jubilant that apartheid had ended during his lifetime.
His sister, Antoinette, who was by Hector’s side when he was shot, spoke at Lebo’s that night. She too spoke of hope. Now that she was a mother and grandmother she expressed confidence in the future for her children and grandchildren. Antoinette is a most inspiring woman.
South Africa is a most diverse country in which you will have many brilliant experiences. Soweto deserves to be visited, because there you will discover the human spirit that defines the South Africa of today.
For more visit www.sa-venues.com/attractionsga/soweto.php
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