Tuesday, 23 June 2009


The following day, we were to be guided round Soweto. ‘Township Tours’ are easy to find in Johannesburg and you can pay a lot of money to see poverty. Looking for a tour that wouldn’t feel like another safari and that might return the revenue generated to the community, we came across Taste of Africa. Run by Cedric, it offers tours, lodgings and home-stays in Soweto and uses public minibus taxis (minibuses which are called taxis – as opposed to metered taxis which are regular taxis) rather than a big coach to get around, reducing both the price and the insularity of the experience. Of the 270,000 visitors in Soweto every year, he told us, only 70,000 of them get off the bus on the way through, the rest taking pictures through the window.

As he waited with us, barefoot, to catch the minibus-taxi, he talked us through the basics of the hand gestures required. Pointing your index finger skyward indicates that you want to go to the city centre, pointing it downwards says that your stop is local. Holding up two, three, four or five fingers means various other things which depend on where you’re hailing the taxi from and is not a rude gesture, as was often supposed by road users that did not speak the language, Cedric told us. Once he’d waved us off, a fellow passenger saw the note he’d written for us with the name of our stop and shouted it over to the driver, who had already been told by Cedric and shouted back to us, “Don’t worry!” We thanked everyone for looking after us and another passenger assured us, with perhaps a little exasperation, “We’re hospitable people!”

A township is not a slum. A slum is an informal settlement where inhabitants may or may not have some kind of tenure security (and usually don’t) and live in obviously impoverished conditions. A township is “a suburb or city of predominantly black occupation, formerly officially designated for black occupation by apartheid” (Mac Dictionary) and, in the case of Soweto, plots are allocated to families and their future descendants. We were told that the population in Soweto could be as high as eight million. Instead of shacks made from mud and corrugated iron, a township has actual houses with bricks and windows. Like most areas, and perhaps we were naïve to be surprised, it has rich and poor parts. It’s easy to see the difference; the original government houses all have the same basic Monopoly design while the richer occupants have rebuilt their houses always in a different, and impressive, style. Probably the most impressive house belongs to Winnie Mandela, divorced from Nelson not long after his release from prison. “Wow, it’s…” I paused, trying to find the right word. “Big?” finished Eunice, our guide. It sure was.

Our first stop was in Orlando West, the part of Soweto where Nelson Mandela used to live. The clean and shiny museum that now stands on his previous address (now owned by Winnie Mandela with a 60R entrance fee that was a bit rich for us) is on a street nicknamed Beverly Hills and looks similar to the rich suburbs of Johannesburg, with the same high security fences, sprinkler systems and BMWs.

The date was June 16th, exactly 33 years to the day after the killing of thirteen-year-old Hector Pieterson, the first person to die when armed forces opened fire on a student demonstration protesting against the teaching of lessons in Afrikaans, ‘the language of the oppressor’. After visiting the museum commemorating his death and the history of the struggle it signifies, we stood on the spot where he died, behind which, in an obscene paradox to Hector’s sad yet optimistic symbol for student solidarity, autonomy and power, is the Coca-Cola branded sign for Orlando West High School.

We had lunch at the hostels that used to accommodate Johannesburg’s miners back when they still mined. For the same price as an adult single into Mandela House, we had two of the best meals we’ve had in Africa so far, including beers. Alex cooked the meat on the braai with all the men while I talked marriage with Eunice (don’t worry Le Poo, I put her straight x).

It was a valuable surprise to see that an area with the reputation of Soweto can become as desirable as Orlando West clearly is. It seems an audacious and satisfying response to the horrifying policies that first gave the area foundation. After the tour, we asked Cedric if he thought it was safe to visit Soweto without a guide. To our surprise, he said yes, that it was safer than Johannesburg, and that his ultimate ambition was for visitors like us to do exactly that. In fact, though, I would recommend a guide as it is easy to get lost and there are still areas in Soweto, like anywhere, where you don’t want to be an easy target. I would definitely recommend the flexibility of Taste of Africa’s tour and Cedric’s impressive philosophy and attitude towards tourism – he would rather you spent your money with Soweto’s businesses than on his own transport, making the cost at 200R per person at least half those of all the other tours we saw. Most of all, I would recommend that you get off the bus.

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