One of those travel cliches you always hear is “You know, you haven’t visited (insert city) if you haven’t gone to (insert part of city).” So here we go — you haven’t visited Johannesburg if you haven’t gone to Soweto.
Indeed, the sprawling, densely compact area southwest of the city center serves as an eye-opening experience of how people live today and a history lesson on its turbulent and violent history. It’s proud people make the visit a worthwhile experience.
I took an extensive bike tour through the area starting with the shantytown-like section that doesn’t have running water to the suburban-like area that features Nelson Mandela’s house and Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s residence. Its the only street in the world where two Noble Prize winners lived.
Walking and riding through the hostels, my mind was asking several obvious questions, “How can they live like this? How did they get here? Is that what I think I smell?” In actuality, the people living in the “no-so-nice” part are content and smiled as we rode by. I do feel bad that a bunch of yahoos on cruiser bikes wearing helmets are sightseeing through their neighborhood.
Along the way, school children will run alongside you saying “Holahola!” which is just their greeting — a warped version of Hola! They want to give you a high-five or have their picture taken. For them, they feel like celebrities when a bunch of of foreigners chose to visit their little part of the city.
Eventually, we rode to the section where the student uprising of 1976 took place where 69 high school students were killed in a protest. It’s first victim, Hector Pieterson, is immortalized in the famous photo by Sam Nzima where a man carries his lifeless body away from the violence. The woman in the photo, Antoinette, Hector’s sister, actually worked as a guide in the Hector Pieterson Museum that honors her brother’s legacy.
The uprising and the subsequent decades of violence during apartheid and even after its abolition in 1991 is something that you can’t shake in your visit. If you do take the bike tour, I encourage to ask many question no matter how painful. My guide lived through the period and told of running away from gas canisters and ducking from rubber bullets.
Soweto is not all metal roofs, stone huts, Orlando Stadium or the unfinished cooling towers you can Bungee Jump off. The suburban neighborhood that houses Mandela’s and Tutu’s houses have stores and nightclubs (Thursday is Ladies Night!). This got me thinking about the dirty word in this decade, gentrification.
It’s when once poor neighborhoods become thriving communities with Starbucks, H&M and the cafe that charges $6 for a muffin, thus driving locals out due to rising rents. It will happen to Soweto as it has in other part of Johannesburg like in Mellville and Braamfontein.
I give you the case of the hutongs in Beijing. Similar in feel to Soweto, the hutongs are narrow alleyways with ramshackle homes that dominate the city. Those are getting town down by the government to put in high-end apartment complexes or gutted to be made into boutique shopping zones like in Dongcheng.
It might not happen in this decade, but with the rapidly expanded city, it’s inevitable. As I my guide acknowledged, “I hope they keep some of the old.”
As a side note to Nelson Mandela’s home, I was more interested on what the neighbor’s thought of the Mandelas. “Oh, he was never home. Pretty quiet. Didn’t see him much. Winnie would come over to borrow some eggs.”