ONCE tourists would never dream of travelling to Soweto.
The collection of shanty townships outside Johannesburg in South Africa was considered a “no-go” zone.
Then the first of the tour buses came with tourists pressing their noses to the glass but not brave enough to step outside.
Today, in response to a concerted effort to get people off the buses and into the bustling communities, there are walking, cycling and tuk-tuk tours.
SUE PRESTON jumped on another means of transport, a quad bike, to explore this “city within a city” of close to two million people.
Soweto – there is no denying that first impressions are confronting.
Kilometre after kilometre of rudimentary tin shacks, encircled by barbed wire, children playing in public spaces strewn with refuse, and painted signs on rubbish bins advertising cheap abortions.
Yet there is more to Soweto than its poverty, and certainly more to its people.
These humble surroundings were home to two Nobel Laureates – South African leaders Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu – and many of the nation’s leading political activists, musicians, artists and soccer players grew up in these very streets.
“Soweto is a city on the way up, crime is on the way down,” our guide tells us as we pass through a tangle of streets lined with tin shanties and “matchbox” houses – four-room houses built by the government as cheap accommodation for black workers during apartheid.
Once only black South Africans lived in Soweto (an acronym for South WesternTownship) but now many whites call the area home.
Soweto boasts some upmarket residential areas, public and private schools, shopping malls, traditional and international churches, and the world’s third largest hospital within the township parameters of 180 square kilometres.
Locals no longer inquire “are you lost?” when they see a tourist in the street.
Soweto had its beginnings in the early 1900s as a rudimentary settlement designed to house the black labour force for white companies, especially the gold mining industries.
During the apartheid era its population swelled when many black South Africans were moved out of the inner city areas of Johannesburg and their houses cleared to make way for homes for white people.
In the forced relocation to the new townships, poor people had to walk 25 kilometres into the city each day to work.
Mandela’s humble home, Mandela House, in the Soweto suburb of Orlando West, is one of the “matchbox” houses. Now a museum, it has been restored to what it looked like in 1946, when Mandela lived there with his first wife, Evelyn Mase.
In 1958, Mandela brought his second wife, Winnie, to Soweto, and they lived here until his arrest in 1962. He returned again briefly in 1990 after his release from prison on Robben Island.
The exterior walls of the home are peppered with bullet holes but Mandela firmly believed “education is the best weapon you can have to change the world”.
In June 1976 Soweto made world headlines when police opened fire on black students protesting peacefully against the mandatory teaching of subjects in the Afrikaans language.
The Hector Pieterson Museum on the site honours the students, especially those who lost their lives that day and in the weeks that followed.
In the grounds outside the museum stands a monument and the now famous photograph of the lifeless 13-year-old Hector Pieterson being carried in the arms of a fellow student fleeing from authorities. The published photo forced the photographer to go into hiding for many years but was instrumental in galvanising world opinion against apartheid.
One of the most popular things for tourists to do in Soweto today is to visit what’s known as a shebeen. These bars and taverns, once illegal, were popular meeting places for political dissidents.
In these rustic and simple shacks you will rub shoulders with locals and, if you’re lucky, be treated to extraordinary impromptu musical and dance performances.
Another initiative designed to break down the stigma associated with Soweto is the storytelling evenings around the campfire, which give locals a platform to share their stories.
We meet two remarkable women, traditional healer Jane Siswe Dube and grandmother Barbara Peete. In Soweto, women like Jane and Barbara are held in high esteem – “You touch a woman, you touch a rock” is a common saying.
As the skies darkened and the silence deepened around the campfire, the women spoke softly and without rancour about the injustices of life under apartheid.
Both were forced to carry the “dom pas” (literally, dumb pass). All black South Africans were required to carry documents allowing them to “pass” into urban areas – places where many had lived their whole lives.
If you could not produce the pass you ran the risk of going to prison. You could also only visit certain areas and at certain times – and if you were found in another area you could be arrested.
Barbara spoke of the indignity of having to strip for a physical examination “before they gave you the red stamp which meant you could get a job”.
The events of 1976, the student march, still linger in Barbara’s mind 40 years later. She was shot in the leg with a bullet she thinks may have been fired from a helicopter. She was taken away and hidden, the bullet dug out with a knife and spirits poured onto the wound. There was no medication to kill the pain and today she walks with a limp.
Our guide remembers his own schooldays well. His African name was changed to Tony because only English names were allowed at school.
Teachers of the day maintained that African names were simply too hard to pronounce.
“Mum changed my name at the school gate. Her boss’s name was Tony so she called me Tony,” he said.
“You also had to have an English name in order to get a job.”
The campfire storytelling is adjacent to Lebo’s Backpackers Hostel where people of all ages stay when they want a more immersive Soweto experience.
Lebo grew up without his parents for many years when they were forced to flee from authorities at the height of the struggles against apartheid.
Keen for tourists to experience another side of Soweto, Lebo runs walking, cycling and tuk-tuk tours for guests and manages the hostel with his Swedish-born wife Maria.
The problems of Soweto – poor housing, overcrowding, high unemployment and rudimentary infrastructure – are apparent to visitors but the landscape is slowly changing with new buildings replacing some of the corrugated iron shacks and lean-tos.
In these newer areas there is a noticeable lack of barbed wire around the houses.
“We Sowetans take care of each other. Your neighbour is your security,” our guide explains.
As we leave Soweto I am reminded of a story I heard when I first arrived in South Africa: that many people coming to the country to enjoy wildlife safaris fly into Johannesburg and fly out to their safari lodges without stepping a foot outside the airport because of perceived safety concerns.
To come to South Africa and not visit Soweto is to miss out on meeting people who share a quiet pride in the part they played in the making of the new South Africa. That’s an experience equal to any wildlife safari.
If you go...
THE Soweto Experience – email firstname.lastname@example.org
Soweto Backpackers, Orlando West – www.sowetobackpackers.com
Soweto tour by quad bike – www.sowetooutdooradventures.co.za
For other tour options:
Johannesburg Tourism Company – www.joburgtourism.com
Soweto Tours – www.soweto.co.za
Travelling in South Africa – www.southafrica.net
QANTAS flies from Sydney to Johannesburg with fares around $2101 in economy, $2911 premium economy and $5871 business.
WHEN TO VISIT: The temperatures are consistent throughout the year with the nights being quite cool and days a little warmer. Winter (June -August) averages 19 degrees C during the day and 5 degrees at night. Spring (September -November) and summer (December - January) average 15-25 degrees. Autumn (March to May) is considered the most popular time to visit, with temperatures ranging from 7-23 degrees.
* Sue Preston travelled to South Africa with the assistance of South African Tourism and Qantas.