The Big Trip begins: first stop - Soweto

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July 6th 2006
Published: July 7th 2006
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images of the New South Africaimages of the New South Africaimages of the New South Africa

The flag's colours represent South Africa's past, geography and aspirations for the future
Soweto. The name conjures up a myriad of images and thoughts: the long dusty road along which the schoolchildren marched in 1976 to protest against the use of Afrikaans as the medium for their education; the "black hole" of Johannesburg (forgive the expression) to which the Blacks were forcibly removed from as early as 1904 and where Whites feared (and perhaps some still fear) to venture; endless "matchbox" houses and squatter camps; the birthplace of the New South Africa; the home of Nelson Mandela and Bishop Tutu, shebeens and high crime rates... I could go on and each of us will have their own images.

I had wondered about the ethics (if that’s not too strong a word) of going on a tour of Soweto. It seemed voyeuristic, gazing into the lives of ordinary people much as one looks into cages to see the animals at the zoo - an unfortunate analogy, I’ll admit. Yet I wanted to go for a number of reasons: to pay a small tribute to those who campaigned and died there; to see what evidence there might be of the “New South Africa” working in the place it was born, perhaps in contrast to the increasingly pessimistic views that I had heard expressed by White South Africans; to gain some kind of experience - albeit fleeting and very limited - into what life in this kind of area might be like; to learn more about the history of the place and its people.

However depressing and squalid many of the sights we saw were, I was struck by the cheerfulness of the inhabitants. While I was struggling for words after visiting a former men's hostel - endless rows of identical, dormitory-style dwellings, originally built to house male migrant workers and now inhabited by squatters before its likely renovation later in the year, with no rubbish collection or sanitation, and one standing pipe where the women and children were gathered to do their washing when we arrived - and heart-torn by the soft imprint of a trusting child's hand which seemed to linger on my own long after its cherubic, smiley owner had been left behind, my overall impression is of people getting on with their lives, and doing so amazingly cheerfully.

We were warmly welcomed wherever we went: in the shack in the squatters' camp which its inhabitants did not want to leave
washing day at a former men's hostelwashing day at a former men's hostelwashing day at a former men's hostel

(now inhabited by squatters)
as they will be forced to do before too long in order to move to housing more than ten kilometres distant; in the marketplace where we were the subject of much amusement as we tasted freshly cooked pap, stewed cow's cheeks, braai-ed cow's heart and dried mopane worms (if I hadn't been a vegetarian before I arrived at that market, I would have become one pretty quickly - though I confess I did try a small piece of worm, fighting the instinct to wretch both then and later as my tongue found dusty remnants over the next quarter-hour); in the shebeen where we all - even our 14-year old companion - tried "Joburg Beer", improbably drunk straight out of a newly-shaken milk-type carton, and egged on by the shebeen's regulars who had been there a while already; and in the 1951 "matchbox" house where its owner proudly showed off his flushing toilet, kept locked against use by people queuing for the taxis up the road, and his "Soweto electric fence", broken glass cemented to the top of the wall dividing his property from another shebeen whose regulars use his yard as a short-cut to the road (his improvisation hadn't worked: they'd simply pulled down a bit of the wall further down the next time they'd tried); to name but a few instances.

Of course, we also saw The Sights, identifiable as such because only there did we see other tour groups. It was a credit to our enthusiastic and hugely knowledgeable guide, Thami, that our initial focus was on today's inhabitants of Soweto, not simply the past.

At the Regina Mundi Church, southern Africa's largest Catholic church, we heard appalling stories of how the police had broken in and fired on the people gathered inside (a few bullet holes are still apparent, deliberately left there in memory), and we admired the stained glass window donated by the Polish prime minister's wife in memory of Chris Hani, one of whose assassins was Polish.

I was moved by the simplicity and poignancy of the Hector Peterson Memorial where the slate part-walls at the entrance represent the children on the march, arms inter-linked, the gaps between them indicating those shot down by the police, themselves represented, somewhat ironically, a line of by olive trees, a symbol of peace. The famous photograph of Hector himself, the first child to die in the 1976 Soweto uprising, limp in the arms of an older boy, is off to one side of a simple waterfall, reminding us of the grim reality of that day.

We saw the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, the largest in the world with approximately 3,200 beds, and much sought-after for the experience it can give by interns from around the world.

We drove around the "posh" areas, and learnt new terminology: "cheese boys and girls", "aspiring cheddars", and other such terms, all drawn from the distinction between those who were dependent on unexciting school-provided sandwiches and those who were rich enough to bring their own, often cheese-filled, ones.

And we drove past the houses of the famous: Winnie Mandela's, with CCTV cameras on each corner looking curiously out-of-place; the house where Nelson Mandela spent much of his pre-Robben Island life; and Bishop Desmond Tutu's house which he still uses when in Johannesburg. We were told that he still jogs when he is staying there, and Thami described how the Bishop was once pounced upon by a group of tourists that Thami was showing around and who then insisted on having themselves photographed with him, regardless of his
tasting the haute cuisine of Soweto markettasting the haute cuisine of Soweto markettasting the haute cuisine of Soweto market

...and, as far as I know, no-one has suffered any ill effects!
state of dress.

Soweto - the name being an abbreviation of South-West Township - remains a constantly-changing kaleidoscope, and I have no doubt that, were I to do the same half-day tour tomorrow, my experience would be very different in many respects. That its people are so positive in their day-to-day lives is, however, uplifting. While the living conditions of many that we met today are awful by my somewhat cosy, self-satisfied standards, who am I to pass judgement? I was truly humbled by my visit.

Additional photos below
Photos: 16, Displayed: 16


sampling Jo'burg beer in a shebeensampling Jo'burg beer in a shebeen
sampling Jo'burg beer in a shebeen

Equally, I believe we all survived this experience!
a pharmacy at Soweto marketa pharmacy at Soweto market
a pharmacy at Soweto market

"witch doctor"-style remedies (I didn't purchase any)
dried mopane wormsdried mopane worms
dried mopane worms

most incredibly, no after-effects from these, but I probably won't be trying them again
the black Madonna and Child at Regina Mundi churchthe black Madonna and Child at Regina Mundi church
the black Madonna and Child at Regina Mundi church

At the time, this was considered blasphemous
children inside a squatter's shackchildren inside a squatter's shack
children inside a squatter's shack

even on a winter's day, it was stifling inside

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