Johannesburg - Most white South Africans might have seen it in movies; think Sarafina, Stander and Cry Freedom. They’ve probably read about it in books by Wilbur Smith, Bryce Courtenay and André Brink. If not, they’ll probably remember the quintessentially South African sight of drunk Blue Bull rugby supporters in shebeens and chisa nyamas next to Soweto’s Orlando Stadium in 2010.
And, they’ve definitely driven past the sprawling giant township to the right of the N1 heading out of town.
For those white South Africans, Soweto might seem a bizarre choice as a tourist destination.
As more than one wag noted in 2010 when the Bulls found themselves playing the penultimate and final games of the Super Rugby season there, the last time so many white people – especially Afrikaans-speaking white people – had been there was in 1976, with disastrous consequences.
Soweto is the crucible of our democracy, it’s the site of two watersheds: the signing of the Freedom Charter in 1955 and the Soweto Riots. It’s also the site of some of the more determined service delivery protests to this day.
And it’s a tourist destination, particularly for overseas visitors.
They flock to Vilakazi Street in Orlando West, home to Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and the late Nelson Mandela, before slaking their thirst and having a pub lunch at Sakhumzi’s, right next to the Tutus.
There’s also Wandi’s in Dube, the gentrified township eatery Richard Branson and Evander Holyfield like to dine in.
The real gems of the township require a guide, not just because navigating Soweto is confusing at the best of times, but because Soweto is huge.
“It’s 150km2 in area, has 4.4 million inhabitants, 704 schools, one university, 300 churches, 16 police stations, 14 railway stations, 12 community halls, one theatre, two hospitals and a French school,” Joe Motsogi rattles them off.
If there’s a gold standard for tour guides, then Motsogi must be it or close to.
He’s passionate about and proud of this place he calls home to this day.
We meet at the Apartheid Museum on the other side of the Gold Reef City parking lot. From there, it’s a short journey in his big people carrier past FNB Stadium into Soweto proper.
Motsogi’s big on statistics. Even bigger on all the green schtick the foreign tourists go in for. He goes into raptures about the environmentally friendly design and how the rubbish left by fans after major games is collected and creates jobs for the locals who recycle it.
Soweto’s enormous and Motsogi revels in it. “Chris Hani Baragwanath was the biggest hospital in the world, built on 173 acres and named after the Welshman John Albert Baragwanath. His name means bread and wheat. Today it’s only the third biggest, there are two in China that are bigger.”
Motsogi turns into a suburb. “We’re in Diepkloof Extension now, Or Diepkloof Expensive or Duurkloof, if you speak Afrikaans. This is where professionals were first able to buy homes on a 90-year lease, back in the 1980s.”
There are seriously impressive houses, ones that wouldn’t look out of place in the gated estates of Joburg’s northern suburbs, but they’re built in typical Soweto style, cheek by jowl with their neighbours.
Not all of them are facebrick. Some are quite ordinary, with the ubiquitous backyard dwellers in tin shacks at the back. Across the road is the confluence of single-sex hostels, new government housing estates and upmarket homes.
“This is the reason we all get on in Soweto,” says Motsogi. “When the professionals moved out, they left their relatives behind, so they could never forget their past. Indeed, when they could move out altogether after 1994, many chose to stay exactly where they were, with the people they had grown up with all around them.”
It wasn’t always like this. Soweto was formed out of 47 different townships. The two founding townships were Pimville (named after the manager of the Non-European Affairs Department Howard Pim) and Orlando (named after the mayor of Joburg, Edwin Orlando Leake).
In those days, you got little houses if you were married says Motsogi, but the moment the father died or got divorced, everyone was out on the street.
Soweto grew and grew and was eventually electrified in the 1980s, but not before it had borne witness to the most seismic events in South African history – the signing of the Freedom Charter in Kliptown at the Congress of the People and the 1976 riots centred around the now legendary Morris Isaacson High School.
Today the Kliptown Square, a soccer field at the time, says Motsogi, is a built-up open square known as the Walter Sisulu Square. There is a conference centre on one side, Soweto’s only hotel opposite it, hawkers, curio sellers and a modern, evocative monument to the constitution that is the fruit of that Congress of the People held in Kliptown almost 60 years ago.
The articles of the constitution are engraved on stainless steel sheets on a table that dominates the centre of the interior. In the middle is a flame that is lit on high days and holy days.
Beyond the hotel is the little Kliptown Museum, a simple yet moving reminder of who came to the congress and why they had to.
Back up the road opposite Morris Isaacson is the new June 16 Heroes’ Acre. It’s a modern monument that begins with a museum then flows into an open space imagined with a mural that retraces the fatal steps of the marchers with a moment by moment breakdown of events.
It’s cleverly done; poignant, artistic. It’s quite beautiful.
There’s only one thing that can match it, the Oppenheimer Tower. Built in 1957 from the bricks that were left over when the apartheid government demolished Sophiatown, it honours the $6 million Randlord Ernest Oppenheimer put up as a loan for the building of 14 000 proper houses in what would become Jabavu.
It sits in the middle of the Credo Mutwa Cultural Village, a one-stop shop for herbalists and sangomas who use the indigenous plants for medicine.
Today, the birds flock to this urban sanctuary, a man-made forest providing hope where there was once very little.
Walking up the 49 steps, you’re greeted by a 360º panorama of Soweto, guarded over by lookalikes of the famous Zimbabwe birds beloved as much by Oppenheimer as they were by Cecil Rhodes.
It’s a fitting end to a memorable visit, another paradox in a sea of contradictions; a pulsating place of squalor and luxury, of the hope epitomised by Richard Maponya and his eponymous mall, and the bucket system still breaking the hearts of the residents of Jabulani Hostel.
The roads are better tarred than in the north of Joburg, there’s incredible investment and, yet, just off main roads lurk the tightly backed plots and their backyard dwellers.
The juxtapositions are stark, but the experience is authentic. As you leave to return to the Joburg city centre, you know you’ll be back because there’s so much more to explore and, this time, you won’t be an interloper in your own country.
Joe Motsogi: JMT Tours
Tel: 083 307 4390 / 079 241 0531
Soweto Hotel and Conference Centre
Corner Union Ave and Main Rd, Kliptown, Soweto
Tel: 0800 991 333
Vilakazi Street, Orlando West
Mphuti Street, Central Western Jabavu, Soweto
Tel: 011 938 1820