A jarring sound jolted us awake on our first Saturday in South Africa. It shouldn’t be time to get up yet, I thought. But it was and as my eyes adjusted to my surroundings, I could tell the sky was already turning a luminous blue.
Roger was up and had corn porridge (miele-meal), a traditional breakfast, ready for us. It was just what we needed to warm our stomachs.
Following breakfast, we began a very abbreviated tour of Soweto. Our first stop was Mandela House, the Mandela Family Museum on Vilakazi Street. This simple building was the home Nelson Mandela shared with his first wife, Evelyn, and where Winnie, his second wife, also lived. Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay until it opened as we had a full day ahead. We decided to see it and the Apartheid Museum on our return to Johannesburg.
As we were taking exterior shots of the building, we noticed that two police cars had pulled up. Four officers, guns drawn, headed straight to a group of men and began rousting them. I don’t remember seeing the men prior to that or noticed whether they had done anything to warrant police attention. My first thought was police harassment. Aren’t the police the same everywhere? I was torn between watching to see what was going to happen (there really was nothing I could do) and wanting to capture it. I did — surreptitiously, of course.
Following the museum, Roger pointed out the Hector Pieterson Square, a short distance away. Pieterson, then 12 years old, became a symbol of the resistance to Apartheid when he was shot to death at that same location in 1976. This action sparked the now infamous Soweto Uprising on June 16th of that year. I was in university at the time, a period marked by protests and activism support our brothers and sisters who were losing their lives in South Africa. In the intervening years, however, this particular incident had become buried in my consciousness. Seeing the monument brought the memory and the outrage I felt then rushing back like an undigested meal.
Before I could reconcile my emotions, we had moved on and were face-to face with a depressing row of dormitory sized brown brick buildings. It was in Kliptown, the place where the Freedom Charter was signed in 1955; one of the oldest residential districts of Soweto and a sprawling collection of settlements and residences. A monument to well-known anti-Apartheid activist and a delegate of that 1955 Congress of the People, Walter Sisulu, is also located in Kliptown.
Roger explained that the buildings we were looking at had been used to house miners. (South Africa is a world leader in gold and diamond production and more than 100 mines are located in the Johannesburg area. The large black population provides a source of cheap labor.) Directly across the street, were other similar buildings where he said the miners would take their wives for conjugal visits. The women were not allowed to enter the men’s residences; instead, they had to wait for their husbands to go to them. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like for these women, and the men they loved, to have even the most intimate aspect of their relationships so circumscribed. Thankfully, this unpleasant reminder of that period has been slated for demolition.
A symbol of the potential of Soweto and of the distance it has traveled, is the impressive Maponya Mall. Built by self-made Soweto businessman, Richard Maponya, it is a mix of over 100 small and large retailers, fast food restaurants and multiplex movie theatres. Maponya started out in the 1950s with a township grocery shop and owned several other businesses before building the eponymous Mall, which opened in 2007. (We didn’t know this then, but the day we left Johannesburg we would have lunch at a restaurant in the Mall. More about that later.)
The Maponya Mall was a nice bookmark to our Soweto sojourn. These water tanks on the outskirts of the city seemed to watch as we drove around. I was glad when we got close enough to photograph them.
What to do, where to eat in Soweto
Soweto is a large place best seen with a guide or someone who knows their way around. Here are some places I wouldn’t miss:
- Mandela House
- Hector Pieterson Memorial
- Regina Mundi Catholic Church
- Walter Sisulu Square in Kliptown
- Wandie’s Restaurant
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