Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Getting real: Soweto

Having seen an extremely tasteful South Africa, I wanted to experience something less carefully groomed so two of us booked a car and driver for a trip to Soweto (although it did seem a bit hypocritical doing so from the lush luxury of the Saxon).

Tip: You definitely want a car and driver for this. It's an easy half-day trip from Johannesburg with steps limited to a curb or two.

Our driver, Letle, grew up in Soweto and was from a tribe of clickers, like the natives of The Gods Must Be Crazy, so his name sounded like Let-click-la.

We headed southwest, appropriately because Soweto stands for South Western Township, passing by hillocks of tailings from gold mines and Australian eucalyptus trees brought in to support and balance the earth after having been gouged out in the search for diamonds and precious metals.

We asked the inevitable: Are things better for you now?
Life has been changed but we have a long way to go, said Letle. "Sixteen to 17 years of democracy is very short."

The huge kalabash-shaped stadium which hosted the World Cup is a source of pride. It's known as Ukhamba, a Zulu word for the clay pot used to brew beer; the white on top is the foam of fermentation.

Dust and pollution from gold and uranium mines thickens the air. "This is the territory of the good, the bad and the ugly, the poor, the rich and the people in between," said our guide.

 The hostels built in the 1900s for African mine camp workers became family units and are slowly being upgraded to house four families per buildings. As the township developed it was divided into six zones to separate people by tribes and language but the people integrated; most speak five or six languages.

As the income rises, families have single houses, but most have added corrugated metal extensions as children mature and begin families of their own.

At the top,  the homes are substantial and surrounded by more space and these neighborhoods resemble well-tended middle class suburbs.

The market here is not a glossy one for tourists, but has knick knacks and produce sold in small lots and queues of cabs and vans, the dominant form of transportation.

The Orlando West neighborhood is home to Winnie Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu.

Mandela House, where Winnie and their children lived while he was in prison and he lived briefly after being freed, has been turned into a museum. No surprise the street is known as Nobel Laureate's Walk.

Add in the Hector Peterson Museum and Memorial and you can see why Soweto is one of the most visited townships in South Africa.

The day we were there several classes from the Khula Sizwe Primary School and our unspoken thoughts turned to their futures, better than their parents' yes, but will that be enough?


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