South Africa: Full of flavour

By Michael Brown

Parked outside was a Mercedes. Beside that was a shiny BMW convertible and alongside that was the latest Range Rover. Not far away was an Alfa Romeo and a Porsche.

This, unexpectedly, is a normal sight on a Sunday afternoon in Soweto. A bunch of mates, albeit wealthy ones, gather for a meal and mockery once a week at Sakhumzi's Restaurant.

It's an inauspicious place, like most of Soweto, with a simple garden bar and a handful of wooden tables laden with traditional food. There are no fancy fittings or expensive ornaments, and you have to queue for your own food.

It's part of the reason why the line-up of cars outside is so unexpected. They seem so out of place with their surrounds.

But it really shouldn't come as a surprise. This is, after all, one of the world's most famous streets, once home to both Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Just around the corner is Winnie Mandela's house and beyond that the Hector Pieterson Museum. History drips from this part of town almost as much as the succulent juices drip from the chicken curry I'm tucking into.

Soweto is home to millionaires, miners and migrants. There are mansions and "matchbox" houses (four-room houses built by the government during apartheid), sheds and shanties.

It's also a place that's alive. While most of suburban Johannesburg is locked up behind high prison-like walls surrounding people's houses, trying to keep criminals out, Soweto has little of that. There are few places with tall fences or barbed wire.

"There's no need," Joe says. "Crime is low in Soweto."

That's largely because of the CPF, or Community Policing Forums, which often sees alleged criminals before police do. Justice is apparently fair but firm. "You don't want to commit a crime against your own," Joe says a little ominously. He has lived all his life - 60-odd years - in Soweto. It's a comfortable existence now but that wasn't always the case. As a high-ranking member of the ANC - he considers Mandela a friend - he came under considerable attention from white police during the apartheid era. He was imprisoned on a handful of occasions, tortured on all of them.

"It was miserable, awful," he says quietly, as he pauses between mouthfuls during lunch. "But we can't be bitter about what happened. We have to move on."

And that is what most of Soweto has done, despite the horrors of what many went through.

Soweto is an acronym for South Western Township and was officially adopted in 1963 for the sprawling township on the outskirts of Johannesburg. The first township was established in 1904 but forced removal of blacks and coloureds accelerated after apartheid was officially adopted in 1948.

There were many others like it around the country, but Soweto became a symbol of the fight against apartheid in the 70s and 80s. It came into focus after the June 16, 1976 uprising when police opened fire on 10,000 black students protesting against the government's policy to enforce education in Afrikaans rather than English. Twelve-year-old Hector Pieterson was the first of up to 130 to die that day. As many as 1300 were killed in nine months as violence, and world condemnation, spread.

Images of Soweto and the violent state repression were beamed around the world. And this is what most tourists remember.

There's a perception it's still a dangerous place. After all, South Africa doesn't exactly have the best reputation when it comes to violent crime. Maybe it is. A four-hour visit isn't long enough to find out and most of the 1600 tourists who visit every day are warned not to venture into the slums. But it feels safer than many parts of Johannesburg where possessions are locked away behind massive fences and people lock away their emotions behind a wall of distrust.

Greetings are warm and genuine. Kids play football on the dusty streets. A woman doesn't flinch when Joe knocks on the door of her house and asks if we can come in. They don't have much, but you can tell pride is one commodity that isn't in short supply.

Soweto is still, on the whole, desperately poor. Economic development was virtually non-existent during the apartheid era because of rules preventing residents from creating their own businesses (it was supposed to be a place for blacks and coloureds to live only and even today 70 per cent leave the township each day to work) with only essential businesses permitted. Development takes time.

Officially 1.8 million live in Soweto, an area of just 150 sq km. Estimates put this as high as 3.5 million, with just 100 white residents.

It's also an area full of surprises and intrigue. Starting with Sakhumzi's.


* Soweto is about 20km from downtown Johannesburg and tours are easy to arrange. Most hotels will sort one out for you.

* Nelson Mandela's house has been spruced up considerably since the days when he used to live there, but it is still worth a visit. The Hector Pieterson Museum is a fascinating commentary, not only on the Soweto uprisings, but also on the history of the township.

* Sakhumzi's Restaurant is a great place to eat. The food is tasty and cheap. Just ask Sakhumzi if he's fallen off his motorbike lately.

Michael Brown travelled to South Africa courtesy of Emirates Airlines and South Africa Tourism.

- Herald on Sunday

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