Signs point to the famous places on Soweto’s Vilikazi Street, left; a colorful array of South African domestic airline planes at OR Tambo Airport.
It felt a little weird to be coming back to a city that I had left basically just a week ago for the third time on this trip, not to mention it would be the third time I was entering South Africa. I had a smooth flight from Livingstone, Zambia, to Johannesburg, having completed an overland tour from said Johannesburg (to be referred to as Joburg from this point) to Victoria Falls, Zambia. This constant traveling out of and into their country caused me trouble with the South African authorities, specifically immigration, as soon as I tried to go through customs. “The World Cup has ended! This visa is invalid,” said the unfriendly, strict, though not entirely rude, black officer to me as he processed my passport. I had a World Cup visa, good for three months until the next month (August) and promising unlimited entry and reentry in the country; but to these good folks; it was completely invalid. The World Cup had ended several days earlier and now it seemed like they, specifically the guy and his colleagues, wanted us tourists to be gone. “What are you doing back here? Why were you in Zambia?” were what I was asked. I told them about my travel details, how I was leaving for good in a week’s time, but first I needed to go back to Durban. I was inwardly mortified because it occurred to me if they forced me to leave the country, my stuff was all in Durban and two, I realized what an idiot I was to have left my return ticket back in Durban. So I, and another girl, was made to go into a room where I had to sit in a waiting room, while several immigration officers conferred in another room in an adjoining corridor. I sat quietly looking at a few other guys there, feeling like I had done some kind of illicit activity like trying to enter the country illegally or smuggling contraband. The minutes passed and eventually the officers came to me and the girl, a Kenyan who had the same problem as me, having just returned from Livingstone on a World Cup visa. “Eish, we seem to have a problem,” said one lady officer to the Kenyan. Apparently her visa was invalid and she had no choice but to leave the country. Fortunately for her, she was leaving that night anyways though she still had to solve the problem of getting her luggage from a hostel in Joburg. It was better news for me as I was able to get a new regular visa (thank you Hong Kong!). Thankfully all this didn’t take me too long and I got picked up by my backpacker’s driver. She also had 2 Dutch backpackers to pick up at around the same time. The girls were about to set off on a trip to Namibia, via a bus trip that would take over 15 hours, the next day from Joburg’s Park Station. They had also recently gone into Kruger Park as well but had driven themselves in a rented car. How my own travel experiences paled in comparison.
This time, I was staying at another backpackers, one with a much more reasonable rate. However it wasn’t in a nice well-to-do northern Joburg suburb, but in a neighborhood close to the city center. It was Yeoville, of which my saying its name had scared my Joburg city tour guide a week ago when I told him. Yeoville’s genteel sounding name belies the fact it’s one of the more poorer and unsafe Joburg neighborhoods, with a large population of Africans which many locals, meaning South Africans, were wary of. The backpacker itself was good. I had checked it out on the Internet and the rates were good, which I now knew why, and it seemed like a legit and proper place. 2Bhappy was its name and it was a one-story house surrounded by a brick wall and guarded by a 3-legged but fierce dog. On the way to 2Bhappy, I was able to see some of the neighborhood. It wasn’t a slum but it seemed a little rough. I can’t remember exactly what it was, but between the buildings and guys hanging around, it didn’t seem like the place to go walking around. Indeed, I could go out and walk to the nearby supermarket if I wanted, but just don’t carry my bag else I could be recognized as a tourist and be robbed, said the receptionist. That didn’t seem like a very positive description of the area so I just stayed my ass inside for the day and a half I was there. It was also cold like hell. I slept with 2 long pants and my jacket on and I was still cold. My hands had been chafed in Kruger and Botswana and now, the chafed parts were cracking open. It sounds petty but it was quite painful.
Anyways, the next day was a visit to Soweto and the Apartheid Museum. Soweto is famous for its resistance against the apartheid regime. It’s also considered dangerous in some places. Soweto is actually a collection of townships but it’s also a part of Joburg. The word township brings to mind a poor place and in some parts of Soweto, it is indeed poor, but there are middle-class and even upper-middle-class areas too. On this trip, arranged with 2Bhappy, I had a guide Ben, and a driver. As with my previous Joburg day tour, I was the only passenger. As we drove into Soweto, Soccer City was one of my first sights and Ben acceded to my request to stop close to the stadium. It was large and brownish, rather than gold like it looked on tv, and I was a little disappointed by it. The World Cup having ended a few days ago, the stadium was still and deserted. We also drove past Orlando Stadium, where the World Cup concert had been held the night before the World Cup.
Soccer City, on the left; one of several large plaques on Soweto’s Vilikazi Street that explain the history of the area.
We were going to the Hector Pietersen Museum first. Located in the Orlando West area of Soweto, it was very close to renowned Vilikazi Street, home to the nation’s two most famous Nobel Peace Prize laureates, also lay.
The museum is spacious and modern, having been opened in 2002. There were exhibits, posters, and videos of the Soweto Uprising of 1976 during which 12-year-old Hector Pietersen was shot dead by the police, as well as apartheid policies that led up to that turbulent time. Education is one of the most important aspects of society, but for the apartheid regime, it was one of the most important ways to control blacks, through policies like preventing them from learning maths and science. Also, little funding was given to black schools as most of the education budget was allocated for white students in white schools. However, in the mid 1970s, when the regime decided to enforce teaching in Afrikaans, the language of white Afrikaners, for all blacks, this was too much for the students of Soweto. They launched a series of protests, refusing to go to school, and ultimately went into the streets for a mass rally on June 16. Chaos erupted when police confronted the marchers, which turned into violence and the deaths of hundreds, including most vividly Hector Pietersen in a famous photo. That photo shows Pietersen’s dead body being carried by a youth, with Pietersen’s crying sister alongside.
Inside the Hector Pietersen museum, left, and the memorial just outside the museum. Hector is in the photos shown, and sadly he is the dead boy who is being carried by another guy.
Apartheid seems unimaginable to most of us, so places like this museum serve well to remind us how real it was. Outside the museum, there is an open space which has a memorial to Pietersen. From the memorial, I walked, guided by a marked line on the sidewalk, to the spot where Pietersen was killed, just a few blocks away and near Vilikazi Street. Vilikazi Street goes along a gently descending slope and the Orlando Towers, 2 deactivated cooling towers that have been painted up as a tourist attraction, are visible in thehorizon. A little further down the street, Nelson Mandela’s former home is located. A simple one-storey brick home, the inside has several photos, mementos and objects that belonged to Mandela and his then-wife Winnie. What really caught my eye was a wooden oriental chest lying in the corner of a room because it resembled wooden chests that my grandmother owned that was bought from Hong Kong. The house guide told me the chest was a gift from Mongolia. While the cover price may be a little expensive, it is a unique experience to be literally standing in the footsteps of a great man of our times.
Nelson Mandela’s things, left, including memorabilia, desk and honors from various universities and nations are inside his former home, (as well as his ex-wife Winnie) now a tourist attraction. It’s a simple, one-story red-brick house as you can see from the outside.
I would be lying if I didn’t admit that this place seemed a bit touristy, from the vendors selling African crafts and cloths outside the museum to the restaurants and the open atmosphere that was unlike what you’d normally associate with being in the middle of a township. On the other hand, I got glares from some schoolchildren in a high school on that street and a friendly wave from a driver.
The last Soweto stop was at an informal settlement, Motsoaledi, the closest to a slum I would experience here. We pulled up to a dusty car park outside the settlement, and Ben turned me over to Mandla, a settlement resident who would be my temporary guide. Mandla, a Zulu who spoke in a slow, dignified manner, came from a place near Durban but had been in Soweto for over 10 years. We walked into the informal settlement on the main “lane” which extended straight down the settlement, with shacks and shanties ringing both sides. People trudged past us and nobody really paid much attention to me, a stranger from the other side of the world. Mandla and I walked for a short while, then turned into a yard surrounded by several homes. We went into a resident’s home, which was a small shack with a bedroom and a small kitchen. A single woman lived here with her 2 small children. I felt a little bad, being in such a bleak living space and not being able to help or do anything substantial. I exchanged a few words with the lady, while nervously eying the many mosquitos flying around. At the very least, I didn’t say any frivolous thing but I honestly couldn’t think of anything meaningful to say. I gave the lady a small “donation” and after walking out of her home and back to the entrance, I also gave Mandla a small contribution. This was a little uncomforable because one, I really didn’t have much cash to spare, having had to pay for the tour and the museum entry for the day, and two, I wasn’t too keen on being asked to give to both the community and Mandla. Just before I reentered Ben’s car, several vendors approached me, showing their crafts incuding woodcarved animals. I pretended to feign interest as I had no absolutely no intention of buying, but this just made things worse. “You like this hippo? 40 rand. No? 35 rand. Or how about this giraffe, it’s good too.” Finally I had to walk away, though I felt a little twinge of guilt. Not because I hadn’t bought anything but because of how desperate the guy was. He was pushy and insistent but not in a rude way. I told my guide that I felt a little bad about not buying anything but “I just wasn’t interested,” and he gave me a cryptic reply: “well like the saying goes, you can take the dog to the water but you can’t make him drink.” His use of “dog” instead of “horse” in this common saying had me thinking a little about whether it was just a mistake or a deliberate slight. Anyways we drove out of Soweto, my last sights being two men pushing carts filled with garbage on the side of a road, the outside of Chris Baragwanath Hani Hospital, said to be the largest hospital in the world, and a line of narrow, one-storey brick buildings, which used to be the hostels for migrants from all over the nation.
The Orlando Towers, left, deactivated cooling towers in Soweto that have been nicely done up by local artists; the entrance into the Apartheid Museum. Intended to mimic reality during apartheid, though it’s your ticket stub that determines which one you enter through.
The famous Apartheid Museum was the final stop. Built to serve as a vivid lesson and warning to people about the horror of apartheid, the museum was rather new and well laid-out inside, despite an unassuming exterior. You get a taste of apartheid as soon as you enter, because your ticket is randomly marked with a white or non-white designation which forces you to enter through the white or non-white entrance. If this seems a little blatant, just remember this was reality for apartheid, and also in the US before the 1960s. The exhibits were divided in 16 parts in more or less chronlogical order and they were laid out so each followed accordingly. What really struck me was how detailed and inrusive apartheid was. Not only did it classify blacks, but other races such as Indians and East Asians who while not as badly treated as blacks were still discirminated against. Mixed people or Coloureds also fit into the middle of this racial hierarchy topped by Afrikaner whites. Obviously this was to divide and rule non-whites; by giving some races/ethnicities limited and differing privileges, this caused resentment and hindered cooperation. Reminiscent of Belgian racial policies in 20th-century Rwanda, some South Africans had their noses measured and hair run through with a comb to determine if they were to be black or coloured. Sometimes, siblings were classified as different races, which would cause rifts within families.
The museum made good use of multimedia displays, especially with vivid videos of turbulent events including violence that happened after apartheid ended and before the 1994 elections. Civil war was a frightening possibility as there were white-black clashes with white racist militant groups invading black territories, and black-on-black violence between the ANC and the Inkatha-Zulu party (the Zulus being the tribe predominant in the province of KwaZulu-Natal and which President Zuma belongs to). There was also a Kaspir, a giant sinister armored vehicle which police used to roll into Soweto to patrol and reak up riots. Kaspirs were used in the movie District 9.
The last exhibit was an artistic arrangement with some stones that had a hopeful theme on the future. This optimism is something that I heard from many tour guides but I’m doubtful it’s as popular among many of the population. Outside the museum was a small sloping hill with some schulptures, where you could view the skyscrapers of the city center in the distance, as well as rides in the Gold Reef City amusement park next door. If there is one place to vist in Joburg, let it be the Apartheid Museum.
The front of the Apartheid Museum with the ticket counters on the right; artwork on an outside field within the museum.
My last night in Yeoville, and Johannesburg, was a little harrowing. I couldn’t sleep so I read through the Lonely Planet Southern Africa (9 countries!) and Frommer SA guides until 3 am or so. I’d heard music playing during the evening, probably from bars and restaurants nearby, but hearing people shouting and car alarms going off late at night wasn’t so cool. I managed to wake up at 4.30am for my early flight. I was driven to the airport by Ciza, 2Bhappy’s driver who had picked me up from the airport when I came back to Joburg. Ciza was a young woman from Soweto who was now living in Yeoville and her English was fast and fluent. I point that out because in South Africa, almost every local I met, no matter what race, spoke English in a different way. We had a good talk, surprisingly even about Yeoville after I told her how bad my night had been. Soweto was safer, she said, as she didn’t need to worry about her kids being outside and all that. We also passed an area with a number of Chinese restaurants and firms, which was Cyrildene. I would have wanted to visit here if I had some time. I didn’t notice much Chinese during my entire stay except briefly in Durban in Gateway mall. For some reason, there aren’t much Chinese – less than 100,000. However in Durban, I’d been told by my relatives and other people from Taiwan that many Taiwanese had left but more mainlanders were coming in. Of course, to a lot of people in Taiwan and China, South Africa might as well be the Wild West. Hell, to people in Taiwan, all of mainland China, except Shanghai, is the Wild West.
My flight back to Durban passed without incident and I would be back in Joburg again once more soon, albeit very briefly. Joburg seemed both gritty and significant. It wasn’t beautiful, sunny or touristy like Cape Town nor laidback like Durban. Instead it had a hustle and bustle and a size and reputation that really made it seem like a giant metropolis, which it is, not just of a nation but a continent. It is a place where multitudes converge to make a living, not to visit or to pass through. I hope I could go back again in future, but at that point, I was ready to go back to Durban.
A last look at Joburg’s city center. I think that’s Robinho on the Nike-ad that’s plastered on one of the towers.