In the early days of Johannesburg, the township of Soweto mushroomed in tandem with the surrounding gold mines housing labourers in dire overcrowded hostels. Heavy downpours were frequent and would flood the mine-works, so it was known as Place of Much Rain….or more affectionately, So Wet Oh!
Soweto Then and Now
No, not really, Soweto IS a by-product of the gold rush, but the word is a contraction of South Western Townships! Perhaps the most notorious area of Jo’burg in the consciousness of the foreigner, expectations are of poverty, crime and violence, these nervous preconceptions shaped primarily by the media. It’s not a place to walk alone at night, but under the bright African sunshine our tour group felt genuinely safe and welcome.
Today, Soweto is an urban sprawl consisting of a series of tight knit communities – with, according to our guide, “stylish areas, middle class areas and low class areas”. In the stylish and middle class areas the properties generally look neat and well cared for.
The low class areas are the informal settlements with shacks of corrugated iron. An example of this is Kliptown where we briefly stopped at a childrens daycare centre.
We were greeted by an excitable crowd of small children chanting “Number 1, number 1” all keen for high fives before disappearing off to play again. Immediately beyond the rainbow painted compound fence were tiny, off-grid, shacks –no running water, no electricity, where the majority of the children live. Despite these impoverished surroundings they looked happy and well fed.
Famous for the Soweto uprising in 1976 and being a political hotbed of ANC support during apartheid, Soweto is the only place in the world with a street that has housed 2 Nobel Prize winners in the same street, Nelson Mandela AND Desmond Tutu. On a street corner between the two houses, a man belted out a gospel hymn bible in hand as groupettes of old ladies milled past dressed in white and deep in conversation. It turns out that Thursday is ladies’ day at the church. We were advised to ask before taking photos of locals who generally reply with a tongue in cheek, “go ahead, shoot me”.
Key landmarks were pointed out to us en route. We saw the calabash shaped Soccer Stadium where Nelson Mandela’s memorial was held and stopped at the feet of the twin cooling towers of Orlando, now defunct but delightfully painted. A rope/wire bridge spans between the towers and for the adventurous bungee jumping is offered. A popular nightspot is tucked at the base of the towers, Chaf Pozi, which means Hidden Place (and no, I’m not making up words this time).
The other landmarks you can’t miss the mine dumps dotted about – flat topped neatly sloped they glisten in the sunlight like giant gold bars– although probably not forever…they are slowly being reprocessed – a secondary gold rush facilitated by modern technology.
The other gold found today in Soweto is brewed rather than mined. The first batch of Soweto Gold – a clear craft beer aimed at middle class Sowetans was introduced early this year and sold out immediately.
Rather than the new Soweto Gold, we instead we were treated to Jo’burg Beer a traditional foamy sorghum beer in a shebeen.
Shebeens (a word appropriated from the Irish) were originally illicit drinking spots run primarily by the women who home-brewed the beer (Shebeen Queens). A cheery “Don’t drink and walk on the road, you may be killed” is loudly printed on the back of the carton, which looks worryingly like it should contain wholesome milk. In fact the pale frothy contents could almost be mistaken for milk were it not for its’ odour and sour potent taste.
Loosely in keeping with Zulu tradition, the beer was poured into a calabash, given to the most senior male (the only male in our party), who swilled it, sipped it and pronounced his satisfaction with a hearty “Ahaaaa”. It was then passed about the group for sampling.
South Africa’s 12th Language
Another nugget was a brief lesson on some of the hand signals for hailing taxi buses – for Orlando West you make an O with the tips of your thumb and forefinger and point the remaining three fingers upwards to make a W. For Orlando East you make the same O, but point the three fingers to the right to make an E for East. The rest of the signals remain a mystery, the sign language that has developed with the transport system is sometimes dubbed South Africa’s 12th language.
There is plenty more to see, but this was a great taster, apart perhaps from the beer….