Johannesburg and Soweto

So, 7:15 am.  It came very early.

Sunday was our last chance to squeeze in a tour of Soweto.  Going on just a few hours of sleep was far from ideal, but the only other option was to skip the tour entirely.  Please!  There would be ample time to catch up on sleep during the 16 hour plane ride home. 

Our tour was a combined tour of Johannesburg and Soweto.  We were the last pickup of the six in our tour group; as soon as we got in the van, the tour guide began his spiel. 

The guide was quite knowledgeable and he had obviously given this tour dozens upon dozens of times before.  Had I not been able to see that his eyes were on the road as we proceeded through Johannesburg and into Soweto, I would have thought that he was reading off of a script.  Needless to say, it was a bit robotic, but undoubtedly informative.

The best part about the tour guide’s speech was that he regularly referred to us as “good people.”  It was so unnatural that it was humorous.  “And next, good people, we will be driving through the most dangerous part of Johannesburg, Hillbrow.”  “We are now turning onto Vilakazi Street, good people, the only street to have housed two Nobel Peace Prize recipients.”

The tour started with the drive through Johannesburg.  Despite having been there for nearly two weeks, we actually hasn’t spent much time within the city limits of Johannesburg other than when we were attending matches.  The tour of Johannesburg was brief but it was certainly worth it: we saw where Nelson Mandela currently lives, we visited Constitution Hill, we drove through Hillbrow, which our driver described as once being “South Africa’s Hollywood” but is now one of the most dangerous areas of Johannesburg.  We saw St. John’s College, the most prestigious boys’ school in South Africa.  We saw abandoned buildings and stunning statues. 

Following the Johannesburg tour, we made the short drive into Soweto.  Soweto’s origin was as a black township during the apartheid era.  It’s a fascinating place.  It wasn’t about going to see the slums, or to gawk at those who were less fortunate.  It was about the history of the place, about the role that it played in the struggle against the Apartheid movement and about how it fits into modern-day South Africa.

Following a short drive through some of the more prosperous areas of Soweto, our driver took us to an area where we could exit the van and see Soweto up close.  We walked down a dirt path past a handful of tiny, tin houses, accompanied by a Soweto resident who is a volunteer tour guide. 

He took us to a house where the young mother of four welcomed us inside.  She showed us the three rooms of her house: two bedrooms that barely fit the beds that they contained, and her kitchen, as narrow as a hallway.  The tour guide coaxed the answers to a few questions from her.  We watched her children dart in and out of the door.  It was humbling, really, to see how she lived and how unabashedly she showed it to us.  I suppose that it could have been just for the Rand that we all gave her when we left but, whatever the reason, she opened up her home to a half-dozen tourists. 

I had brought along a bag of Tootsie Roll Pops.  When we left the house, I worked up the nerve to ask the tour guide if it would be okay to hand them out to the children.  With his blessing, I broke open the bag and handed them to the children who were in the woman’s yard.  Word, of course, spread quickly.  I was looking at an awful lot of eager faces and outstretched hands; the bag was empty before long. 

The Soweto guide escorted us out of the neighborhood and back to our van.  After a pit-stop at a KFC so a few on the tour could go to the bathroom (a break that featured our tour guide accidentally driving our van over a substantial concrete barrier), we headed further into Soweto.  We saw where Desmond Tutu lives when he is in the area, we saw where Nelson Mandela lived prior to his imprisonment (and for a mere 11 days after his imprisonment).  Finally, we wrapped up our tour at the Hector Pieterson Museum.  Pieterson was the first student to be killed during the 1976 Soweto uprising against Apartheid and the museum was built in the honor of him and the others who were killed during that time.  It was a small museum (we were allotted just 30 minutes to browse), but I found it was a neat, comprehensive way to wrap up the tour.

Sleep deprived and all, it was an enlightening and interesting way to spend our morning.  And we even got back to the hotel with time for a nap before our last match of the tournament: Argentina/Mexico.

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One response to “Johannesburg and Soweto

  1. Nice report, thanks. I had seen your Soweto excursion photos on Flickr and very much appreciate the backgound info you givet here on your blog.

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