A large version of the Soweto motorcycle route above
55 year old South African man visits Soweto for the first time
I have lived in Johannesburg all my life. Soweto with a population of some 3 million is a suburb of Johannesburg that I have never seen. It was a blackhole in my radar of existence until yesterday.
On my BMW 1100 GS I have visited Wuppertal, Calvina, Pilgrims Rest, Port St Johns and Alldays to name a few but my tyres have never rolled over the streets of Soweto; neither have I eaten at any of the famous Soweto restaurants better know to foreign tourists than to me a local.
I know that I am not alone so the idea of a Soweto motorcycle route was born. I chose as my guide a life long Soweto resident and pastor Trevor Nlthola; this is his route through this world famous landmark.
I did not take any photos. A camera is a block between yourself and the environment and I wanted to drink deep of the experience – this place written about in newspapers, in the news and on foreign websites.
In a short sentence – I was shocked by what I saw. I was humbled by what I felt.
The easy stuff first. It was a regular suburb like any other. Clean and well-run with roads, street lights, robots, pavements, bridges, shopping malls, fire stations, police stations, churches, parks, schools, swimming pools, libraries, hospitals and theatres. For foreigners reading this and expecting another Bombay, New Deli or Cairo, this is not it. There were places in Soweto that reminded me more of small town America not in timber, but brick and mortar. For locals reading this I was completely ignored; I was just yet another person on the street whether riding or walking. Yes, there were new parts of Soweto that are shanty towns (informal settlements) but again they were structured and well run with running water (on the corners), toilets (outside) and with areas reserved for refuse collection.
The main problem is the drainage. Even although it had not rained for 24 hours there were places on the roads where the puddles were 50m long and I began to understand why after heavy storms the radio reports flooding in Soweto. Flooding is bad for things like sewerage systems and robots.
Like the older parts of London the roads were not designed for heavy traffic. Yes there were main roads but once you left them the narrow winding roads were created for a population who walked to their destinations. I can imagine that Saturday morning shopping in Soweto can be chaos.
Digging deeper to find the soul and meaning of this place Soweto I have to say it was the roads. We were there on a Wednesday afternoon and the children were on their way home from school. The roads were just full of kids; small kids, bigger kids and teenagers on their own or in groups of up to 10 were everywhere. Children as young as 5 wandered past me, on their own as they walked home. Huh? Children in the suburbs don’t walk anywhere, don’t walk on their own and if they do they are at least 12 years old. They are taken everywhere, almost under ‘armed guard’ by their parents.
The freedom of the children on the backroads streets of Soweto was an amazing and profound thing to see and experience. Cars and taxis had to inch their way along navigating around groups of teenagers talking in the middle of the street. I began to understand that the community owns the streets. The houses are small, the properties are small and so the narrow streets are one of the places where community happens. In one place opposite Trevor’s house a man, who probably did not own a car, was sweeping the sand left by the recent rains off the street outside his house. The message was clear; he owned that part of the street was therefore needed to keep it clean and clear.
I asked Trevor about the taverns and shabeens. I had the idea that Soweto men got home before heading to the local much like the British. Trevor said no. The lions share of Soweto life is in the home, in the homes in your neighbourhood and of course on the street. This is community living.
Trevor went on to tell me about community. The community in your neighbourhood is your family. His 8 year old son disappears for hours on end and Trevor does not know exactly where he is – but he has an idea. A ten minute tour of the houses in his area will find him happily playing with his friends, watching TV or eating with his neighbours. Trevor does not get concerned until 2 hours after dark about the whereabouts or safety of his children. This is so far removed from the way of life in the suburbs where we are prisoners of our own making.
Lunch was a Wandies Place, a truly remarkable restaurant in the middle of a regular neighbourhood. Every square inch of the walls and ceiling is covered with business cards, graffiti, photos and bills. It is small and narrow and the tables are long and narrow accordingly. The food was great and the staff were friendly.
This brings me to the difficult part; the most profound experience of the tour. There is a tiny tract of land in Soweto which is Holy Ground. Sorry but that is what I’m going to call it; this is not only evidence for it but I felt it as well. Nelson Mandela’s house and Desmond Tutu’s house are in the same road. Nowhere in the world do two Noble peace prize winners live in the same road. It’s the same neighbourhood that Walter Sizulu used to live. It’s the same neighbourhood where Hector Peterson (and many others) were shot dead on 16 June 1976. It was on this tract of land that the youth of Soweto stood in front of the monolithic Nationalist Apartheid government and stopped it in its tracks. On this tract of land they did what the adults of the day could not do; they changed the course of history. Trevor says that before 1976 the feeling in Soweto was dark and one of hopelessness. As a community they felt detached and abandoned. After 1976 things began to change and although dark days were ahead there was a feeling of hope.
I walked the area dodging the hundreds of school kids milling around and you could feel something. This is no ordinary place; if I could have removed my shoes I would have.
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