Tuesday, 29 December 2015

South Africa: Soweto too

Concluding South Africa
I left South Africa just over two weeks ago, but there is at least one last blog I needed to write about my visit to this amazing country. Though I was there for 25 nights, I was quite busy with work-related issues that there was very little time to do anything about discovering the country.
It was my third weekend before I made it to Cape Town and then I extended my stay in South Africa to allow for me to do the needful in Johannesburg.
On my first visit in May, I had done the basic bus tour stopping at the Apartheid Museum and the Constitutional Court, the option to go to Soweto was declined because we had to change from a double-decker bus to van, giving the impression we were about to visit a rather dangerous area.
Contemplating Soweto
You form so many impressions about Soweto and it is very likely that the township idea comes across as shanty towns, slums, rundown crime-ridden inner-city chaos that would endanger the bravest of angels.
I was determined this time to visit Soweto and see things for myself, I felt I had much more to gain by joining one of the more professional tour arrangements and with that having printed out my ticket, I made for the stop where I could board the Soweto tour bus. This was at Gold Reef City which was one of the first gold mines in South Africa before it has been transformed into an amusement park, museum and dangerously, a casino with hundreds of one-armed bandits.
A place that once brought money that was the stuff of dreams now takes hold of dreams of making money from the many whose dreams are a constant suspense and excitement of almost but never getting fulfilled. Yet, I could not help but notice the ‘gun drop’, a kind of left luggage section for guns just before you enter the casino, make of that what you may.
The first sights
I boarded the first tour bus to Soweto and sat in the front with the driver Thabo, unlike the recorded playbacks of the double-decker city sightseeing bus, we had a personal guide to inform us about the tour. Our group comprised people mainly South African residents, but from countries are far away as China and Japan, the Japanese man lived in Durban.
Stopping first at Soccer City or the FNB Stadium, we took pictures and the edifice loomed as a big calabash celebrating Umqombothi beer and bringing back memories of the hit single by Yvonne Chaka Chaka.
Driving past the mine dumps which are a legacy of mining, Apartheid and toxic materials being exposed again with technological developments allowing for the dumps to be re-mined for gold. The more sinister view of the mine dumps was how it completely obscures Soweto from Johannesburg and vice versa.
A revelation
At the main road leading into Soweto which is a contraption of South Western Townships, I stood at the main sign and then learnt depending on you ask that Soweto is an agglomeration of over 85 townships, though about 34 are distinctly identified suburbs of Soweto.
Soweto is huge and vibrant, its architecture covers all strata of means, from the very upmarket parts of Diepkloof through the middle-class areas to the matchbox houses, shanty towns and shacks, and this was a revelation in itself.
The Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital which was one time the world’s largest hospital complex, now the third, scale is sometimes towards the superlative in Soweto, the Bara Taxi Park is the largest in Johannesburg, the Orlando Towers are the cooling towers of a now defunct power station, all colourful and the site of social events including bungee jumping.
The memories and memorials
On to Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum, the iconic photograph that signalled the beginning of the decline of Apartheid, the Soweto Uprisings and other stories with undertones rarely voiced. Suffice it to say many children of the chief agitators that sent people onto the streets had their kids in schools abroad, but let us not sour a well-crafted narrative for point-scoring. Apartheid was rotten, it needed to end.
Vilakazi Street which spots the old residences of Nelson Mandela and the Archbishop Desmond Tutu maintains a historical significance in the work these men did towards achieving black majority rule, yet this street is a commercial haven that has lost the solemnity and seriousness of the works of these great Nobel Peace prize laureates.
Everyone is here for a quick buck, performers organised and disorganised, photographers with instant print machines, shops with kitschy tat that could in the haze of tourist awe look valuably commemorative as souvenirs and much else, you are almost jostled out of appreciation of these landmarks.
I cry too for change
Yet, one cannot fail to see how what has been bequeathed is being squandered by the political heirs who now hold power. As we left Soweto, I prayed a little prayer that the promise that South Africa offered to those who suffered and still suffer soon become their reality. My fear of Soweto, put to one side, yet palpable from the obvious gaps between the have-yachts, the haves and the have-nots.
To the outsider that I am, there is much about this great land that leaves one with the story of Cry, the Beloved Country.


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