Sorry it has been a couple of days but, as expected, intternet availability has become a bit sparse. This post i'm going to talk about the day I spent in Soweto on Tuesday and then my next post will be about the beginning of the overland trip I'm currently on and our first 2 days in Kruger National Park. OK, so here goes...
My one full day in Johannesburg was June 7 and i decided to do something cultural since most of the rest of this trip will be focused on wildlife and nature. My guide on Tuesday was Nel Redelinghuys. She is a history professor who is an expert on the area and has worked in Soweto for nearly 15 years. She only takes as many people as can fit in her car (up to 3) so a fantastic personal experience is guaranteed. On this day I was lucky enough to be her only customer. The Soweto township was created during the apartheid era to ensure that black South Africans lived outside the city of Jo'burg but remained close enough to be a cheap source of labor. While the name sounds like it could come from a local language it actually just stands for SOuthWEstern TOwnship, named for its direction from the city. Soweto is home to nearly 4 million residents who reside in 34 different townships within its borders. To understand the diversity of Soweto, consider that there are more millionaires in Soweto than in any other city in South Africa.
We started our tour at the largest hospital in the world, built at Great Britain's request during WWII. From there we walked over a large overpass that gave some good perspective on exactly how large and sprawling the area is. As far as landmarks go, only the two painted towers stand taller than a couple of stories but rows and rows of homes can be seen for miles. Here we also got a taste of Soweto fast food (pictured) and then headed over to the Motsoaledi informal settlement (basically a squatters camp), named for Elias Motsoaledi, a civil rights leader who spent 26 years at Robben Island prison. There we were met by Kevin, our guide through the settlement and a resident. He was very excited to have a visitor and could not have been more welcoming. He walked us through the streets and did a great job describing what it was like to live in a small shack with no electricity or running water. What they do to keep their TV's and radios going is to hook them up to car batteries. Cooking is done on crude portable ovens that are severe fire risks. The settlement has only 285 port-o-potties for its nearly 7,000 inhabitants and they are cleaned three times per week. On the tour he led us into one of these shacks belonging to a man named Tando. The room was approx 10'x10' with one bed he shares with his wife and daughter and a small bureau for their clothes and some shelves for food and their oven. Again, he could not have been more welcoming or enthusiastic to share what his life was like. Right near Tando's shack was one of a number of Spaza shops, informal stores selling very basic staples such as maize and rice. Overall the people of the settlement were surprisingly upbeat and friendly considering their situation and were happy to answer any questions I had.
Our final 2 stops were the Hector Pietersen Museum and the former home of Nelson Mandela. Hector Pietersen was a 14 year old boy shot to death during the 1976 student uprising. The students of Soweto were protesting the implementation of the Afrikaans language in their schools, which they viewed as the language of their white oppressors. Hector was the first child shot when violence broke out that day and has become a symbol of the struggle for equality. The museum bearing his name was incredible and very educational. Visiting Nelson Mandela's former home was also a fantastic experience. Standing in the same rooms he stood in and looking at many of the things that have remained unchanged really gives you an opportunity to get a better understanding of some of the things he went through.
Overall Soweto was incredible. Despite walking through some of the poorest neighborhoods I have ever seen I can say with absolute honesty that, aside from some pushy souvenir salesmen and little kids wanting "sweets", I never at any point felt one bit threatened or unsafe.