Sights and sounds of green Soweto

2008-07-17 00:00

WHILE recently attending a design course in Johannesburg, I overheard my Beeld newspaper colleagues organising a tour of Soweto for our Australian speaker. I was eager to join, but when I heard the asking price was around R800 I declined.

But that didn’t stop me going into the famous South Western Township. I found my own tour guide in a good friend who works for Standard Bank in Johannesburg. Mark Bailey was keen to show me “green Soweto” as well as a museum dedicated to Hector Pietersen. And so we started our grand tour.

The people of Soweto are living it up these days. As preparation for the 2010 sightseers, Sowetans have planted 200 000 trees to make the megatownship green. They now also have the biggest shopping centre in southern Africa, Maponya Mall. The centre, not dissimilar to our Liberty Midlands Mall, and the trees are the first two things you set your eyes on when driving into Soweto. The other is the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, or Bara, but you don’t want to end up in there. The horror tales are too many.

Instead, we went to Kliptown’s Walter Sisulu Square, where Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf gave her Nelson Mandela lecture on Sunday night. A post-modern concrete jungle stuck out like a crashed plane and a roundabout held five outer space-like square columns, hanging onto which were an abseiling crew. They had just attached a banner to the top of the slab, which was about 30 metres in the air. They let go. A majestic Mandela rolled into the concrete space with the words: “Mandela Lecture Series 2008” forming on the space.

It was a Sunday and the square itself was quiet. The art gallery was shut and the coffee shop didn’t seem to be running. This entertainment hub clearly only gets busy when there’s a party. When there isn’t, the authentic traders — the ones selling cheap second-hand clothes, blankets and cellphone accessories, come out. It was clearly in its infancy. By 2010, one hopes it will be beating its drums 24/7.

On our way to West Orlando, home of the Mandelas and the Tutus, we veered past the “under construction” Orlando Stadium, which is being upgraded as a 2010 practice venue. The architects were clever in their design, giving the stadium the look of a shining jewel echoing the shape of the disused mine dump that rises behind the stadium.

Near the stadium were the colourful Orlando Towers. Adrenaline junkies were pre-paring for their great opening, when tourists will be taken to the top and persuaded to jump off the edge.

The Hector Pietersen Memorial and its museum were spectacularly moving.

Having heard the testimonies of witnesses to the student uprisings in 1976, we sat by the memorial river and ate pap and beef stew. It was the Sunday of the new-look Sunday Sun, and I thought it was appropriate that we read it while eating traditional township food in Soweto.

Our final destination as tourists was to see where Madiba and Archbishop Desmond Tutu live and we found their ordinary-looking houses in Vilakazi Street. It was here that I felt most at peace. Cars lined the street, with the occupants of various homes enjoying a Sunday braai, just like my family were doing in Hilton. A few men, gripping beers, waved over their fence to us. We smiled and waved back.

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