Soweto hopes to score

2009-06-08 14:31

Johannesburg - At Soweto's most famous address, tour buses of camera-toting tourists roll up like clockwork outside Nelson Mandela's old red-bricked home for a dose of anti-apartheid royalty.

Pouring toward the modest but revamped house which Mandela returned to after 27 years in jail, they pass gentle foot-traffic and street vendors punting animal skins, curios and the occasional gaudy Mandela bust.

"It's the most famous street in South Africa. All the tour buses go past Vilakazi Street," said Jojo Tsheola, tour operator and treasurer of a regional tourism body.

The world's only street that claims two Nobel Peace laureates - Archbishop Desmond Tutu's house is down the road - the area is struggle-tourism gold anchored by the revamped Mandela Family Museum.

Views mixed

But with the FIFA Confederations Cup just days away, views are mixed as whether the World Cup curtainraiser will drive football fans into the township on the outskirts of host city Johannesburg.

The reason? South Africa's limp marketing drive, 95% domestic ticket sales, and old-fashioned isolation.

"People are very excited about this. We want to make the best out of it," Tsheola told AFP. "It may not be as it should be - but that is a lesson that will make 2010 much better."

Last year, 250 000 visitors trekked to the sprawling township, home to mansions and shacks.

"It's becoming a popular spot," said Maria Westlund, the Swedish partner of Lebo Malepa, owner of the colourfully bohemian Soweto Backpackers which offers guests low-cost accommodation and a variety of tours.

"We are ready for the Confederations Cup. We had some enquiries but we'll see what's going to happen. For the World Cup, we already have bookings. But we are positive."

Soweto stigma

Despite strong demand from drive-through tours, many guesthouses say that visitors are not getting off the bus.

"I don't even have hope," for 2009 soccer bookings, said Anastacia Makgato, 63, who transformed her childhood home into the plush Thuto's B'n'B seven years ago.

She has 2010 bookings but says Soweto enjoys an unfair reputation despite confidently sending guests by foot at night to nearby restaurants.

"People don't want to stay in Soweto but they tour Soweto. People prefer to be in town because of the stigma that it's not safe," she said.

The famous township is a must-see, said Khulani Vilakazi, 36, whose Nambitha restaurant is a favourite of luxury car-driving black South Africans with a wine list that extends to top bubbly at around R1 800.

Vilakazi, whose grandfather gave the famous street its name, blames big tour operators for not giving visitors a true Soweto experience.

"I don't think they understand that Soweto is developing and does have stuff to offer," he told AFP.

"There is still a perception of the old Soweto that is known for toppling the apartheid regime but there is a lot of positive, soft attributes around Soweto."


Long associated with poverty and slum-like conditions, Soweto is undergoing a stereotype-busting transformation after years of neglect and is a stone's throw from the 2010 World Cup's main stadium Soccer City.

For Lindiwe Sandeni-Siddo, general manager of the swish four-star Soweto Hotel on Freedom Square, the Confederations Cup will be a dry run in which 2010 readiness will be assessed.

"No one's bitten yet," she said. But "we've all got a little room for disappointment if we don't get the big bang we're all looking for now."

"I'm convinced that 2010 is going to be the time when all of us are going to really see the build up, that we've all been expecting, come to fruition."