Wednesday, 7 August 2013

07.08.2013 Vilakazi Street, Soweto

For the last weekend of my in-laws visit to South Africa I was quite insistent that it would be a good idea to take a drive down to Vilakazi Street in Orlando West, Soweto and have some lunch. I'm pretty sure everyone had this terrible image of us getting lost in the wrong part of town (like when I was directing us through Alexandra instead of around it the previous week). But, this time I really did some thorough research, had very reliable directions - and hey, guess what? - Vilakazi Street actually has brown tourist signs pointing it out from the road so it is very easy to find.

Orlando's famous cooling towers

Soweto is by far the biggest township in South Africa and has always been the most politically active too. Vilakazi Street and the nearby Hector Pietersen Memorial Museum are probably Soweto's most popular tourist sights and give a very easy introduction to the area if you want to come under your own steam and just hangout. As a white tourist it's easy to feel uncomfortable here with events of recent history pounding in your ears - but, please don't let your self-consciousness bring you down. Soweto is a large, lively city in its own right, with very rich and very poor areas as well as a sizeable middle-class and as friendly people as you will meet anywhere. And if you start feeling all weird about standing out as the only white dudes in sight...remember this is Africa and statistically speaking that's actually how it should normally be all the time - embrace it!

The Kaiser Chiefs are one of Soweto's two major football teams (their rivals being the Orlando Pirates)

Vilakazi Street's claim to fame is that it has produced two Nobel prize winners - Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. Although Rev. Tutu lives in Cape Town, he still has his second home here for when he visits Johannesburg. Mandela's house just up the road was made into a museum a few years ago by Winnie Madikizela-Mandela who lived here for many years. It was also from Vilakazi Street that the school children of Soweto marched in 1976 in protest against the imposition of Afrikaans as the language of education. Hector Pietersen (aged 13), who was one of the first of hundreds to be killed as police violently attacked the protest, was shot just a few blocks up the street from Mandela's house.

There are various heritage trails which you can follow from Vilakazi Street with helpful info signs explaining the events which took place here under apartheid and why. The trails are well sign-posted so it is very difficult to get lost (despite the fact that most streets in Soweto confusingly look almost exactly the same) making this an easy self-guided history stroll before you head to one of the popular restaurants that also line Vilakazi.

A memorial showing the kids of the 1976 Soweto uprising facing off against police with viscous dogs 
This poster outside the Mandela House Museum had messages for Mandela on his 95 birthday. This one was one of my favourites: "I drove freely across town, I live where I want and not where I have to. All because of you and other heroes!"

Seeing as we were here it seemed only right that we should pay our 60 Rand to visit Mandela's home. The Mandela house is a classic 'matchbox' township house with three rooms, an outside toilet and surrounded by a small plot of land. I have to admit I was a little disappointed not to find a complete replica as to how the house would have been before Mandela was sent to Robben Island - I visited so many 'museum homes' of famous people in Russia and they were always like that, quite atmospheric. However, the minuscule size of the house makes it impossible to set the place up exactly as it was when the Mandela family lived here, especially with at least 15 people wandering around it at any given time.

Instead the house is filled with various items given to the Mandelas by well-wishers from around the world. There is a whole cabinet of honorary degrees, loads of pretty things donated by world leaders, photographs and some great posters. There are a few items of original furniture remaining and a cabinet containing some of Nelson Mandela's writings from prison (he has lovely handwriting, but I guess to save paper he wrote very small). 

Mandela stoep

We didn't make it all the way over to the Hector Pietersen Museum (I think by this point in their holiday the in-laws had already overdosed on apartheid history) but we did pass the memorial marking the place where he was shot (not to be confused with the other main memorial near the museum). It was covered in graffiti which made me feel very sad.

The monument reads: "Hector Pietersen, a 13 year old school boy, was shot and died at this corner during a clash between the police and students in the uprisings against Afrikaans as a medium of instruction."

Finally we got down to the sitting and chilling on a nice terrace business (which was my whole objective of coming down here on a weekend in the first place). We settled outside under the trees at Sakhumzi (watch out for the pigeons pooing!) with some beers and watched the world go by. If you are hungry, they have a massive all-you-can-eat buffet thing for 90 Rand. All's said and done this is a tourist restaurant and is relatively quite pricey, but it's got atmosphere, great local food and one of the most prestigious locations in town - right next to Desmond Tutu's backyard. 

Getting There:

By Car: We went by car and it was surprisingly straightforward. You need to get on the Soweto Highway in the south of the city. After some kilometres and after passing the motorways and old mining slag heaps you will eventually come to a big roundabout. You need to take a left here heading down Klipspruit Valley Road. The Hector Pietersen memorial will be signposted second on the right (Pela Street) and Vilakazi Street third road also on the right. Go up a short distance on this third road (Kumalo road) and you will see Vilakazi as the third street on your left. You can park at the bottom of the street or drive up to find another small car park. Some young 'car guards' will watch your car for you and you can give them 5 Rand or so for the service when you leave.

By public transport: The Rea Vaya bus route F4 passes straight through Vilakazi Street. You can pick up the bus from the Main Street stop in Johannesburg CBD. The Rea Vaya website has a helpful route map which points out all the relevant sights along the way.

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