This bold statement is something I would maybe have sneered at before, believing that coming from Cape Town, means that you are where everything began in South Africa – being the place where Jan van Riebeek set foot on the continent and stuck his flag in the sandy beach of Table Bay. Turns out I’d be wrong to treat that statement with such scorn, on our recent visit to Soweto our eyes were opened to see that this is where South Africa as we currently know it today all began.
Our driver picked us up from the Protea Hotel Wanderers and led us through the suburbs towards the legendary Soweto Township. First up was the more affluent suburb of Diepkloof with many houses with manicured lawns and trees in their gardens, this suburb has been home and still is home to many of Soweto’s more famous residents like Ivan Khoza and Lucas Radebe.
From there we were on past landmarks like the Orlando Towers – the old cooling towers of the disused power station, now used for bunjee jumping – and Africa’s largest hospital, Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital. Our guide, Sipho, who’d moved to Soweto from Estcourt in KwaZulu-Natal, took us past a number of different types of houses for example the older “matchbox houses”, nicknamed so due to their extremely small size where up to 3 families still stay. These houses are quite eye-opening to see so many people forced to live in such a small space just to have a roof over their heads.
What was even more unsettling were the hostels, vast rows of bare-brick buildings built for male workers from other areas in South Africa, coming to work on the mines, to live in. These stark and spartan buildings do not have sanitation and were built to be only sleeping places for the workers, nowadays whole families live in these austere rooms, sharing a very small number of toilets and communal taps which they use to get drinking water and to bathe and wash clothes with.
While this is a hugely important experience to have, it is fundamental that any visitor to Soweto takes some time to check out the Hector Petersen Museum. This moving exhibition encorporates a memorial garden on the oustide, but what’s on show on the inside will really rock your world. The interior is stark and filled with quotes from various parties involved or present at the killing of the protesting students, there are portrait shots of famous Sowetans and TV’s showing footage from the riots including some rather disturbing footage of the police’s brutal countering of the protest. This is where our history was made, without visiting it, you cannot fully comprehend our country and it’s history.
After visiting this museum we went through to Mandela’s house in Soweto where he had lived during the time of his initial resistance to the Apartheid government. This tiny house was home to his entire family and has now been tastefully and neatly labelled and adorned with quotes from various family members and important memorabilia. This priceless piece of South African heritage is a must-see!
There is a near endless list of sights to see in Soweto, you need at least a full day to get the full experience, when you do, be sure to look out for the houses of Winnie Mandela and Desmond Tutu as well as important sights like Freedom Square and the Regina Mundi Church where most of the polical rallies were held during the Apartheid years under the guise of prayer meetings and church services. Check out our pics on Flickr.