My friend from the US came to spend a few days with me after his business trip, so as part of playing host, I took him to Soweto. Well, let me clarify, Vilakazi street in Soweto. He had fun, but I imagine it’s not what he had hoped for.
The first time I was in Vilakazi street it was a little surreal. It was as if all along I had been staring at a magnificent roaring lion, only to realize when closer that it had no teeth or claws. That’s what Vilakazi street is; a tamed, de-clawed, de-teethed Soweto. It does make for a great way to ease foreigners (especially those from first world) into a South African township. But for those who are looking for an authentic Soweto captured in history books and museums, then this is not the place. A new kind of culture and atmosphere has taken over; one of black middle-class coming to wash their German cars as they braai meat, watch the game, and drink draft beers and cognac with scores of mostly French, German, and Chinese tourists embarking and disembarking tour buses frequenting the Vilakazi street. The only street in the world to have two noble peace winners.
Change is unavoidable in most cases. However when I was speaking to a curator of another museum recently, she had been to the Mandela House before its restoration in 2008 and again afterwards. She told me she was saddened by the restoration because she reckons the feeling of township life that used to occupy the house was lost when uneven ground was levelled and paved, original furnisher removed and replaced with picture installations, and fresh paint splashed on newly plastered walls. Some part of the outside wall damaged by fire from petrol-boomed and some bullet holes are preserved, but she thinks the house has lost its township charm. It no longer provides a gateway to our turbulent past; it has conformed to the changing face of Vilakazi street: of exclusive clubs with red carpets, and promo girls in skin-tight dresses, liquid chef barmen with white shirts and waist-coats, and bouncers with shades and black suits. One reviewer on Trip Advisor calls it, ‘…where non-locals go to attempt to get Soweto culture without actually really going to Soweto’.
But if you will be in Johannesburg, and are looking for a soft introduction to South African history, and some culture, do go to Vilakazi street. Go see the events of the 1976 student uprising at the Hector Pietersen Memorial Museum; go read Mandela’s letters he wrote whilst in prison and some whilst in exile displayed at the Mandela House, and learn about Tutu’s humble beginnings at the Tutu House; and say a prayer at the Regina Mundi Catholic church while you find out how it played a part in the anti-apartheid struggle. One thing I cannot fault however about this street is the street African crafts market; it has a wide range of crafts, painting, traditional cloths, and crafts from central and west Africa can also be found on sale. A good place to buy a souvenir, chisa-nyama (fired-grilled meat) and wash it down with a beer, and update your status to, ‘rad time in Soweto’. No one will judge you I promise!