Soweto

Ok folks, back to South Africa!

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Johannesburg is a HUGE city. We have barely explored even a tiny bit of it, having seen some of the downtown and lots of the northern suburbs. But the vast majority of the population lives in townships on the outskirts of the city.

Soweto is the most famous of the townships. The name is an abbreviation of South Western Townships. It came into being during the early 1900s, as more and more black South africans poured into the city to work at the mines. The white authorities pushed these black workers out of the cities, forcing them to live in squatters’ towns miles outside of the center. This practice was formalized when the Afrikaaner National Party took to power in 1948 and began implementing apartheid.

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A view of Soweto from Orlando neighborhood, with the famous power station towers in the background. Next time we visit, we’ll do the bungee off of them!

The word township brings to mind a sprawling shanty-town. Soweto covers 77 square miles, and much of it is made up of squatter camps; row upon rows of tin shacks without connection to electricity or plumbing. But not all of Soweto is like that. We visited the neighborhood of Orlando, famous for being the home of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, and for being the site of the Soweto uprising in 1976. Orlando is a pleasant, middle class neighborhood. Individual brick homes are set in little gardens, and the area seems safe and comfortable.

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The Mandela House.

We visited primarily to see Nelson Mandela’s home. It is a two-bedroom, one-story brick bungalow. Nelson lived there from 1946-1962 and his family continued to live there after he was arrested, up until the 1990s.

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It is less of a home now and more just a collection of memorabilia and awards that were presented to Nelson and Winnie during their lifetimes. The most striking feature was the bullet holes still visible in the outside walls, a reminder of the siege the Mandela family lived under for so many years.

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Nelson and Me.

From there we walked (because Soweto is not nearly as dangerous as many would have you believe) to the Hector Pieterson Museum. It is dedicated to the events of June 16, 1976.  On that day, thousands of local students marched in protest of a new law which required all of subjects to be taught only in Afrikaans and English. Most students and teachers in Soweto did not speak Afrikaans, the language of their oppressors. These students were already having to contend with overcrowding and underfunding of schools, and the new law was a tipping point. The marches, which became known as the Soweto Uprising, started out peacefully, but at the site of the huge police presence they became agitated and rocks were thrown. Police fired tear gas, and then opened fire on the children. Hector Pieterson, only 13 years old, was one of the first killed that day. The official number of deaths that day is 176, but some estimates put it much, much higher. Children as young as 6 were shot. There was a memorial, with a scattered brick for each of the slain. The museum was incredibly moving and informative, and the images it shows will stay with me forever.

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A monument to the children killed in the Soweto Uprising of 1976.

 

 

At this point we were quite hungry, so we made our way back to where the car was parked and found a restaurant right next door. This was our first mistake, as it was a total tourist trap. The place served traditional South African dishes in a buffet, and we were given a menu or prices until after we had filled a plate. For some mediocre buffet food, we paid more than we had for any of the other incredible meals we’ve had here.

Lesson 1: When eating in Soweto, get off the main tourist strip.

The second mistake was Spencer’s. The buffet had a few different meat options, one of which was a grayish, blobby, very suspect looking tripe. Spencer, being the adventurous man that he is, plopped some on his plate. I’m not a very picky eater, but I actually had to look away as he took a bite, because it looked so revolting. His review: “Exactly what you would expect cow intestines to taste like. A mixture between grass and dung.”

Lesson 2: Don’t eat tripe.

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My plate, without tripe.

 

 

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