Thursday, December 29, 2011

arriving in soweto

My arrival in the township of Soweto was greeted by an incredibly adorable six-year-old boy named Friso running excitedly to me. He had been playing by himself with the broken bumper of a car in an empty lot, but when he saw me, he dropped it and ran right up to me. He just wanted to say hi. I said hello back to him and let him walk me to Lebo’s. I started thinking about maybe having kids one day.

At Lebo’s, I met two young guys named Phil and Timo who live near the hostel and work at the after-school program for Soweto that’s connected to Lebo’s. They were going to grab a bite at Maponya Mall. Even though I generally feel like malls are the ultimate opposite of culture,I decided to come along. I’d been spending my entire afternoon in Soweto napping and drinking beers while watching MTV (Lebo’s has satellite) - if I did that any longer, I was going to get drunk by 7PM.

Maponya Mall

Maponya Mall is the biggest mall in Soweto, and was still open and full of people when we arrived. The frantic shopping days before Christmas is pretty universal around the globe. Club music was being pumped throughout the mall, with the occasional shopper dropping their bags to dance (I told you, people here really love to dance). The boys walked right past a McDonalds and this awesome looking restaurant called Tavern specializing in “African soul food” like lamb stew, and into this chain restaurant called Spurs.

They have the Spurs chain in Namibia too. It’s found throughout South Africa and specializes in steaks and stereotypes. It basically could not exist in North America. Even though all the meaty ribs, wings, and filet mignons would suit a more Cowboy theme, for some reason the chain decided to immerse itself into the “Indian” side of the theme, decorating the entire interior with fake totem poles, dream catchers, and smiling natives with feathers in their hair.

I mean, just look at the place mats.

Having a lifelong passion for First Nations issues and having just finished working for an Aboriginal judge, it took my strongest sense of tact and hipster irony to keep a straight face. I mean, nobody else saw any cause for discomfort, not the black waiting staff, or the German guys I’d come with, who were adolescent boys craving steak. So I struggled to build my bridge to this cultural iceberg, and ordered a chicken mayo toastie, trying not to think too much about the loaded ironies of spending my first evening in the world’s most famous black township with two white boys in a vaguely racist restaurant in an affluent mall. At least the dessert was delicious, and our South African wine came in a bottle shaped like a Christmas tree.

The next morning I went on a bike tour of Soweto which showed me another side of the township. Because I am freakishly short, I was given a child’s bike. I was guided by Thomas, a twenty-one-year old Soweto resident with a rich knowledge of his place of birth.


me and my kid-sized bike

Soweto is a township of Johannesburg, but it has a population of 3.5 million people, which is almost twice the population of the entire country of Namibia and more than three times the population of my hometown Ottawa, so really it could be a city on its own. It has 38 suburbs, all sprawled out as far as the eye can see, as there are no skyscrapers to block out the sky.

soweto sprawls out as far as the eye can see

In Namibia, white people always warn me about being careful going into the black township of Katutura. They paint a picture of the black townships being full of misery, poverty, and people waiting to rob you. Going through Soweto with Thomas was a different experience, however. Obviously the crime and poverty was certainly present, but what I had not expected was the friendliness of people. As I sailed down the streets of Soweto on my kid’s bike, children ran out into the streets to greet me, waving out their hands so I could give them a high five, and breaking out into beautiful song.

I also had not expected the rich cultural and artistic history of Soweto. Being North American, I’ve been used to believing that nothing culturally revolutionary comes from the suburbs. But it was Soweto, and particularly the artsy neighbourhood of Orlando West, that brought the world stirring political poetry against apartheid, kwaito music, and the song made famous by the Lion King as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”. We saw children playing soccer in the streets, referred to by the locals as “indoor football”, because the “field” was surrounded by houses. There is so much feeling of life and energy that you could sense it everywhere, even in the poorest parts of the township.

Thomas took me down to the Mzimhlophe informal settlement area, one of the poorer parts of Soweto. Even here the little kids ran up to me to say hello and to throw their arms around me in a heart-melting hug.

the communal toilets

cow heads

I watched a man sit on a bucket, getting his head shaved in an outdoor barber shop. Thomas also took us into a shebeen, which was no more than a dark shack full of flies and old people drinking at eleven in the morning. I felt a little claustrophobic in there. It certainly made the shebeen that Tshuka took us to seem like a luxury hotel bar in comparison.

trying out a locally brewed beer in the shebeen

Thomas spoke of the persistence of apartheid attitudes even after the regime fell. The blacks and the whites are still quite segregated to different areas of Johannesburg. He told me how often when white people see a black person approach them, they nervously hide their purses and wallets. He told me one story when he had gone to Sandton City to buy designer shoes for his uncle. As he browsed through the shoe section of one store, the white manager came after him and told him, “Boy, this is not a place for you to play. Get out.” When Thomas explained that he wanted buy a pair of shoes, the manager laughed and told him there was no way he had enough money. Rather than arguing with the manager, Thomas simply left, found another shop selling the same shoes, and brought the shoes back to the original store with the receipt, just to prove to the manager that he really had meant to spend his money there.

We also biked down to the Hector Pieterson Memorial. I’ve already mentioned in a previous blog entry about how personally moving it is for me to think about the 1976 Soweto Uprising, where the high school students of Soweto decided, in the words of Thomas, “To hell with Afrikaans in our school, to hell with a Bantu education” that was designed to keep the blacks uneducated and enslaved to their white employers. In the midst of this demonstration where hundreds of students, mere teenagers, were shot and killed, thirteen year old Hector Pieterson died. The Memorial was full of thoughtful symbolism and once again I felt my eyes filling with tears. There was a row of olive trees planted in a line from where Hector was shot to where he finally died. There was a water fountain, symbolizing the tears that were shed by Soweto parents who lost their children during the protest. The fountain contained stones, the students’ only defense against an army of policemen wielding guns.

olive trees

This was a more upper-class area of Soweto. It also contained the house of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela’s house.

We finished off the tour back at Lebo’s where we were served a “Soweto burger”, known as a kota, consisting of sausages, processed cheese, some sort of abnormally bright pink processed mystery meat, and fries, all stuffed between sandwich bread. It was the beginning of a long series of meals where I would not touch anything resembling a vegetable for days.

vegetables are what food eats