by Sine Thieme, a writer and mother of four who is new to South Africa and busy chronicling her experiences on her blog, Joburg Expat.
It is 8:30 on a Saturday morning, and our family of six is ready to go on our first tour of Soweto. Rather than setting out on our own, we have chosen Themba Tours (R450 per adult for a half-day tour, kids half price), partly because of the convenience of a personal guide, but also, I admit, because “going into Soweto” has such a dangerous ring.
After a bit of a mix-up over our pickup location – as relative newcomers to South Africa we’re still saddled with a lot of Western impatience over the concept of “African time” – we are finally moving along the highway in a white minibus. Loyd, our guide, treats us to a quick history of Soweto, where he himself has lived all his life
Our first images of Soweto could not be further from what I expected (I’m not sure what I did expect – shootings? Road blocks? Burning cars?) This part, the “wealthy” section, looks very middle class – tidy houses, walled in, lush gardens. We drive by a high school, pretty playgrounds, a sprawling shopping center. All the more striking is the contrast when we arrive at our first stop, the Elias Motsoaledi squatter camp. Lean-to shacks crammed haphazardly together as far as the eye can see, patches of red, dusty dirt, no vegetation other than a few gray leaves winding around a fence post here and there. We begin walking, first to a preschool, then a typical family’s .home. What strikes me is how tidy everything appears. It has to be, with such little space. The nursery school houses stacked chairs, alphabet charts, and books, just like you’d expect. But you can tell that everything is scratched together by the grace of God, and we happily make use of the donation box. The home we visit is equally small (two beds are somehow enough for this family of eight), and only when I’m squashed against an ancient refrigerator that serves as cupboard do I realize there is no electricity in the entire camp. Stoves and lights are fueled with paraffin, and outside water taps and toilets have to be shared throughout the community.
Further stops include Regina Mundi Church, where many political meetings were held when they were officially banned during Apartheid, the Hector Pieterson Museum, and a quick sampling of Soweto cuisine at a restaurant selling kotas, also called bunny chow.
Our trip comes to an end with visits to Mandela House in Orlando West (where Nelson Mandela and his family lived from 1946 into the 1990s, now restored into a museum) and The Shack, a local shebeen or pub.
All in all, it was a very worthwhile trip. Our guide was excellent and offered a wealth of information and personal history. I hope that the kids will retain bits and pieces of it, if only to see what privileged lives they lead. Soweto is definitely not the cesspool of poverty and crime one might imagine, and instead offers a lot of history and a sense of community seldom found in our suburban estates. We felt completely safe at all times and I would have no reservations about going back on our own. For a more detailed version of this article, please visit Joburg Expat.