It’s a Thursday afternoon in November, with the summer sun baking the pavements, and everything in sight. Being a weekday, South Africa’s famous Vilakazi Street, home to two Nobel Peace Prize laureates, in Orlando West, in the historic township of Soweto, is not too busy – there are fewer tourists compared to the usual.
I am looking down the linear street, no more than a kilometer, filled with history, craft and commerce, not to mention an assortment of tourists.
It’s a far cry from the street it was in the apartheid days, days before its most-famous resident, Nelson Mandela, was whisked off to prison for 27 years. His home here, number 8115 or Mandela House, which he said is marked with an ‘X’ in his mental geography, is a museum now, the street’s biggest draw. Mandela had returned to this house when he was released from prison in 1990.
Vilakazi’s other famous resident was Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel prize-winning social rights activist who also opposed apartheid.
I strap the camera around my neck, put on my sunglasses and become a tourist, walking from one end to the other exploring the street; it almost feels like I am not in Soweto, this is one of Africa’s world-renowned pieces of real estate.
It takes me less than a minute before I see an urban building to my left, The Box Shop, a shop created primarily for locals but with international tourists streaming in and out.
Launched as a fashion store in 2015 employing about 11 staff, it has extended its retail offerings to furniture and food – mouth-watering delicacies such as mogodu (lamb or beef tripe).
Sifiso Moyo, marketing director of The Box Shop, is one of the store’s four founders who decided to open the store on Vilakazi Street.
“It was a combination of things that made us pursue Vilakazi, we looked at the Gauteng government mandate in terms of revitalizing townships, so we looked at how we are going to align ourselves with that strategy and contribute positively to the dream of township revitalization,” says Moyo.
I walk again for three minutes, and stop, as I see a gentleman with a snake around his neck. I step closer to make sure I am not imagining things.
It is a snake, a real one, a Red Tail Boa. After introducing myself to the gentleman, he directs me to the house to meet his mother, Lindiwe Mngomezulu.
Her business is offering tourists the Soweto Live Snakes Show. The inspiration for it came when she joined a snake club in Edenvale, east of Johannesburg, South Africa.
Her daughter, Lwandle, had forced her mother to part with R5 to see snakes at the Soweto Arts Festival. Curious, Mngomezulu asked how they could join the club. They were told to visit on Saturdays.
“Love. I wouldn’t have them [the snakes] without love. But the business started when my daughter was seven years old, when she first held a snake. As a mother, I gave her support; wherever she wanted to go where there was snakes, I took her, only to find that I have an interest too,” says Mngomezulu.
I am speaking to Mngomezulu in her living room, which is almost like a mini-zoo – to my right is a monkey, behind me, a parrot, and next to her, a hedgehog. I am a little uneasy knowing there are pythons in the next room, which was once one of the bedrooms in the small home.
The mother and daughter started volunteering at the snake club cleaning the enclosures of 300 reptiles including crocodiles; shortly after, by 2009, they were bringing snakes to the township for snake shows, so it could generate revenue for them. At first, business wasn’t good because they didn’t know how to charge, but worst of all, the community was not in agreement with the idea of snakes in their township as they thought the mother-daughter duo were practicing witchcraft.
“The entrance fee was R5, we didn’t know what we were doing, and people were scared,” says Mngomezulu.
Not long after, Mngomezulu bought her daughter her first pet, a Corn snake, and called it Pikinini because it was small. But the fact remained; they were not making money and had to return the borrowed snakes to the club.
That was when Mngomezulu decided to buy her own snakes to start her own mini snake park. After the Corn snake, it was twin pythons and a boa.
During the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Mngomezulu went back to the club and borrowed snakes for a show in Soweto, the day of the final game, which drew visitors from all over the world. This time, she made wads of cash, enough to share with the club.
Sadly, in 2013, three of Mngomezulu’s snakes died because of pneumonia. Her four-roomed house in Vilakazi Street wasn’t warm enough for the snakes.
Today, thankfully, business is okay, and Mngomezulu can more than afford a loaf of bread. She is now extending her house to accommodate more snakes and tourists. The entrance fee is worth it. People come in to touch the snakes and pose with them for photos.
“Our show is not just a show, it’s an educational show, we educate you about the snakes we have, because I take care of them, we grow them, train them. They are used to cameras, noise and people,” says Mngomezulu.
Not only does she make money on Vilakazi Street, she also has her snakes starring in films and the small screen, namely a South African TV show shot in 2015 titled Ngempela.
Although her show also includes her other pets: a monkey, parrot, bearded dragon lizard, hedgehog and a yellow anaconda, Mngomezulu says the fear of snakes can drive people away.
“When one stands at the gate and fears going in, others get scared too,” she says. The tour guides are also an issue; they don’t spend time at the Soweto Live Snakes Show which affects her business.
I don’t get to watch the show, so I move on to the house next door, a space selling art.
Thamaga Montjane is CEO of JHTCE (Joining Hands To Create Employment). He says the challenges he faces are people going only to one end of Vilakazi Street and not going further up – to this spot where his shop is.
I can relate to it. As I was walking towards Mandela House, I could see more action – more cars, more color, more tourists thronging the stalls there – than here, by Montjane’s shop.
I speak to one of the vendors a few feet from Mandela House. Bongane Ngcobo sells t-shirts, caps and African art. An entrepreneur in his own right, he says he makes about R4,000 ($282) on a good day and about R200 ($14) when it’s not so good.
As I stroll further down, the street is getting busier. I am drawn to a group of idling youngsters outside an art gallery named Shova Lifestyle Origin.
Thabo Modise, the owner here, started off selling t-shirts in the streets of Soweto; now he owns the gallery and the boutique next to it.
“It is a lifestyle boutique, where we have local fashion designers showing their work and we have a gallery for locals to do the same,” says Modise. He is an entrepreneurial success on Vilakazi Street.
The ambience of the street gets more vibrant as the afternoon progresses. I go across the road from the gallery, to Sakhumzi; a popular restaurant in Soweto, right next door to Tutu’s house. I step in to speak to a few tourists gulping down drinks and South African food.
“It feels awesome being here, we went to the Mandela museum and it was great, proper energy, real place,” says Tavis Wright, a tourist from England.
Lorenzo Grifantini, a tourist from Italy, says there is life and movement in the street and the people look happy.
Not too far from where I am seated at the restaurant, I spot more tourists savoring the local food.
“I didn’t expect a vibrant and classy restaurant like this here, I’m really surprised and I’m loving the food. I had tripe, it was very delicious,” says Adrian Seigs, also a tourist from Europe.
At the end of Vilakazi Street is Kwa Lichaba, a busy car wash corner on the opposite side.
Eventually, what was meant to be a 10-minute walk for me with my camera, turned out to be an hour-long expedition.
On the journey, I learned that the street boasts more South African tourists than foreigners and that hawkers could possibly make more money on a daily basis than a business with a counter, cash register, tables and a door.
As I look at the street again, I think of Benedict Wallet Vilakazi, the South African Zulu poet, author and linguist who died in 1947, and after who the street is named.
Little did he know that school children would be fighting for education on that street, that Winnie, the former ANC Women’s League president and ex-wife of Mandela, would be arrested on that very street, that Nobel accolades would arrive all the way from Sweden to this street in Soweto, or that today Vilakazi Street is more about preserving history – and making money off it.