Almost every morning, I awaken to the sounds of the dogs barking, birds chirping and loud vuvuzelas (plastic horns) alerting the neighborhood that it’s safe to leave home for work. Thieves and vagrants roam the streets to snatch wallets, handbags, anything, on these misty winter mornings.
This is the day unfurling in Soweto, South Africa’s biggest township. Soweto, famously, is an acronym for ‘southwestern township’.
Soweto was not a township back in 1918; it was merely a place where the black oppressors built 20 matchbox-sized houses for squatters and with no electricity or water, just an outdoor tap. Imagine the cold winter mornings then.
As a millennial living in Soweto today, I enjoy the same trappings – hot showers and electric blankets – as the dwellers in Africa’s richest square mile Sandton, a mere half-hour drive away.
In the hall of fame, if Johannesburg and Cape Town are regarded as South Africa’s maximum cities, so is my Soweto, a city in its own right, a city with history, a personality, even its own language and ethos, segregated from the rest.
“Soweto was initially a dormitory location when it started,” says Omar Badsha, a 73-year-old documentary photographer and CEO of South African History Online.
“It was a segregated place which included people of all classes…lower middle class people were also dumped in Soweto. Over time, in the 1970s, it grew into the largest township in Africa as a segregated space and remains a segregated space. It has evolved into a vibrant city with supermarkets, malls and a vibrant youth culture. There are two to three generations who call themselves Sowetans because they lost their links to the rural areas. They created their own social and political ethos, and a language; tsotsitaal. This is a unique aspect of that segregated space. Now there is a very cultural landscape having the first Soweto Jazz Festival.”
I too, am a Sowetan first, a South African second.
This is an identity that many of us, born and bred in Soweto, proudly wear as a badge of honor. It is this multicultural township that characterizes our way of life. Our dialects differ from where our forefathers originated; the farmlands. Our dialects now are one.
Legends were born in Soweto, many lived and died here. I live in Soweto, in the here and now.
On July 18, South Africa’s first black president, struggle hero, anti-apartheid activist and global icon, the late Nelson Mandela would have celebrated his 100th birthday.
Soweto was once his home. This is where he came from Qunu, a small rural village in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province. He wed the late activist and politician Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and it is here they lived, in house number 8115, a tiny red-brick house, now a museum called Mandela House.
Mandela was arrested in Rivonia, on a farm about 50km from Soweto, in 1964, convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for treason.
A human rights lawyer and member of the African National Congress (ANC), he would travel from Soweto every day to work in Johannesburg’s Central Business District.
From Soweto, I travel twice the distance daily to work in affluent Sandton, where multi-million rand apartments soar into the skies.
The air is fresher here, in contrast to the squalid, sewage-smelling, potholed landscape of Soweto.
Yet, to celebrate Mandela, we have to first start from Soweto – where it all began.
A struggle hero who unwittingly took Soweto to the world. Soweto was etched into Mandela’s destiny even before South Africa was. It was a place marked with an ‘X’ in his mental geography.
Like most cities and towns, Soweto has its own landmark, the Orlando Towers, constructed in 1955, around the time when blacks were forcibly removed from the multiracial, vibrant Sophiatown during the apartheid era. These towers were built as coolants for coal because the demand for electricity was on the rise in Johannesburg for white homes and businesses. After over 50 years of service, the station was decommissioned.
The saying, when Soweto sneezes, South Africa catches flu, holds true.
On the cold morning of June 16, 1976, students gathered to march to Orlando Stadium protesting the teaching of Afrikaans in school. This resulted in the police firing at students; 13-year-old Hector Pieterson was shot dead. News traveled and aghast at the black-and-white images of the atrocities, the world pressured South Africa to change policies.
At the time, Soweto was still a ghost town, dark and gloomy. On those same paths, we now walk freely under bright street lights, and by a shiny world-class mall built by Richard Maponya, a business mogul who used to sell milk on a bicycle in Soweto in his youth.
The mall is adorned with an elephant at the main entrance. The R650 million ($48 million) mall boasts more than 200 stores and a cinema complex that opened in 2007. Mandela did the honors of cutting the red ribbon.
“I am very proud of the mall. It can stand anywhere in the world and compete. I am proud I have built something for the people of Soweto because I have always wanted it to be an economic hub,” Maponya said of his eponymous mall in the March 2017 issue of FORBES AFRICA.
The twin Orlando Towers, minutes from the luxurious mall, double as an advertising tower and a space for mural art, the largest in Soweto.
The towers are a tourist destination attracting thousands of travelers and locals all year round. They are also known as Soweto Towers, offering adrenaline-driving adventure activities such as bungee jumping, rock-climbing and SCAD (Suspended Catch Air Device) freefall.
I visited the towers for the time last month; embarrassing for someone who has lived in Soweto for 30 years. I meet the site manger Laurence Sithole.
“The company was founded by Bob Woods. He was contracted to install railings on top of the towers for painting and advertising. For them to be able to paint, they had to be able to hood their baskets onto the railings. It took him about seven years to get approval to start this in 2008,” offers Sithole.
Woods leased the space and it’s currently owned by the Joburg Property Company.
Sithole was one of 15 black youths from Soweto hired for the bungee jump operator’s job which included inhouse training. These youngsters were first-timers in the adventure industry.
“I was 22 years old at the time. I remember we were saying to each other, ‘in Soweto, the whole of Soweto, we are the only team that does this [adventure activities]’, so we were very excited about it. Looking at the equipment, I remember we couldn’t pronounce a carabina. Everything was just exciting,” says Sithole.
When the business started, they would have as few as two jumpers a day.
“Unfortunately, Woods died in 2010 – the year of the FIFA World Cup hosted in South Africa – just before the site picked up, literally, two months after his death, we started getting busy and we’d find cars parked waiting for us to open,” he recalls.
Today, the business sees as many as 100 bunjee jumps a day at R550 ($41) per person. Soweto Towers’ Vertical Adventure Centre is the only one providing such services in Soweto.
Would you find anything similar in any other African township?
About 5kms from the towers, is the world-famous Vilakazi Street, once home to two Nobel Peace Prize-winning icons, Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
This is also an enterprising entrepreneurial space for men and women, offering everything from art and fashion to snacks and snakes.
It takes me less than a minute before I see an urban building to my left, The Box 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, the 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 forward to make sure I am not imagining things.
It is a snake, a real one, a red-tailed boa. After introducing myself to the gentleman, he directs me to the house to meet his mother, Lindiwe Mngomezulu.
Mngomezulu’s business is offering tourists a snake show, called the Soweto Live Snake Show. The inspiration for it came after she joined a snake club in Edenvale, east of Johannesburg, South Africa.
Suitably entertained, I continue my journey down the snaking avenues of Vilakazi Street.
I speak to one of the vendors a few feet from Mandela House. Bongane Ngcobo sells t-shirts, caps and African art. An entrepreneur, he says he makes about R4,000 ($282) on a good day and about R200 ($17) otherwise.
As I stroll further down, the street gets 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.
Speaking of entrepreneurship and economy, Moipone Molotsi, Director of the Centre for Small Business Development at the University of Johannesburg in Soweto, says the township economy is money circulating in the township and benefiting people within the township.
I ask her if there has been any growth in the township since Mandela’s death.
“People have moved from tenders and come up with business models that will raise income every single day. That is the change but it is moving very slowly,” she says.
So there is a shift from tenderpreneurship to entrepreneurship.
Taking Soweto to the world
Entrepreneurship is the mantra. Take this group of young men from Soweto who have portrayed it positively using imagery.
They are childhood friends who found themselves merging advertising, photography and film, calling themselves, I See A Different You (ISADY). They are Innocent Mukheli, Fhatuwani Mukheli, Ongama Zazayokwe and Vuyo Mpantsha.
“In 2011, Innocent went to Kenya for a photoshoot. While he was there, he sent us a picture of a guy on a motorbike, that guy was too cool, he was wearing sandals. We didn’t believe that was shot in Kenya and we realized to ourselves that if that is how we see Kenya, imagine how other Africans see Africa. We have been fed so much negativity on the continent,” say Zazayokwe and Mpantsha.
Their ideology changed and a brand was born.
“I See A Different You started off as a movement that changes people’s perceptions about Soweto and Africa,” says Mpantsha.
Indeed, they have done so, and their first start was Soweto. Now, they have moved to other parts of Africa and the world.
I was watching television with the family a few years ago when a commercial come on. We loved it because we could relate. It brought nostalgia, memories of wanting to go watch TV in a neighbour’s house because we had limited channels. This commercial was about soccer. Despite the humour and hint of economic struggle, the advert was about humanity and selflessness, in allowing the unprivileged neighbors to watch soccer.
I believe that is something Mandela would have done. This advert was a DStv campaign, #NiceLifeProblems, communicating to South Africans in their language.
“When brands brief us to create content of whatever they are selling at the time, they use us because we change the narrative on how they show black people and how they tell black stories through advertising,” says Mpantsha.
Driving to work from Soweto, I never miss ISADY’s latest work with the whiskey brand, Scottish Leader. It is a billboard on the Soweto highway positioned prominently as you exit the township. These billboards are to be found across South Africa with different images.
The billboard is on the road that leads to the world-class FNB stadium in Nasrec, Soweto. This stadium was designed as the main stadium for the 2010 FIFA World-Cup and is the largest in Africa. It housed the final match between Netherlands and Spain. Mandela recited his first speech after his release in 1990 in this very stadium, but it also served as a memorial venue after his death in 2013.
Back to ISADY’s billboards.
“It’s just like the whiskeys, there’s three whiskeys: one is smoky, one is smoother and the other is spicy. That is why the billboards are different; it’s about seeing a new perspective,” says Mpantsha.
ISADY has exhibited works in others parts of the world. Taking Africa To The World was exhibited in Japan; it looks at the positives of Soweto.
And then Mpantsha says it, speaking my mind, speaking for all Sowetans taking Soweto to the world:
“Soweto is in our DNA.”
And there are more worldwide, acknowledging this fact, be it in Soweto or Spain.
Enos Mafokate, the first black showjumper in South Africa and an Olympic athlete at Barcelona, runs the only equestrian club in Soweto today.
In 2007, Mafokate realized his dream of opening his own riding stable in Soweto. At the Soweto Equestrian Foundation, Mafokate trains more than 60 children with 20 horses and ponies. The club also trains disabled children.
“It provides therapy for both mentally and physically unstable children and that is working magic,” says Mafokate.
Sport can be therapy, but what is Soweto without its vibrant culture: its art, music, dance or fashion.
I meet with a dance crew from Soweto I hadn’t seen in a long time at a dance competition in Johannesburg. Although a few members are new, their style hasn’t changed.
“We specialize in music, fashion and dance, but our main focus is dance. We call our dance Sbujwa. Sbujwa is a dance culture from Soweto; it started in the early 2000s just as a way of dressing and gradually over time it became a dance genre,” says group choreographer Blessing Dhlamini.
Dhlamini goes on to say that they wouldn’t be dancing for a living if Mandela hadn’t won us freedom.
The group recently won a Crowd Favourites award and came sixth at the World Of Dance in South Africa.
From day to night, would Soweto be complete without a vignette of its bustling nightlife?
I call up an old neighbor, Mncedisi Mnguni, also known as DJ Big Sky, one of Soweto’s biggest DJs and entrepreneurs who recently conducted a United Kingdom tour playing alongside musicians Black Coffee, Ralf Gum and Charles Webster, among others.
“Soweto is very huge, it’s like an entire city. A lot of people come from outside the ’hood come jam in the ’hood. It’s very vibrant and it’s still growing. Just look at Vilakazi Street, it’s no longer a street, it’s a precinct. It has informal trading and formal establishments like the restaurants plus the tourist attractions, just in that street alone,” he says.
Soweto has its flaws like any suburb, town or city. The night can also reveal its peripatetic ugly street layers. Soweto is no saint. But neither am I, neither was Mandela.