The first decision we made was to stay in Soweto, rather than take a day trip in from Johannesburg – the more typical option. The hotel runs along one side of Walter Sisulu Square, also home to the Freedom Monument. The exterior isn’t exactly inviting – the building, raised on stilts, is reminiscent of Communist Russia: a wall of concrete with narrow windows. What a contrast to the convivial atmosphere inside!
We arrived to music and dancing in the main dining room and the unique warmth of South African hospitality. Our room was large, super comfortable and had a view of Walter Sisulu Square beneath. The Freedom Monument glowed a bright orange in the evening sunset, the occasional rumble from train lines to our right punctuated what was otherwise a peaceful inner city setting. The only other noise came from the echoes of claps and laughter from kids playing after school games in the square. Coming from a big city myself, I was receptive to the vistas of city life: the train tracks carving up the landscape, hills of houses and rising and falling in the distance and the distinct gold hue that the sun blessed everything with, was all really appealing to me. It was exciting to finally be in Soweto.
Breakfast was scrummy and set us up for the long day of exploring ahead. The only issue with staying in Soweto is transport. Even though we were much closer to the sights we wanted to see, travel was tricky. It took forever to get a taxi and we hadn’t planned on renting a car.
Stop number one in Soweto is Vilakazi Street – the only street in the world that played home to two Nobel Peace Prize winners: Archbishop Desmond Tutu and, of course, Nelson Mandela. Mandela’s house has, for a while, been a museum. Your journey through the museum is narrated by a young guide who takes you through a brief biography and explains the significance of the various items on display. Powerful images of Mandela as a young man adorn the house, along with various examples of his readings, and numerous family photos. Quotes from others speaking about Mandela are etched into the walls of the house – all serving to remind you that the impact of the man that lived in this modest house reached the four corners of the globe.
Vilakazi Street is packed with Soweto’s young, fashionable and flashy. There is an energy to the street that’s super exciting and the bars and restaurants seem to be packed from the morning well into the night. Lunch was, obviously, braai (a South African barbecue). We went for boerewors, pap and chakalaka. Don’t visit South Africa without trying this! Pap is maize porridge – eaten all over Africa. But each country (and even regions within) have their own way of cooking it so it varies in texture. Naturally I think the South African way is the best – sticky, not too dry, not too wet, ‘just right’. Chakalaka is the yummy spicy sauce that goes with it, kind of like a salsa. And boerewors is South African sausage – eaten on tables from Soweto to Hermanus, this is one South African staple you just have to taste.
After lunch we spent the afternoon in the Hector Pietersen Museum. Hector Pietersen was killed, aged 13, when police opened fire on protesting Soweto students on 16 June 1976 – in what has long been regarded as one of the most horrifying acts of the Apartheid regime’s cruelty. The museum is spacious and detailed, balancing depth of information in an environment that gives you the freedom to process what is laid before you. Compared with the Apartheid Museum, which is excellent but in some ways completely overwhelming, this is an easier way to understand some of the horror of that period. It’s definitely worth a visit.
What is so captivating about visiting Soweto, and South Africa more broadly, is the contrast. On the one hand – you simply can’t come without engaging in what is an incredibly violent recent past. On the other hand, the energy of people to move forward is palpable. As generation ‘born-free’ (born after 1994, the year Mandela was released from prison) come of age the sense of purpose, positivity and progress is electrifying. Outside the museum, I chatted to some guys about Soweto music and the best places to go out – they were made up to be talking about their lives, their music and their time now. They said that they wanted more people to move on from the past and make the future. Not an easy task when there is such widespread living memory – but cool to see that kind of forward-thinking nonetheless. No one’s talking about ‘forgetting’ the past. But ‘not dwelling’ on the past is definitely a theme.
At night we were taken out by some guys from Joburg tourism. We hit Panyaza Club which was such a wicked experience. The African house was blaring out across the car park as we walked up to the entrance and inside the sound was even more intense. Open air, there are tables of people eating their food from the braai and drinking bottles of beer and Savannah cider. The tunes are amazing – there is something about South African house that has more of a soul than some of its European counterparts. Dancing under the stars to this music was such an awesome experience, I can’t wait to go back.