A Sleepover in Soweto-Africa’s largest township
On our way to India we stopped in Johannesburg for two days to stay with Lolo Mabitsela in her Bed and Breakfast in Soweto-a township about 30 minutes outside the city where most of the violence occurred in the years leading up to the end of apartheid. Lolo’s nephew who runs Jimi’s Face To Face Tours, picked us up at the Johannesburg airport in his van.
Soweto has always had a small and thriving middle class and after all the press about the violence before the end of apartheid they are anxious to get the message out.
About one million people live in the township that was designated for blacks and established in the early 1900′s. The community is still poor and more than half of its adults are unemployed. Roughly twenty percent live in one room tin and cardboard shacks. Lolo, a retired high school principal and school inspector, lives in middle class Diepkloof Extension, however, in a new two story brick faced multi bedroom/bathroom home that would sell for half a million dollars in California. A member of Parliament lives across the street.
Lolo raised several of her niece’s children and her one natural child is an attorney and works for the Justice Department. But she said that blacks didn’t have electricity and she never saw TV in a township until about 1982. She worked 35 years as a teacher and for that she only receives a $300 a month pension. This is because blacks didn’t pay into the pension fund because they were not going to be given pensions.
Lolo cooked us a feast of dumplings, oxtail stew, fried chicken, carrots, beets, salad and fruit. The cuisine includes other traditional treats such as mealie-pap, samp, spinach and ‘mabele’ porridge.
The next day she drove us to the largest hospital in the southern hemisphere where we walked through the pitiful emergency area with people inside and outside lying on gurneys. Most of the doctors are young white doctors from other countries eager for the experience they will gain here-especially with weekend knife and gunshot wounds.
The next morning she drove us to the beautiful Museum Africa housed in what used to be a fruit and vegetable market. One section dealt with the four and a half year trial of 156 people opposed to apartheid that were arrested in 1956. All, many of whom were white allies of the freedom fighters were eventually acquitted. Most of the defense were white and the trial was held in a Jewish Synagogue.
Another interesting section depicted the places and activities of Mahatma Gandhi who lived for a time in Johannesburg. His philosophy of “Satyagraha” or passive resistance was shaped by his 10 year resistance to black discrimination in South Africa.
Finally we drove out to Liliesleaf Farm where Mandela and about 10 other political activists were arrested during a resistance planning meeting. Apparently they had been given away by someone on the inside. The beautiful 29 acre farm and buildings now in an upscale Johannesburg suburb-far from Soweto-had been purchased with Communist Party funds for the use of the freedom fighters. It has been a guest house but recently was sold and will become a museum next year.
Back in Soweto we drove by Mandela and Winnie’s old house that has since been bombed, by Winnie’s new big beautiful home and Archbishop Tutu’s home (yes, he still lives in Soweto! Two Nobel Prize winners on the same street!
For dinner we stopped at a tavern owned by one of Lolo’s former students and had a wonderful supper of African delicacies-mielie pap (corn porridge picked up with the fingers and dipped into a gravy), lamb ribs in gravy, chicken, beet salad, lettuce salad, green mango chutney, cole slaw and I can’t remember what else.
I asked Lolo what happened between Mandela and Winnie. She said it was personal and had to do with the bedroom. But it is only speculation as to who was sabataging the relationship and for what reason. Mandela has since married the pretty widow of the President of Mozambique.
As a single divorced mom Lolo didn’t say how she was able to afford her home. The most curious thing though, was that there was not a single African-motif item in the entire house. A walk inside and you could have been in a quaint B&B in a western country…the new black rich…
Reflections on Africa
We loved Africa and feel sad to be leaving. But the one single strong impression is how little Africans everywhere we traveled, black and white, knew about the outside world and how few, even those who could afford to, had ever traveled out of their own countries. The news media is pathetic and our references to current people and events went clear over the heads of the people we talked to whether it was the sophisticated gay Afrikaner managers in the Waterkant office across the street or Lolo in Soweto.
Jimi, our driver who was born and raised in Soweto and who picked us up at the airport said that he didn’t know what poverty was until he made a trip to the Congo one year… “that was poverty,” he exclaimed! Ironic.
Jimmy’s Face to Face Tours arranges overnight stays with families in Soweto, including Lolo’s Guesthouse, for $52 a night per person, including breakfast and transportation to and from the township, at 8.15 rand to the dollar. Information: (27-11) 331-6109 or (27-11) 331-6132, www.face2face.co.za.
Lolo’s Guesthouse: Diepkloof Extension. lolosbb@mweb. co.za. Lolo Mabitsela charges about $50 a night for two, which includes dinner and breakfast. She can accommodate up to four and can be reached at 011 (27-11) 985-9183 or at 011 (27-82) 332-2460.
The Soweto page of Johannesburg’s Web site, www.joburg.org.za/soweto, has the most useful visitor information for the township. Gauteng Tourism Authority has regional info at www.guateng.net. You can also contact the Soweto Tourism Association’s Dumisani Ntshangase, 011-27-73-310-5886, or Zodwa Nyembe, 011-27-72-437-3944.