Words by Sarah Cangley, pics by Joburg Tourism
Soweto is best known for its party atmosphere, and weekends are the best time to visit. It is a place of soul and sadness, song and dance, and extraordinary experiences.
“Everyone knew that car. The sound of it was terrible. When you heard that sound you knew it was time to run,” says Mnikelo Mangciphu, co-founder of the Soweto Wine Festival, pointing to a photograph of a Special Branch policeman next to a Nissan, taken in Soweto in 1976.
The black and white photographs, including one of a long line of graves in Sharpeville, with mourners and pastors lining the graves, dig into Mnikelo’s heart like twisted barbed wire, evoking the struggle and bloodshed in the streets where he grew up.
He is not alone. All around on the walls of the exhibition at Regina Mundi in Soweto are scribbled messages of solidarity and apology from visitors. With its bullet holes in the roof, marble altar broken by police guns and the huge-eyed ‘Black Madonna and Child of Soweto’, painted by artist Larry Scully, this church has seen human tragedy.
The 50-year-old church looks modest from the outside but inside it is vast, with a high-pitched roof and beautiful acoustics for the resident Youth Choir. Soweto is full of churches, from charismatic to Catholic, but this is its most famous. Former president and world icon Nelson Mandela’s presence is everywhere. From the murals in the park outside to the stained glass windows inside, where the portrait of Madiba’s release in 1990 is prominent. Art has been donated to the church from around the world, including a marble Piéta from Rome.
Soweto is home to some of South Africa’s most famous figures and in return it has been visited by the likes of Michelle Obama, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, her husband Bill Clinton, and even Venus and Serena Williams, who played tennis at the Arthur Ashe Centre.
But Soweto is no slave to its past; it is looking instead to its future. Bustling and vibe-y, this huge sprawling city forms the backdrop for movies such as District 9 and Tsotsi, and ad agencies jostle to include its landmarks in their campaigns.
Mnikelo has been kind enough to give me a tour of his hometown. His nippy van, painted with the Beyerskloof logo, and with number plate “Morara”, makes him a popular figure—prompting waves and friendly hoots from pedestrians and motorists.
It is to be a day of goose bumps. We meet up at the Maponya Mall and drive down Chris Hani Drive, which boasts many of Soweto’s most famous landmarks, including the largest hospital in the world, Baragwanath, and the FNB water towers. On the way he fills me in on local culture. “You can always tell a Sowetan from the way he walks, the way he dresses and the way he conducts himself,” he informs me.
Mnikelo is the proud owner of Morara Wine and Spirit Emporium, where we stop off briefly. The shop is diagonally across the road from the brick house where he grew up in Mofolo Village. Everyone knows Mnikelo here. “If anything goes missing I will know exactly who did it!” he jokes.
“My decision to start a business right in the middle of Soweto that sells wine shows my confidence in this place. I want to target the ordinary man on the street who feels wine drinking is only for the affluent or elite.”
We move on to the Soweto Theatre in Jabulani, and Soweto’s sunnier side begins to reveal itself. Against the flatness of the landscape, the sky looks enormous, with scudding clouds punctuating its blueness. Taxi horns sound constantly, their flat notes blaring through the traffic to attract potential trade. The trains thud past in the distance as we pass the typically rectangular houses of the township, the many B&Bs and the Rea Vaya buses picking up and dropping off commuters.
This is Mnikelo’s first visit to the theatre since it opened its doors in May 2012 and his eyes light up, especially as the highly popular Soweto Wine Festival is looking for a bigger venue.
The Soweto Theatre is arresting. It comprises three state-of-the-art blue, yellow and red cubes containing different-sized performance spaces, with “some of the most sophisticated lighting systems in the world”; theatre staff tell us. There is an indoor foyer, which connects all three venues, as well as a covered outdoor area.
A collaborative series of artworks adorns the walls—part of Joburg’s Public Art Programme—and is a montage of the different features of Soweto, from the taxis to the commuters standing in line.
Soweto Wine Festival co-founder Marilyn Cooper tells me the Cape winemakers who attend each year are billeted at the Soweto Hotel, which adjoins Freedom Square. And they love the “vibe”. Late, great photographer Alf Kumalo’s pictures of well-known Sowetan personalities line the walls. Soweto is best known for its party atmosphere, and weekends are the best time to visit. A day out includes a visit to a day spa, then on to the hotel’s Jazz Maniacs restaurant. The restaurant is packed with music enthusiasts inside and out on the deck overlooking the square, listening to the resident band. But we have to try a cocktail. Food writer Anna Trapido raves about the bar’s speciality—the “Kliptini”. The bartender whips up ginger cordial, known as gemmer, a tot or two of vodka, ginger ale and a cherry, finished off with a twist of orange. It’s like drinking an African sunset.
Mnikelo and I are practically floating when we leave, and head off across the vast square, decorated with murals of Walter Sisulu, to the kiln-shaped brick building which houses the Freedom Charter, drawn up in 1956. A local character with a lisp and a limp is resident here. His name is Thabang, and his passion and knowledge reveal themselves as he explains the Charter. He shows us the symbolism of the cross in the roof, which becomes a voter’s cross on the wall as the sunlight strikes it.
Outside the vendors wait to sell us “Soweto on a T-shirt” and Thabang decides to play Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika on his pennywhistle. Then he does something very few people have witnessed. He places the recorder up his right nostril and with his face in a twisted grimace he plays Meadowlands through his nose. “I have never seen that before,” grins Mnikelo, chuckling at Thabang’s face. “I hope he doesn’t get his mouth recorder mixed up with his nose recorder.”
It’s lunchtime and most people head to Vilakazi Street—the scene of the after-party for the 2010 World Cup soccer—dominated by a huge sculpture of Soweto’s renowned taxi signals. Avoiding the tourist buses, we lunch at the end of the street at Vilakazi, right next door to Nambitha’s. Occasionally a taxi goes past, its stereo system pulsating.
The menu is Mediterranean-African with prawns, chips and calamari, but they also make a mean chakalaka to go with their wors and pap—and they have an extensive wine list. I order a lamb stew and creamed spinach and butternut, and mop up the gravy with my dumplings.
The owner of next-door neighbour, Nambitha’s, is actually the grandson of poet and novelist Benedict Wallet Vilakazi—the first person to translate the English dictionary into Zulu. Unfortunately, his neighbour nabbed the name for his restaurant, and there has been a fierce rivalry between the two eateries ever since.
There is so much more to see in Soweto, of course (like the Orlando Stadium, Wandies Place, and the Ubuntu Kraal), many of which have shaped the course of South African history and given birth to some of its most famous movers and shakers.
It is a place of soul and sadness, song and dance, and extraordinary experiences.
Source: Good Taste