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Soweto: South Africa's latest tourist attraction?
African Business

By Larry Luxner

JOHANNESBURG -- It's not a pretty sight, and it's certainly nothing for South Africans to be proud of. But the black township of Soweto -- which for millions became synonymous with the anti-apartheid struggle of the 70s and 80s -- is starting to attract visitors from around the world.

Though it may never compete with big-game safaris in Kruger National Park or the spectacular beauty of Cape Town glittering against a mountainous backdrop, Soweto has become a tourist attraction in its own right. At least a dozen companies now offer foreigners the chance to glimpse everyday life in Africa's largest and most notorious township.

One morning last month, I signed up for a half-day tour of Soweto and soon found myself sharing a minibus with a young man from Belgium and a large Iranian family from Tehran. Within minutes, we were rolling past the glitzy new suburb of Sandton and the old-money neighborhood of Parktown with its "randlord" mansions, and onto an expressway from which the skyscrapers of downtown Johannesburg loomed in the hazy distance.

No sign marks its municipal limits, but we knew we were in Soweto when we passed a huge billboard for Vodacom cellphones specifically targeting its growing professional class. According to unofficial statistics, no less than 1.6 million inhabitants are squeezed into this 110-square-kilometer township southwest of Johannesburg (hence its name, Soweto -- SouthWest Township).

Not all of these people are poor. In fact, a ride through Diepkloof -- the Beverly Hills of Soweto -- reveals large comfortable ranch houses and satellite dishes on both sides of the street, with BMWs, Mercedes-Benzes and even an occasional Rolls-Royce parked out front.

But then Soweto gets ugly, and pretty quickly. Protest messages and obscenities are as commonplace as garbage in the streets, with graffiti spray-painted on portable outdoor toilets, on wooden shacks, on the sides of "spazas" or informal shops from which residents barely eke out a living. Gazing out from the air-conditioned comfort of our minivan, I began wondering whether Soweto was as bad -- or worse -- than the miserable favela shantytowns of Rio de Janeiro, which I had visited as a tourist only a few months before.

Our driver and guide, NoŽl Christensen, stopped the minibus to point out Soweto's aging "elephant houses" -- so named because the roofs of these cookie-cutter dwellings resemble the backs of elephants.

"They were built that way because it was cheaper," he explained. "In most of Soweto, the houses were laid out in blocks to make it more difficult for snipers to shoot at police, since there was no place to hide."

As bad as these houses may be, they're luxurious compared to the hostels in which as many as 38 men were once forced to live in a single room.

"This was seen as one of the pillars of apartheid," said NoŽl, a young white man who speaks English and Afrikaans fluently, and who can also make himself understood in Zulu, the predominant language of Soweto. "Beginning in 1892, the gold mines provided accommodation for workers. They separated ethnic groups into different blocks so they could never unite; for example, Zulus in one section, Swazis in another. The hostels were only for men. They were not allowed to bring women or children. So prostitutes came here, and the men spent all their money on them."

A few minutes later, NoŽl stopped the bus again to show us a used-clothing market. One of the Iranians took out her camcorder and began filming, and out of nowhere a group of church ladies in red-and-white uniforms appeared and started to sing gospel tunes.

Across the street, a forlorn, roofless bus station sits off to the right; its roof was stolen several years ago by residents who needed roofs over their homes. Electric wires run haphazardly over potholed streets, as those same residents brazenly steal power from the municipal grid.

In one part of Soweto known as Mandela Squatter Camp, the inhabitants don't have electricity at all.

Mduduzi, a likeable young man who's been living in this hellhole since its establishment in 1990, acts as an informal tour guide. The 20-year-old, whose name means "comfort" in Zulu, warns us not to give money directly to the begging children, who might use it to buy glue for sniffing. Instead, part of the R240 ($30) paid by each participant on the Soweto tour goes to the community till for general projects; this also ensures the tourists' safety while in the squatter camp.

According to Mduduzi, some 6,000 black people live in this maze of corrugated-iron, wood and cardboard shacks.

"People come and go, so we don't have accurate statistics, but the unemployment rate is around 60%. We also have illegal immigrants from Mozambique, Zimbabwe and other countries," he tells us. "A lot of people want to get out because it's uncomfortable. The government says that in two years, we'll be moving from here."

In the meantime, day-to-day existence is a struggle against crime, disease, unemployment and filth. One out of every four babies born here is HIV-positive -- shocking even by South African standards. "We have only 90 toilets and five water taps, and the toilets are emptied three times a week by the state," says Mduduzi, adding that "we don't have a sewer system."

That's evident from the stench that would scare away all but the most determined tourists.

Not surprisingly, few white South Africans bother to visit Soweto, in the same way Brazilians are indifferent about the favela tours that have become so popular with U.S. and European tourists.

According to NoŽl, most of the 300 to 500 visitors who see Soweto every day are African-Americans, though large numbers of white Americans as well as German, British, French, Dutch and Japanese visitors also come for a look. The Lonely Planet guidebook highly recommends tours of the township, commenting that "it's almost embarrassing how well white visitors are treated by the locals" after years of suffering at the hands of a racist white government.

Nowhere is that anti-apartheid struggle chronicled better than at the last stop on the Soweto tour -- the Winnie Mandela and Family Museum.

Inaugurated on Nov. 29, 1997 by Peter Mokaba, South Africa's minister of environmental affairs and tourism at the time, the museum is none other than the tiny house in which Nelson Mandela lived for 15 years before going to prison. Winnie Mandela no longer lives there; her current home, less than a mile away, is heavily guarded and may not be visited, though it can be seen clearly from the road.

The museum's name is the result of a court settlement between Nelson and Winnie Mandela, who are now divorced; NoŽl reminds us not to criticize Winnie in any way while inside the house.

Ngugi Wa Guthuka, the tour guide who greets us at the door, launches into a history of the Mandelas and their struggle against the injustices of apartheid -- beginning with the Sharpeville massacre of 1960 and Nelson Mandela's arrest and imprisonment two years later.

"The people's motto in Soweto was 'Just Do It,' like Nike's motto today," said Ngugi. "Dying was a part of life. It became normal to die. We buried hundreds of people every weekend."

Ngugi, who seems prone to occasional exaggeration, sees me taking notes and asks if I'm a journalist. When I tell him yes, his friendliness turns to suspicion.

"Don't misquote me," the young man pleads, insisting that local reporters rarely get their facts right. "During the apartheid years, the press here was heavily involved, but on the wrong side. They all worked for the government."

On the wall above Ngugi's head is a large framed front page of Newsday, dated June 21, 1990, with a photograph of Nelson Mandela proudly holding up the keys to the City of New York. Nearby is a poster from the Brazilian workers' party emblazoned with the slogan "Viva Mandela!"

And on an opposite wall is a certificate from the legislature of the State of Michigan calling on President George Bush to apologize for the CIA's alleged involvement in Mandela's 1962 arrest.

"White people needed Mandela to survive. He was the only man who could bring about a settlement," said Ngugi. "But they could always blame Winnie's murder on criminals.

In fact, he said, "this house was burnt twice and bombed twice. Angry neighbors built a fence to protect her, and gave her a security dog who was poisoned after a week. Just think: the whole state wanted her dead, and here she is, still alive."

The last attempt on Winnie Mandela's life was in 1991; you can still see the bullet holes in the brick walls. The paranoia extended to the kitchen, where the refrigerator had locks on it to prevent anyone from poisoning her food.

"Many young activists were killed by T-shirts laced with poison," said Ngugi, who shows visitors over a dozen pieces of memorabilia ranging from a boxing belt given to Nelson Mandela by Sugar Ray Leonard to a pair of shoes worn by Mandela over 30 years ago.

Interestingly, Ngugi doesn't say a word about the divorce between Winnie, now 64, and Nelson, who is 82 and has since remarried. And I don't ask.

But by then, it's time to leave. Several busloads of tourists are waiting to get into the museum, and we're hungry. It's the end of my Soweto tour -- a superficial but nonetheless fascinating glimpse into a South Africa that outsiders are at last beginning to discover for themselves.=

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