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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Soweto: South West Township

The clean, bright, sanity of a large house-converted-backpacker’s-hostel in the suburbs of Johannesburg seemed a welcome change after months living on a Big 5 game reserve.  I lusted the plentiful hot water, spaciousness, ability to walk to a store, and quiet night’s sleep.  As it turned out, many other features accompanied these bounties, mostly less desirable traits such as extremely high crime and lack of personal safety.
"Welcome to Soweto"
Rebecca & I with our tour guide's 2 cousins
The majority of houses in South Africa have nearly insurmountable large concrete fences around the property and bars on all windows.  In my backpacker’s hostel I was installed in an empty 5-bed room in one corner of the house; on my last night I was the only person in the entire backpacker’s.  With lots of time during the day, as well as some much-needed downtime, I discovered all of the (public) nooks and crannies of the house and the large backyard complete with sprawling bar.  As I fell asleep each night, I replayed the house’s layout in my mind.  Virtually, I walked through the corridors and surveyed each window and door. If there was a fire in the kitchen, where would I run?  What if a fire was blazing the corridor to my room?  This was the first location I had laid my head down after leaving C.A.R.E., and I hadn't realized all of the pain that followed me.  My haunting thoughts took in the bars on all of the windows, I could not escape through them unless my body shrank to the size of a toy doll.  How would I get to the front or back doors?  Nightly I terrorized myself with burning house potentials as C.A.R.E. experiences continued to follow me.  Finally by my last night in Joburg my mind reached a suitable, peaceful option of running through a potential inferno with all of the blankets on top of me for protection.  My mind finally quieted for sleep.

Downtown Joburg
Joburg, Jozi, or Johannesburg, regardless of what you call it, 3 days was enough for me.  Rebecca & I’s 8-hour bus ride from C.A.R.E. to Joburg was uneventful and upon arrival (in the suburbs), it was seemingly pleasant to walk to dinner and to the supermarket.  However, based on guidebook recommendations and the backpacker owner’s advice, walking alone in Joburg (city proper, not suburbs) was severely discouraged.  The next day we hired a local tour operator for a guided tour of Soweto Township and downtown Joburg.  Safely inside a local’s car, we observed the metropolis’ burgeoning skyscrapers, crowded streets, towering gold mine dumps, and shanty settlements. 

June 16, 1976:
Hector Pieterson being carried after shot by police
We toured Soweto’s famous and infamous areas, saw wealth and utter poverty, a street occupied by 2 Nobel Peace Prize winners, and streets that fatally changed South African history.  Soweto, SOuth WEst TOwnship, was populated by the eviction of black South Africans from Johannesburg and was initially dominated by gold mine workers and high levels of poverty.  In June 1976, the Soweto Uprising brought this city to the world’s eyes, and the Hector Pieterson memorial grounds were equally affecting. Apartheid created nearly universal suffering among all South Africans:  Blacks, Coloreds, and Indians. Soweto was an acute victim.  A 2010 movie, The Bang Bang Club, brilliantly showcases 4 photojournalists, from 1990 to the end of Apartheid in 1994, who attempted to capture some of the horrific inequalities of the people.

Soweto's cooling towers re-purposed for bungee jumping

Once dropped back off at the backpacker’s hostel and outside the realm of a local tour guide, I felt the magnitude of the day.  Initially, I dwelled less on the historical ramifications of the tour but more on the current state of affairs.  Honestly it was difficult to focus on much more than the lack of safety I felt in Johannesburg, and that I had felt immensely safer living in a game reserve surrounded by hunting lions and leopards.  Indeed I loved the new strolling freedom of visiting a restaurant and grocery store after 9 weeks of highly restricted walking and exploring; however, the everlasting looking over my shoulder and feelings of fear were disturbing.  I did not like the constant safety concerns of Johannesburg.  I did not like that my mind was consumed with fire safety routes, either.  I was ready to move on, physically and mentally.  I departed Joburg via another bus without looking over my shoulder, en route to a small (sequestered) family farm in the KwaZulu-Natal province far away from crime and city density.  

"Behind all this, some great happiness is hiding." - Yehuda Amichai

Shanty settlements in Joburg, no different than many places in South Africa
Soweto's Nobel Laureate Walk and other historical places of importance
Enormous vuvuzelas at the entrance to Soweto!


  1. Sounds like a scary place. I'm glad you weren't there long. But, that was part of the reason for going right.

  2. What an interesting read. Glad we didn't stay there and went right on to Capetown - a spectacularly beautiful place. Even there, dangerous, shanty towns (Townships) exist. With all South Africa's beauty, wonderful people, and majestic animals, we can only wish the country well. I'm SO glad you're safely back in the U.S. Mickey and Don