Friday, October 24, 2008

Soweto, tsotsi-style...

Maya and I just spent a ridiculously fun 2 days in Soweto ( South Western Township), which is only about 20 minutes from Jo'burg. There is a hostel out there owned by a local Sowetan guy, Lebo. So on Thursday afternoon we took a minibus out there. We were a bit nervous to go to a township, I guess, but only because so many people had hyped up how dangerous Jo'burg and the townships are. In reality, though, we had no idea where we were going but countless people were kind and friendly and helpful and so we made it to the hostel without incident.

After dropping our bags we went for a walk around the neighborhood, which is Orlando West. Soweto is said to have about 4 million residents, and is the wealthiest township in the country. Orlando West is also considered the 'Beverly Hills' of Soweto. And in fact it IS a really nice neighborhood: most families seemed to be at least solidly middle-class. After eating kota (Soweto's answer to chipsi mayai: half a small loaf of bread hollowed out and filled with chutney, chips, cheese, and fried eggs. Yum) we then went back to the hostel and met Joachim (a german guy volunteering as a soccer coach for the year) and Kalefu (a young Sowetan working at the hostel).

We quickly convinced them to take us out to their local shebeen (unlicensed bar) and we ended up hanging out at The Shack and Pinky's until 1am. We made friends with these two amazing Sowetan woman: Jane works at the Nelson Mandela Museum (his old house in Soweto) and Senele is a documentary film maker. We talked to them about crime in Jo'burg, and they were circumspect... Basically said that we all just have to live our lives, to be smart but not to live in a bubble. They were surprised how easily we fit in with local people, about how comfortable we seemed. We related our frustration with the malls and the security walls of Jo'burg, and the concerned looks we get when we tell people that we prefer to ride public transport.

We talked politics with some older Sowetan folks at Pinkys, and realized the similarities between our two countries. One old man asked us why, if we truly love our country, we aren't eager to currently join the US Armed Forces... I responded that citizens are plenty patriotic when they question and refuse to participate in the unjust actions of their government. He just smiled and nodded knowingly. Eventually we got a ride back to the hostel and slept in the next morning.

The hostel offers bike tours of Soweto but we wanted to go off the tourist route and see something different. So we asked Kalefu to take us to Kliptown and some of the shanty areas of Soweto. So together with him and Joachim, we embarked on a four-hour ride. It was fascinating and at times very depressing. We rode through some middle-class areas with manicured lawns and fancy cars parked outside... And we rode through sections of town with tin shacks, no electricity, trash everywhere, and stagnant water in the pathways.

In Kliptown we were invited into the house of an old woman who was raising 3 grandchildren alone, one of whom was severely physically and intellectually disabled. On the whole, though, I saw that facilities were better than in Dar es Salaam's slums: there were water taps on every street spouting water that is safe to drink and that, according to residents, never run dry. There were also porta-potties on every street that the government empties every week!

While we were in Kliptown we went into a small museum commemorating the writing of the Freedom Charter in that area in 1955. It is a beautiful document, although it espoused beliefs that were (of course) quite contrary to goverment policy at the time... and so it became part of the reason that not long afterwards the ANC was banned and forced into exile.

We then headed back to the hostel and rested for a few hours. Around 7pm, Kalefu's friends Sean, Sipo, and Mhase came in their 2 cars to pick us up. Together with Kalefu and Joachim, we piled into the cars and went to the once-a-year Soweto beer festival. We pumped South African house music and laughed as we sped, Tsotsi-style, through Soweto's streets. The boys quickly fixed Sean's flat tire on the way, and after about 5 minutes we came upon the beer festival: basically a huge party on the streets surrounding a fairgrounds where they had erected some big white tents and set up DJs for those people willing to pay 50 cents to go inside. We hung out on the streets for a while, and then met up with Jane again and went inside to dance for a few hours.

Once again, Maya and I had a brilliant time and found that the friends we came with were protective of us... Although there wasn't much to worry about. We were clearly the only white people for miles around... And everybody seemed really happy to see us. We met a lot of fun people and we found it interesting that everybody knew we weren't South African before even talking to us. I guess it's just unusual for white South Africans to hang out in the townships. I don't know why; frankly we had been supposed to spend Friday night in Jo'burg again but decide to stay in Soweto because we were having such a great time.

After a while we went back out to the street party and watched Sowetan testosterone: at a small 4-way stop intersection, guys pulled their cars into the middle and ripped massive wheelies. I'm talking tires smoking, engine revving, girls waving out of sunroof, car spinning wildly doing 360 after 360, other dudes on the street running close and then jumping out of the way... Huge circles were burned onto the pavement after each car drove away. This went on for a while, with cops driving past and not caring, clearly.

We got back to the car to find that one of Mhase's windows had been smashed (but nothing taken), and after running out of gas on the road, we pulled into a petrol station only to find that the party was continuing there. Folks were dancing on the roofs of cars, cheering wildly, and revving their engines to compare how much smoke they could generate under the rear wheels. By the time we got back to the hostel, it was 4 am and we were exhausted but happy!

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