Soweto Joburg Chakalaka
It is a gift, this break from life as I know it. Even as it leads me through a landscape of racism and reconstruction, unspeakable violence, struggle, and survival.
It begins without ceremony in Soweto, between twin chimneys and the trees. These cooling towers of the Soweto [South West Township of Johannesburg] Power station once loomed large over shacks in a sprawling shantytown produced by mining, urbanization, segregation and apartheid. They receive their present, cheery facelift on the eve of Soweto’s 100th anniversary in 2004—marking the township’s transformation into a rising suburb, tourist attraction, and exemplar of progress from despair.
It begins on Vilakazi street in Orlando West, where the signs of struggle have so-fast been memorialized that June 16—the day when young Hector Pieterson is killed by police opening fire on student protesters in 1976, sparking the Soweto uprising—becomes just another party day for Soweto’s youth.
Hector is not the first casualty of the Soweto uprising. But he is the movement’s most iconic memory, thanks to a photograph of his limp body being carried by Ma’makhubu Mbuyisa, accompanied by his distraught sister Antoinette, that was circulated widely by the print media.
“Mbuyisa is or was my son. But he is not a hero. In my culture, picking up Hector is not an act of heroism. It was his job as a brother. If he left him on the ground, and somebody saw him jumping over Hector, he would never be able to live here.”–Ma’makhubu Mbuyisa’s mother
Outside now are neatly laid out rows of bead babies, dolls, and sundry African masks and crafts, arranged neatly underneath the 2010 FIFA World Cup’s perhaps now equally iconic Coke adverts—celebrating peace, coke, and vuvuzelas.
Sakhumzi’s dishes up classic South African fare in a no-fuss bufftet, a block away from “Mandela House” and Desmond Tutu’s home, both now museums. Soweto boasts another pride nobody else has: two Nobel Peace laureates’ homes on the same street, within blocks of each other.
WANDIE’s Place, in Dube, has busloads stopping in for lunch. Its foyer, if one can call it that, has every square inch of wall space plastered with business cards, notes, currency from all over the world—people leaving their marks on places they have touched, and the place, the Big Man Wandie absorbing it all.
You’ll walk through such scenes in a daze, trying hard to reconcile the spotless affluence of these Sowetan streets with the numbers that otherwise describe Soweto–about HIV/AIDS, about unemployment, about violence and crime—and with the despair you hear in the many and long conversations you have with modest people living modest lives.
On the weekend coming, you take the day and buy a ticket to the Apartheid Museum in Gold Reef City. The museum stands across from a theme park and casino that memorialize another dimension of South Africa’s hoary past: mining. Your ticket tells you to enter through the gate marked “Nie-Blankes.”
From here, you are invited to enter alongside the other heirs of South African history. You see later that each person walking in is represented in a “memory box” that tells how their personal history is intertwined with apartheid. You wonder if that means that it’s your history, too?
You see the history of racial segregation, violence, and brute ideological domination arranged in spaces that are deliberately barred, jail-like, allowing only glimpses of other spaces beyond. It’s as though you are trapped in periods of history, by “Bantu education” that makes you think you should be free but is itself a system of racial domination, and it is only time and emotion that propel you forward.
You walk through long narrow corridors, lined with text, images, and video footage. The story of apartheid is told via an account of legal measures, cultural rationalizations, educational policy decisions, each speaking insidiously of fairness and justice and reason. The cumulative experience is a jumble: disconcerting, saddening, incomprehensible. Entirely overwhelming.
“Black Consciousness is an attitude of the mind and a way of life, the most positive call to emanate from the black world for a long time … It is the realization that the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”—Steven Bantu Biko, 1971 & 1978
The only redemption lies in the fact that this story, you know already, has a happy ending.
There is a special exhibit on Mandela this time. You’re hesitant. You know he is special, has suffered much and achieved much. But you’ve always paused at cults of adoration, so you do the same here, too.
You read Mandela’s words, written in the colors of sticks laid out. You pick the words you like the most and insert the appropriately colored stick in a rack alongside those inserted by other museum-goers–and then you are invited to walk his path to freedom.
You come into an open garden. The sky is big, the air is perfectly warm-cool, the clouds are almost within reach. You’re not sure where you’ll be lead, but you’re willing to go anywhere.
And then, you find treasures.
Purple surprises growing in seas of tall grass. A sign tells you that this is what you thought, a space of contemplation–to remember what happened, to allow the pain our collective inhumanities to course through, to configure yourself in relation to it, and, having absorbed it, to “walk away free.”
Even the grasses are reaching the clouds, so you know such freedom is possible.
You find your way backwards in time, to Gandhi Square in Johannesburg’s Central Business District. Your driver, Abner, is worried you are here, and sticks close by. You wish he wouldn’t, but you know his kindness so you accept it. [The mural shown is part of an "Unurth Street Art" exhibit by Faith 47, David Krut]
You are no daughter of Gandhi, but you come to find him anyway, a young lawyer risen to political consciousness, about to depart for India from Johannesburg. And you learn that the misspelling of his name is not just an American thing…
You insist, at lunch time, on pap (mielie meal porridge). You resist, fittingly you think, being stripped and chained by all the big-name cookie-cutter restaurants. [Though you are tempted to see what KFC's pap might be like]. The first place has run out, and you’re not settling for rice, so you go to the place next door. The lady at the register scowls.
It’s nondescript. But promises soul food.
And it has what you want: steamed bread, chakalaka (even if it’s the tomato-onion salsa kind nobody likes), cabbage. And pap. You’re tempted to call out: “Boom Chaka-Laka” but you desist.
The meal arrives, all of it by now familiar. You eat with happy relish, happier still when Abner tells you that he’s satisfied, too, now that he’s found a good, inexpensive place to lunch in the CBD (Central Business District), of which he seems more wary than you are.
The afternoon calls you to keep going. You find your way to a bookshop, and the green leaves form a luminous canopy overhead.
You come back to the hotel, tired, but only in your feet, not in your heart. Besides, you have tea, your window box with the view of the world’s largest urban manmade forest that is Joburg, and more South African stories — this time of the Cake that the Buddha ate. The day has circled around, and made you whole.