The Soweto tourist trail is well-trodden: one first pays homage at the Hector Pieterson museum, named after the 12-year-old boy who was one of the first to die during the riots of 16 June 1976. Inside, the story of the riots is being told via old TV programmes and images and there is none more famous than that of the dead Pieterson himself carried in the arms of a black teenager with his little sister screaming at his side. She now works at the museum.
Signs direct the buses to Vilakazi street, former home to two Nobel Peace Prize winners. Bishop Tutu’s house stands not far from the original, unassuming Nelson Mandela bungalow – well, sort of original, as only the general structure remains: the house was petrol-bombed in 1985 and rebuilt in 1987. It is now a fascinating monument to the great man himself.
Private and public photographs crowd every piece of furniture; diplomas bestowed upon him hang from the walls; a world championship belt donated by Sugar Ray Leonard adorns the kitchen; and the first pair of boots Mandela bought after being freed is displayed in the bedroom – one wonders why Hi-Tec hasn’t launched an ad campaign based on his choice.
The next place of pilgrimage is the Regina Mundi Catholic church with its giant painting of a Black Madonna. This is the church where Bishop Joseph Fitzgerald gave shelter to the Soweto protesters. A broken altar and an armless Christ statue testify to the violence of the police squads who pursued the youngsters into the church itself.
No visit to Soweto is complete without venturing into a squatter camp. Being near a motorway, the easiest to get to is Elias Motsoaledi, where little boys escort tourists inside the camp for a small tip. This is where visions of the old South Africa suddenly appear like a flashback: women balance buckets on their heads; stray dogs bark and cooped roosters crow; rubbish rots on the muddy streets.
At least the water from the communal taps is safe – the ANC government has seen to that. It has also provided the residents with portakabin toilets; roughly one for twenty households.
Not enough, but better than before.
John Malathronas’s second edition of Rainbow Diary: A Journey in the New South Africa is now available on Kindle.