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South Africa: The wheels of Soweto’s uprising keep turning

Lebo invites people around to come to look at his Soweto neighbourhood, which us

Lebo invites people around to come to look at his Soweto neighbourhood, which used to be the front lines of the battle against apartheid

When Lebo Malepa was growing up the only white people in his Soweto neighbourhood were police officers patrolling in armoured cars.

Today, thanks largely to him, international assemblages of white people cycle around this former apartheid battleground, sticking their beaks into the lives of the ordinary people of Orlando West, and welcomed into this once battened-down community.

Lebo, 36, embraced the idea that the world’s most famous (and infamous) township could indeed be a tourist attraction back in 1999. He began inviting guests into his family home, officially converting it to a backpacker hostel in 2003. A couple of years later, feeling the need to offer a more “authentic and hands-on cultural Sowetan experience”, he devised the idea of a cycle tour through Orlando West and neighbouring suburbs.

“I had started to see tourists coming into Soweto in an organised fashion,” says Lebo. “I saw people coming into a township that they were still feeling uncertain about, feeling scared, and the drivers and the tour guides that were with them did not show that they were from Soweto.

“I thought, what’s the use of tourists coming here if they are still feeling scared and they don’t see the real Soweto - from a Sowetan’s point of view.”

He initiated walking tours, but wanted a more comprehensive itinerary, so he borrowed three bikes from friends in the community. The tour now runs daily and Lebo owns 70 bikes, plus a couple of tuk-tuks (three-wheel mini taxis), which the guides also uses to show people around.

“I wanted people to see more of Soweto in a way that Sowetans can appreciate; touch them and shake their hands. Greetings like that are important here – they break down barriers.”

How did the all black community react to having large groups of white strangers suddenly overrunning their streets every day?

“If people started to realise that those bringing tourists here weren’t from Soweto, then people would have reacted [badly]. ‘What are you telling them about us when you’re not living here?’ But people know me. So when they saw me with them it was okay.”

Lebo wants to let the Soweto community articulate its own back-story, a community that the media had variously represented as either trouble-makers or hapless victims.

Soweto’s (South Western Township, of Johannesburg) history not only paralleled the apartheid struggle, it was at its core, home to the godfathers of the anti-apartheid movement: Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko and Desmond Tutu.

The township emerged around 1900 as a racially segregated area, housing the rapidly developing black labour force that was working for white-owned mines (gold mainly) around Johannesburg.

Life in Orlando West under apartheid rule was typified by poverty, powerlessness and frustration.

“I grew up in a Soweto that didn’t have street lights, that didn’t have tarred roads. That was patrolled by soldiers rather than police.

“Of course there is the power station right in Soweto’s heart, that didn’t even provide power to the people of Soweto.”

The neighbourhood played host to one of the defining moments in black South Africa’s fight for freedom. In 1976, a short walk from Lebo’s house, the flashpoint irrevocably flared.

In what later became known as the ‘Soweto uprising’, students at a local high school organised a protest against the changing of the teaching language to Afrikaans (the latter “the language of the oppressors”).

The 10,000-strong protest, which sparked into riots after the police arrived, was violently crushed: around 500 people died, including 12-year-old Hector Pieterson, who was later pictured on the front pages of international newspapers, a passer-by carrying dying Hector away from the trouble, an iconic image that stunned the world and steeled the resolve of the community.

The protest’s fallout directly affected Lebo’s parents. The authorities were seeking out trouble-makers, and his parents, actively involved in the resistance, were told by insiders that the police would soon target them. They fled the country not long after into (temporary) exile.

Today, after the fall of apartheid in the 90s and more than a decade and a half of African National Congress (ANC) rule, Soweto is no longer the powder keg it once was, but reminders of these years are dotted everywhere around. The dual chimneys of the power station still dominate the low-lying development but now lie dormant, painted in flamboyant murals and used as a platform to bungee jump from.

The first thing guide Phillip, 25, points out on the four-hour cycle tour is the ‘apollo’ lights: towering steel lamp posts with bright globes pointing out in four directions. They were the first form of street lights in the area – but were not used not used to illuminate the streets as such but rather to make it easier for the police to control areas and spotlight agitators.

Most visitors are surprised at Soweto’s scale, a physically huge settlement comprising 38 districts, the tours only covering a fraction of its geography. It has a population between 3.5 and five million (with migrant workers returning home seasonally); its own quality daily paper; its own television channel.

Single-story small oblong houses sprawl endlessly over rolling hills, some districts with a safe suburban feel, others sporting a harder edge.

The too slow metro train in from central Johannesburg passes open-cut gold mines with man-made  mountains (piled from mining earth) that surround Soweto, creating an unnatural barrier from the relative prosperity of Johannesburg, a physical reminder of the wealth that black South Africans were segregated from. White faces still rarely use this branch of the metro.

Phillip, articulate, intelligent and energetic, supports the Orlando West Pirates, one of the most popular football teams in the South African Premier League, just the other side of Soweto. Where he lives now, he should follow the Kaizer Chiefs, the other Soweto team, but his mum still lives in Pirates’ territory so it’s okay.

Across the shallow valley the team’s stadium towers immodestly from the sprawl. Apparently FIFA deemed it too small to host games during 2010’s World Cup. Phillip jokes that he thinks it more likely that the authorities were too worried about players’ safety in Soweto.

Orlando West is reluctantly more multicultural than it’s ever been. Xhosa and Zulu now live side by side with increasing amounts of immigrants from other African countries looking for work in Johannesburg. They usually end up in one of Soweto’s suburbs because it’s a cheap place to live: Somalis, Zimbabweans, Congolese and Indians on the outskirts.

There is the usual old-versus-new tensions, but Phillip believes it’s an inevitable reality of modern South Africa, there is room for anyone in the contemporary Soweto, he says, although he doesn’t know of any white families who have moved here yet.

About 10 minutes gentle cycle downhill from the backpackers is a single story red-brick house where Nelson Mandela lived from 1946 to 1962. It is now a museum, enclosed by gates, housing memorabilia including a Boxing World Championship belt donated by American pugilist legend Sugar Ray Leonard.

Across the road is the obtrusively signed Mandela’s Family Restaurant, run by his second wife, Winnie, who lives down the road in the “Beverly Hills of Soweto”.

Phillip cycles around local markets which align only with pension days, where women sell traditional potions and lotions, and local food such as achar (pickled mango, lime and chilli) is popular.

He visits clammy tin-shack shabeens, where locally brewed maize beer is still served, the low seats once used to hide the illicit liquor from the authorities.

For lunch he takes you to a restaurant that serves the boulder-sized Kolta burger, more meat and carbohydrates than a wildebeest should ingest in a week, all in one sitting. Phillip doesn’t eat them much anymore, he’s trying to stay in shape.

Nearby, in Zone 11, a former foothold of the Inkatha Freedom Party (opponents to the ruling ANC), he points out the almost-finished three-storey government developments.

The locals have mixed emotions about moving into the new dwellings, built to replace single-roomed workers cottages called ‘the hostels’, constructed to house single employees of the mining companies, used now to house entire families.

The new places have most of the mod cons, including running (cold) water, but there is no garden space. Everyone in Soweto wants a garden.

Phillip speaks to his elders in Xhosa (with its musical tongue-clicking) or Zulu, but talks to the youngsters in English or Xhosadal, a language developed in the mines which incorporates English, Afrikaans and the two local languages.

The 15-year-old assistant guide Karabo is another example of the aspirational generation of young Sowetans. He’s precocious and thinks his own jokes are brilliant. He’s on school holidays and knows exactly what he will be doing when he finishes studying: he wants to be a paramedic, just like his uncle, because he wants to help people.

Modern Soweto is full of positive role models and talented young men and women, but make no mistake, behind the sunny suburbs this is undoubtedly a place that has been left behind, with substantial ground to be clawed back.

The unemployment rate here is 40 per cent and university access is a hurdle too high for most, exacerbated by language barriers.

There is a massive (free) hospital that has sprung up recently but in most measureable ways, from infrastructure to access to services, Sowetans are still more deprived than many other areas of South Africa.

This is diehard ANC territory. People here don’t necessarily think that modern South Africa has lived up to its potential, but they certainly won’t vote for anyone else – it’s almost impossible to throw out the party who liberated you.

Lebo believes community spirit has waned since the days when his parents were on the front line, unified by an inescapable foe.

“We grew up where the music was liberation songs and there were afros and Rasta. You ask me to dance, I would do a toi-toi dance [protest dance hailing from Zimbabwe], if you asked me to sing, I would sing a freedom song.

“There was a lot of spirit, of unity, because of how the resistance had to become stronger because people had to become stronger. Every street had a street committee where we knew who everybody was, who was living in every house, where everyone had to come together on certain days for meetings. Today everyone is doing their own things and nobody really cares about the unity that we develop.”

But Lebo admits that people at least now have some choice and some opportunity, even if that inevitably may mean leaving Soweto behind.

“Soweto has become a township that could become anything – where you could have white people living here or local people who have made it on their professional careers. And you can have disadvantaged communities living in makeshift houses right alongside. For me it’s anything and everything.”

Lebo is not looking for a way out. In fact, his ‘fair-trade’ certified backpackers is trying to foster and grow alongside the community.

“We want to make sure the people living close to us can benefit. You can’t start something like this alone; you need community, you need people around to help you. So I started involving community more and more.”

He pays the neighbours so his customers can park their cars. He has been instrumental in turning some land adjacent to the hostel into a green space. He believes he pays his staff a fair rate.

“It is more expensive but it comes with an advantage. It’s my community and I don’t want to put them in a situation where they would feel that I am exploiting them.

“We come from a history where many people have been exploited and today people don’t want that.”

Steve Madgwick