Our South African itinerary is replete with classic tourist encounters (“Stop the jeep – I want a shot of that lion!”), but my companion and I are determined to experience the other side of the tourist track.
How can we travel this distance without delving into the tragic history of this beautiful country? Mindful of the risk, we use a bonded agency to book a tour into the heart of where young South African revolutionaries lost their lives: Soweto.
Soweto is an acronym for south west townships. The story goes, however, that when the black residents were rounded up and taken from their homes to be forcibly relocated, they asked in bewilderment, “So, where to?”
A brand new, freshly washed car pulls up on schedule. Our driver, who doubles as our guide, wears starched chinos, a pastel-coloured polo shirt and a deferential smile. Samuel’s commentary begins immediately but it takes a few minutes for me to adjust to the accent specific to his tribe’s dialect. He tells us there are approximately three million people, mostly black, living in 89 townships which make up greater Soweto.
Parts of Soweto appear very suburban, offering up formal museums to those exploring its history and politics. We even drive by luxurious mansions and the world’s biggest public hospital. But this is not what we’ve come to see.
We finally make our way to a South African shanty town and I ask myself if we have now gone from being tourists to being voyeurs. Certainly we are avid witnesses. It’s difficult to describe the impact of seeing the wretched conditions these citizens endure. But what’s most striking is the contrast of what coexists side by side: a dilapidated house with a well-tended vegetable garden, or a day care centre surrounded by rusted barbed wire.
With our guide as intermediary, we enter a two-room hut where eight people live. Tin, while cheap and portable, is an unfortunate building material in this climate. The heat is oppressive, weighed down further by an air of lethargy. It’s mid-morning but a small boy sleeps on the only bed. His mother, aged beyond her years, sits heavily in the kitchen beside a bowl of murky water where soiled dishes soak. Allowing us into the intimacy of her home may help in the short term – the handful of tourists leave voluntary tips.
There is no running water, but each shack bears an unsightly yet hopeful symbol of progress – an electric line running to its roof. The children milling in the day care yard are beautiful and look well, but equipment and toys are scarce.
Photo: Jeffrey Kallmeyer
It is late afternoon and we are parched. Resisting a tourist watering hole, we convince Samuel to take us to a local eatery. It’s filled with well-dressed business people, black and white, in mixed groups, cell phones in hand. The buffet is unappealing by North American standards, but apparently far better than what Samuel is used to. Although he interacts comfortably with us in all manner of situation, another sign of the wide chasm between us surfaces as we move to our table. Despite our shared experiences and meaningful conversations of the preceding hours, he insists on sitting separately. The laws have changed but we are all still subject to the remnants of an apartheid society.
After lunch, Samuel mentions that he lives nearby. We are thrilled when he agrees to drive us through his neighbourhood. His aunt is working behind the counter of a convenience store and greets him in warm surprise. Children run alongside the car, waving excitedly. In the sunlight, Samuel’s home looks shockingly similar to the shanties we just left. New car and nice clothes notwithstanding, Samuel has not quite risen above the poverty of Soweto.
Samuel, like so many others, is striving for something better for his family, both now and in coming generations. I wish him well in his struggle and am grateful to him for sharing an intimate snapshot of his life.