Nelson Mandela; the name calls up images that some would like forgotten. Apartheid for one and years in prison for a lone man whose white-haired exit from his enforced incarceration caught the world’s attention, compassion and imagination. The most recent image that springs to mind is that of an obscene travesty. One that was started by the great man’s avaricious family who have now officially declared the beloved Madiba dead after months of maintaining the fiction of him still clinging to life.
The recounting of my personal journey through South Africa has so far been fraught with the dangers that people face in certain parts of the Johannesburg area. But the whole trip was not all about the crime and precautions, although a lot of it was. There were two areas that welcomed people and visitors into their world.
Soweto was on my list of things to see mainly because of the Mandela House Museum. As we approached the township my two companions (our driver L, who was a star and D our correspondent) pointed out that the area we were entering welcomed outsiders. Apparently it had to do with the fact that the denizens of Soweto liked the idea that white visitors weren’t too terrified to visit.
On the way there, while stopped at a traffic light, a mini-pickup truck with a small group of black men in the back, noticed me taking pictures. They began to wave and smile and make camera gestures (this consisted of making a square with both hands and holding them up to their face). I was happy to oblige and after getting a few shots of these friendly people, they gave the universal “thumbs-up” sign and “okay” sign.
One very enthusiastic fellow blew us a kiss.
“See?” Our correspondant asked. “Soweto is very friendly and welcoming, even before we’ve entered the area!” They were indeed both friendly and helpful. We made our way to the Mandela House Museum, which was not full of people, although a steady trickle of South African tourist were entering. I appeared to be the only “real” foreigner there.
As you go through the museum, tour guides explain the significance of the house. The little lady who spoke to me got inadvertently ignored for the whole first part of her spiel as I’d assumed that she was just someone else who was there to see the house and not a guide. She didn’t let that stop her though.
L had to have it pointed out to me that the elderly lady was a guide and that she wanted me to see things in order. Thankfully, I’m too old to blush, otherwise I’d have gone a brilliant hue of red. I dutifully followed the lady around the small museum and took pictures as she talked.
Mandela House was a solemn moment in a friendly town. The overall feeling was that Soweto was proud of the man who’d moved there and became the first black South African president. The house where he lived, but was not born in, is a stark reminder of the days of Apartheid and the world’s acceptance of it.
The only jarring note at the museum was the price of admission. Not that it was too expensive. Rather it was the pricing system. that was disturbing. The sign by the ticket kiosk had a list of prices. South AFricans paid one price, non-South Africans paid slightly higher, and “tourists” paid higher still. I missed the sign, but it was pointed out to me as we left. Rather an unsettling moment where it seems that while “outsiders” are more than welcome, they will pay for the privilege of “not being South African.”
This “triple” pay system was used at other “tourist” attractions as well.
The overall experience of visiting Soweto was relaxed and pleasurable. The streets were full of apparently happy and smiling people and there was a good feeling to the place, with none of the undercurrent that ran though the other areas visited on the trip. It was as though the place was an oasis in the tense high crime arena of Johannesburg.
All too soon we had to leave the peaceful surroundings of Mandela House Museum and head off to our next destination. I want to return to Soweto and spend more time there if for no other reason than to soak up some more of that friendly, relaxed atmosphere.
To be continued…
- Mandela’s old street in Soweto now scene of new South Africa (csmonitor.com)
- Going to Nelson Mandela’s House (femininepronoun.wordpress.com)
- Soweto, South Africa (ariellaweintraubphotographics.wordpress.com)
- Nelson Mandela-Biography (rainbowofsoul.wordpress.com)