This is what I learned from the people of Soweto

There’s a distinct undercurrent of energy in Soweto. As we drive through the busy streets on a golden Friday afternoon there’s a buzz of excitement in the air. Small groups of locals are gathering together with bottles of beer and broad smiles, ready to celebrate the weekend. We’re welcomed with laughter, friendly waves and the cheerful Zulu greeting, ‘Sani Bonani’ and I can’t help but smile too because this is the kind of travel moment I live for.

In a world of Instagram and social media, travel can be reduced to snapping the perfect picture. Often, it’s about showing off a luxury resort, a floating breakfast or a perfectly toned body. But, for me, travel means something different. I started travelling because I desperately felt like I needed something to happen in my life. I didn’t know what, but I knew I needed something and it’s moments like the one I’m having in Soweto that I truly feel that something. It’s a wild sense of adventure and freedom, a deeper connection to the world and the people in it, a sudden awareness of myself, my life and perspective on what really matters. It grounds me, sets me free and fills me with gratitude and happiness.

Those moments don’t happen every time I travel but one is happening right now as we drive through Soweto and I’m trying hard to slow my mind down and enjoy every second of it. We’re sitting in the back of a bright yellow Tuk Tuk and our lively local guide, Lungile, is singing happily from the driver’s seat in front of us. His voice is an unexpectedly awesome soundtrack to our two-hour tour, adding another layer of enjoyment to an already memorable travel moment. We pull over on the corner of the street, stepping out of the Tuk Tuk to take in our first proper view of Soweto. Little kids ride past on bikes, waving as they pass and Lungile tells us about the local area.

After the discovery of gold in the 1880s, Johanessburg swelled with people seeking fortune. In the decades to follow, issues including displaced locals and a lack of housing caused desperation and chaos leading squatters to set up Shanti towns South-West of Johanessburg in the 1940s. It’s here, the South Western Township (abbreviated to Soweto), came to be. Home to an estimated 1.5 million people, it’s significantly larger than I had imagined, a sprawling mass of homes and corrugated iron shacks as far as the eye can see. In the distance, rolling hills break up the horizon and the brightly painted Orlando Towers lure in daredevils with a suspiciously ‘rustic’ bungee jump.

Back in the Tuk Tuk, we drive further into the heart of Soweto, down dirt roads lined either side with Matchbox Houses, four-room homes built by the government to provide cheap accommodation for black workers during apartheid. Entrepreneurial locals offer streetside services, setting up hair salons and barber shops next to stalls selling fresh food and snacks. Everywhere you look people are smiling, laughing and enjoying themselves. It’s infectious and I’m started to get the hang of it, waving and yelling ‘Sani Bonani’ at every person I see who, inevitably, lights up with a big smile and says hello back.

We pull over again and a group of little kids run over to us excitedly. The little girls are giggling and smiling, they wrap their arms around me and pull me down to eye-height. With fingers covered in orange Cheetos-dust, they start playing with my hair, wrapping it around in their hands and braiding it for me. The boys are jumping around in a raw, unmatched energy frenzy only ever seen in little boys that usually includes super-duper air kicks and a lot of high fives. They’re grabbing at Matt and posing for photos, managing to look effortlessly cool with a cheeky glint in their eyes. Up until now, we’ve been hesitant to photograph anybody, wary of taking a photo without their consent, especially children. But they’re begging us to take their photo, posing, smiling and laughing – they’re loving every moment of it.

South Africa is a nation with a well-known history. After the National Party won the general election of 1948 it introduced the apartheid policy, a system of segregation based on race. The ensuing years saw countless black and coloured people suffer terribly, something that I remember made me feel physically sick when we first started learning about it in school. I have to admit, visiting South Africa for the first time, I’m keenly aware of the colour of my skin and feel embarrassed that people who look like me could’ve done those things. This feeling is intensified looking into the eyes of the gorgeous little girl playing with my hair and all I can think is that I hope nothing bad ever happens to her.

Truthfully, a small part of me was apprehensive to visit South Africa’s most famous township. I was worried there may be an underlying feeling of resentment and thought it best I just listen and learn quietly while visiting. But here, in the heart of Soweto, surrounded by beautiful little kids and the love and warmth from locals all around us, I realise that’s just not the case.

Despite the atrocities that took place, the people of Soweto beam with happiness, love and a genuine joy for life. After enduring so much hatred, it would be understandable if they, in turn, were hateful. Instead, each and every person we’ve come across has made an effort to greet and welcome us into their hometown. They’ve gone out of their way to make us feel accepted and part of the community, even though we’re just visiting. We feel completely at home, engulfed in the amazing energy all around us.

As Lungile explains, in-between the excited shouts of kids, Soweto has faced issues since its inception. These include serious overcrowding, poor housing, high unemployment rates and a distinct lack of infrastructure. Rubbish is piled high on the streets around us, bags of garbage strewn near skips well past full. There simply aren’t enough toilets for everyone, let alone showers or adequate housing. And yet, this humble township is the home of heroes; Nobel Peace Prize Laureates, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.

We say goodbye to the kids and Lungile drives us to Mandela’s House, now a museum and popular tourist attraction in Soweto. The single-story red brick Matchbox House has bullet holes in the walls and scorch marks from Molotov cocktails lobbed at it long ago. Inside, it is filled with memorabilia and important gifts given to Mandela over the years. After 27 years of imprisonment, this is where Madiba chose to come, despite suggestions from government officials that he find somewhere safer. Further on, we visit the home of Desmond Tutu who, while holding the fourth-highest position in the South-African Anglican Hierarchy, turned down the offer to live in an official residence in an affluent area, choosing to make a working-class house in Soweto his home instead.

Often, there’s importance placed on wealth but the more I travel the more I realise true power lies within people, not money. Of all the places we’ve visited and the people we’ve met, it’s always those with less who give the most and I can’t help but notice those feelings being brought to the surface as we drive through Soweto. Personally, I think it’s the disconnection from money that does it. I know, myself, when I stopped focusing on money I became a much happier, better person. When your focus shifts like that, other things in life become more important and you realise it’s the people you love who mean the most and seeing someone happy is the best reward. Here in Soweto, it isn’t affluence or power making the moment special, it’s the people.

We carry on to the Hector Pieterson Memorial, unprepared for what we’re about to experience. Lungile tells us about the Soweto Uprising and how, on 16 June 1976, school students came together to protest the government’s policy to enforce education in Afrikaans. As I understand, black South Africans preferred to be taught in English and strongly objected to being forced to learn in Afrikaans, a language directly associated with apartheid and oppression. That day, police opened fire on 10,000 students attempting to protest peacefully. Hector Pieterson was one of them, a 13-year-old boy shot and killed along with 22 others who lost their lives that day.

Photographer, Sam Nzima, was at the protest, capturing a photograph of Hector’s lifeless body as he was carried away by 18-year-old Mbuyisa Makhubo. Running next to Mbuyisa in the photograph is Hector’s sister, Antoinette Sithole. Fearing the police, Nzima hid the film from his camera inside his sock, smuggling it out of Soweto. The photograph, drenched in anguish, was published by The World newspaper, leading it to become a symbol of the Soweto Uprising and a poignant part of the Hector Pieterson memorial. Fearing for his life, Mbuyisa Makhubo disappeared not long after the photo was published and his whereabouts are still unknown.

It’s hard to imagine how a community moves on after something like that happens. Soweto has been the scene of so much sadness, it’s a true testament to the people that you can visit the township and experience so much joy. You would think these events would spoil it but, instead, it forms part of Soweto’s incredible history, binding the community together and fortifying the people’s strength. Happy to be accepted and finally at peace in their own home, the locals make a point of welcoming visitors, treating people how they have always wanted to be treated; with love and respect.

This feeling is the something I crave from travel. I’m suddenly aware I’m standing in the middle of a South African township and no-one, other than Matt and Lungile, knows where I am. I’m perfectly lost and feels equally grounding and freeing. Having heard Soweto’s stories and seen historical sites, I feel a deep connection to the people and a desire to make sure I do whatever I can to be a good person and lift others up. I feel grateful for the privileges in my life and determined to make the most of them. I feel fortified in my belief that money doesn’t equal happiness and I’ve learned a lot from the locals about how important it is to make others feel welcomed and accepted. Like I said, these moments don’t happen every time I travel but one is happening right now and I’m doing everything I can to slow down and enjoy every second of it.

There’s a distinct undercurrent of energy in Soweto. It’s in the faces of little kids covered in Cheetos-dust, it’s in the happy smiles of locals shouting out ‘Sani Bonani’ as we drive past. It’s in the brightly coloured paint on the Orlando Towers and Lungile’s voice as he sings cheerfully in the front of the Tuk Tuk. It’s in the corrugated iron shacks and Matchbox houses, it’s in the bullet holes at Mandela’s house and etched forever in the face of Mbuyisa Makhubo. As we stand at the top of a lookout spot, watching the last glimmer of light turn the sky dusty shades of pink and blue, it’s clear Soweto’s energy is all around us and now, it’s within us too.

Our visit to Soweto was part of our incredible #SquadSQ trip (read more about it here). A huge thank you to Singapore Airlines for flying us to Johanessburg, South African Tourism for taking such good care of us and the amazing team at Lebo’s Backpackers for a life-changing tour of your hometown.

Little Grey Box

Phoebe is a travel writer and photographer with a love for storytelling and making people laugh. Matt is a videographer and photographer with a passion for the great outdoors and big adventures. Together we inspire big adventures through our guides, videos, vlogs and photographs.

6 thoughts on “This is what I learned from the people of Soweto

  1. Wow. What an experience and also beautifully written! I visited SA last year for the first time and I was blown away by the townships (from a far). This seems like it was a very special moment, I would love to experience it myself one day 🙂 x

    Like

    1. Oh goodness, thank you so much, it really means a lot. I know what you mean – until we visited Soweto we had only seen the townships from afar, it was amazing to be able to visit one, meet people and learn about life there. I hope you get to visit Soweto one day very soon! Have a great day – Phoebe x

      Liked by 1 person

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