Soweto is overcrowded, dirty and noisy. It has high unemployment, a rickety infrastructure and a tangle of narrow streets lined with shanties fashioned from corrugated iron sheets. It’s also one of the most fascinating, joyful, high-spirited places I’ve ever visited.
We’re sitting on a patio at Sakhumzi, a restaurant just down Vilakazi Street from the small home where Nelson Mandela lived with Winnie before his 1962 arrest and 27-year imprisonment.
We’re drinking Castle Lager, a pale lager introduced in Johannesburg in 1895, and discussing how the smiley, a popular street dish in Soweto, got its name. A smiley, for those who haven’t had the pleasure, is a sheep’s head, charred on a braai, or grill, that, along with eyeballs and brain, can easily feed the second row of rugby scrum. The name, we’re told by our waiter, comes from the toothy grin that remains after the lips of the sheep’s noggin have been scorched off.
Also on our conversational docket is the unlikelihood of two Nobel Prize winners living within blocks of each other on the very same street. Mandela’s home, now a museum with pictures, quotes and such memorabilia as the boots he wore on Robben Island and the championship belt given him by Sugar Ray Leonard, is on one side of Vilakazi Street and, a few blocks down on the other side, is Bishop Desmond Tutu’s home, still his main residence.
It’s a Sunday, and all over this township of 3 million, we see (and hear) church congregations, decked out in matching iridescent robes, singing and praying together under scrub trees, next to dry riverbeds and in the street beside the mechanics who are lined up to assist anyone needing a tire changed or an axle greased or an oil pan bolted back to its engine.
Like every day, Soweto’s genius is on display. With unemployment soaring at around 50 percent, entrepreneurs are as common as pill bottles in a retirement home. Across the street from the Sakhumzi patio, one such impresario, a juggler built like an offensive tackle, tosses beanbags, balls, knives, fire torches and zinging repartee, all of which he deftly fields before passing a hat to the fun-loving crowd.
Outside tourist museums such as the Hector Pieterson Memorial, a moving tribute to the Soweto student uprisings that led to the ending of apartheid, crafty businessmen sell frames made from discarded Coke cans, zebras carved from table legs and statues made from bottle caps. Street musicians sing, old friends tap-dance in unison, all hoping their near-professional efforts will coax a five-rand note from passers-by.
Soweto, an acronym for South Western Townships, is actually a cluster of sprawling townships southwest of Johannesburg. Like many things in South Africa, Soweto sprang up to accommodate segregation. It was established in the 1950s as a dormitory for black mineworkers, far from the “white” eyes of the inner city.
Before 1990, when apartheid was finally overthrown, blacks could neither own businesses or visit white establishments, so underground beer halls known as shebeens sprang up all over Soweto to sell homemade sorghum beer, pap, meaty stews and bread dumplings. Often closed down by apartheid cops, these makeshift bars continued to reappear because of their importance in unifying the community and providing a safe haven for activists and organizers.
We wander into one of these shebeens, run from the family living room, and get peppered with questions.
“Ah, the U.S.,” said one friendly patron, handing over the bet he lost to his drinking buddy. “I was just sure you were from Buenos Aires,” an assumption undoubtedly stemming from the stream of Argentians to the 2010 World Cup.
Perhaps the most well-known shebeen is Wandie’s Place. Opened illegally in 1981, Wandie’s is run by Wandie Ndaba who finally got an official license in 1991 and has since added a small B&B. Richard Branson, Evander Holyfield, Jesse Jackson and Quincy Jones have all shared a mug of umqombothi with Ndaba.
Like the shebeens that keep coming back, like the Nelson Mandela Museum that, when the Mandelas lived there, was burnt down and bombed twice (even the guard dog was poisoned after only one week), like the people themselves, Soweto continues on undaunted, resilient and ever-joyful.