Visit to a South African township: Soweto

Soweto is a township outside of Johannesburg. It is a must see for visitors to South Africa as it is ground zero for the anti-apartheid movement. I was adamant about having a “local” guide and was pleased to find that Big Ben (or BB as Frank called him!) had lived there all his life. Our day with BB was a day we won’t soon forget.

First, let me explain the concept of a township. In South Africa, it refers to the living areas, usually on the periphery of cities, where Blacks, Coloreds and Indians were relocated to from the late 19th century until the end of apartheid.

Soweto is an acronym for southwestern township. The area currently houses almost two million people. The new government has spearheaded plans to plant trees, develop parks, and provide electricity and running water to those that don’t have it. There was a mix of poor (mainly) and some very nice housing but we also saw settlements of corrugated steel shacks. Although many of the very poor live there, BB explained that it is also houses people who are in the area temporarily, as the homes are cheap and, when necessary, “moveable.” The government is trying to eliminate this type of housing but it has become a way of life for many.

Soweto continues to grow. We saw many restaurants, small businesses and plans for a big shopping center. Being Saturday, the community was bustling and there were lots of kids around. When BB would stop to tell us about an area, curious kids would often surround us. Many of the younger ones didn’t understand English but they sure lit up when we gave them candy! At one point we ran out of treats. While Frank stood in line at the outdoor candy vendor, a parade of kids soon gathered behind him. That day, he made lots of friends!

After some historically significant landmarks and lots of interesting conversation, BB asked us if we would like to go “off schedule” and visit his aunt’s nearby home. We spent an hour in their dining area, chatting with her, his cousin (BB’s best friend), his cousin’s wife and their three children. The home was one of the nicer dwellings, simply decorated and very tidy. We had a delightful visit ending in hugs and promises by us to email pictures. After hearing about their passion for soccer, Frank treated BB and his cousin to tickets for that evening’s nearby match!

The “social” part of the tour ended with lunch at a popular Sowetan eatery and then it was time to take in some local history.

Our first stop was just up the street to one of Nelson Mandela’s homes. At one point, he had lived there with his second wife Winnie and their two young children. There were bullet holes in the outside walls from when police (!) would do drive by shootings. The couple built a brick wall in their living room to protect their family from the bullets.

Nelson Mandela’s given name was Rolihlahla. Like many blacks, his first teacher gave him a random white name. For a long time, it was routine in South Africa for blacks to have their names changed when they entered white run institutions (schools, churches) or went to work in homes, offices or factories because the English and South Afrikaans found it hard to pronounce their names. They also thought the names were un-Christian, un-Western. The practice seems to remain as our guide’s original name wasn’t really Ben but he said it was much easier for tourists to pronounce.

Interestingly enough, just down the same street, was the home of another Nobel Peace Prize winner, Desmond Tutu, making it the only street to house two such prestigious residents!

When we arrived at our next stop, the Morris Isaacson School, we were asked to wait as a meeting was taking place. Meanwhile, BB gave us a little background on the school. In 1976, high school (!) students from numerous Sowetan schools protested in response to the white government proclaiming Afrikaans as the new medium of instruction. The students felt it was the language of the “oppressor” and were angry at having to learn all their subjects in a language other than English. They planned a peaceful demonstration, walking out of their respective schools to meet up and march to the local soccer stadium. Police fired on the students, killing several of them. Further protests ensued with an estimated 20,000 students participating. The number of people (mostly young students between ages 13 and 20) killed by police ranged from 176 to 700. The killings resulted in the anti-apartheid movement gaining international attention.

The Morris Isaacson School was one of the high schools that marched and its students were among the first who were fired upon. Coincidentally, the meeting at the school was for a group of alumni, some of whom were actually involved in the protests. Many stayed after the meeting to talk with us and we had a fascinating discussion about their experiences during the protests — they are in the process of writing a book. One of them was holding the hand of her friend who was shot!

The group also shared their concern for the decline of their once prestigious school. Having been involved in our schools, it was an eye opener, and I promised to connect them with a stateside school so they could perhaps do a cultural exchange via technology.

The final stop of the day was the Hector Pieterson museum. Just 13 years old, Hector Pieterson was one of the first students to be killed during the uprising. He has since become a symbol of youth resistance to apartheid. The museum opened in 2002 and houses photographic and audio-visual displays. It was very informative and seeing those young faces, made it all very moving.


I was sitting on the grass at a community pool watching Frank swim and smiled to myself as group of cute young ‘tweens posed for selfies. As they waited for their guest of honor to arrive for a surprise party, I engaged them in conversation. They were extremely friendly and inquisitive, wanting to know about the US. Like any kids, they were excited to talk about school and their dreams for the future. Their enthusiasm darkened a bit when I asked them what it was like to live in Johannesburg. “It’s so dangerous.” “You can’t walk around with a cellphone because someone will just grab it.” “When you are driving in your car, you have to keep the windows closed and hide your purse and phone because they will grab it.” “If you don’t give it to them, they might have a gun.” They also told me they never walk around at night. And this was a very nice, upper middle-class neighborhood. It really made me sad that these young kids had to live like this but it wasn’t the first time we had heard about all the crime in Johannesburg.

Frank and I had talked with a lot of people and I don’t think one person said it was a city worth visiting. I pictured it as a chaotic dystopia, similar to that of Hill Valley in Back to the Future II. “Crime is rampant,” Businesses are leaving in droves” and “No one goes there except to fly in or out of the airport.” But we like to keep open minds. Having a few days post safari, we decided to see for ourselves.

From afar, the city looked modern and quite nice. Unfortunately, as we got closer to downtown, we found the area pretty much as described – crowded, filthy, traffic jams, with lots of pretty unsavory-looking characters. Even our driver wasn’t very complimentary, saying he had lived there but “got out because it can poison you.” We questioned the trash in the streets or the throngs walking in front of cars and he’d say, “That’s Johannesburg.” He pointed out areas even he avoided because they was full of drug dealers and “bad people who slept during the day and came out at night.” But you can walk around parts of New York, Chicago and other cities and think the same thing. Was there more to the city than this?

We were pleased to find out that there was. We dropped off a young “safari couple” in an area that they assured us was safe and a little artsy. We saw several restaurants and a lot of young people. We discovered that although many businesses had moved out of the CBD, five major banks and some other companies remained committed to the area. This resulted in at least half of the CBD being cleaned up and relatively safe. Other areas are slowly being gentrified, attracting young professionals and new businesses. And, like any other city, there are many nicer surrounding neighborhoods (like the one by the pool). Although the perimeters of the homes had those tall walls and electrified security systems, the homes themselves were lovely. We stayed in an area called Sandton, just north of the city. Many of the major businesses have moved to this area and there are a lot of fancy hotels and upscale shopping centers.

But like all metropolitan areas, the CBD is the beating heart. And Johannesburg will need to step up. New businesses won’t locate there if their workers feel unsafe. And if businesses don’t come, unemployment, unrest and crime will continue to multiply. It will take a major investment in security. (We heard many accounts of local police who didn’t respond to calls, traffic police on the take, and jails that were full so many criminals continue to walk the streets.) Who wants to move to a city where you have to fear going out at night and live life behind walled compounds? And who will want to stay there? I know those bright young girls I met – Johannesburg’s newest generation — dreamed of escaping to other places. And then what happens?

Garden Route (pictorial)

We took a 5-day road trip to explore South Africa’s Garden Route, 189 miles of natural beauty with a wide range of topography, vegetation, wildlife and outdoor activities.

Cape Town, South Africa

I don’t know about you but when I imagined Cape Town, I pictured a quaint fishing town, beaches, a soccer stadium – a place we could enjoy for a quick couple of days. We were fortunate to spend nine days in “the Mother City” and I found it to be very cosmopolitan, a perfect mix of old and new and truly one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen!

Hmmm, where to begin? Cape Town is nestled along the ocean in the shadow of three mountains, including Table Mountain, which is actually comprised of several peaks. The CBD sits in the valley as residential areas crawl steeply up the slopes. The steep streets lead to a mix of colorful neighborhoods. Frank and I rented a car and stayed at an airbnb in the CBD. The immediate neighborhood wasn’t all that great (you have to be careful at night according to the neighbors) but there were some good restaurants and a grocery store within blocks. Frank found a neighborhood pool (a ten-minute drive away), which overlooked the ocean.

Within walking distance was the V&A Waterfront with dozens of good restaurants and awesome shopping. The exchange rate was really favorable which made it great for necessities (haircuts, manicures) but bad because I know we had limited spare space in our luggage! As anyone who knows us knows, Frank isn’t a big shopper but we spent a LOT of time at the beautiful waterfront area. Others would agree— it’s South Africa’s #1 tourist destination at 25 million visitors per year!!! (Table Mountain is #2 with 800,000 annual visitors.)

The people were very friendly, the area was fun to explore, and we enjoyed a lot of great meals (some of which warrant their own post to follow!). All in all, we enjoyed everything about Cape Town and were very sorry to have to leave!