Spring Break Part 2: Jo’burgCape Town, Spring 2012
*Note: This is a very long post! Warning ya’ll in advance!*
Part two of spring break was just as amazing as the first. After the more adventurous safari part, it was nice to have a change of pace. Experiencing Soweto, Johannesburg (or “Jo’burg” as it is called by South Africans) was more about seeing the cultural side of the city inside a city.
But before we hit Soweto, we made two stops along the way. The first was the Apartheid Museum. We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the museum, so you will just have to take my word for it that it was a really worthwhile experience. I am really glad that IES organized this part of the trip for us.
Upon entering the museum you are given a ticket that says either “whites only” or “blacks and coloureds only.” This determined what entrance you had to use when entering the museum. While everyone still experienced the same exhibit, I thought it was very significant that people were separated right at the start of the museum, so that we could all get just a small glimpse of what people in South Africa experienced every day.
The exhibits in the museum were really informative and interesting. It went through the history of apartheid, all the way from colonialism to South Africa’s transition to democracy in 1994. The temporary Nelson Mandela exhibition on display was also really well done. I found myself getting caught up so much on reading every sign that I was out of time before I knew it. It was actually really fun to be able to say, “I already knew that!” Taking that Advanced South African Politics class this semester has definitely helped me to understand a lot more about the history of South Africa as well as the challenges it faces in this post-apartheid period.
Our second stop was the Jo’burg World Cup 2010 Stadium. This was a short stop, but it was fun nonetheless. The stadium was absolutely enormous!
After that, we were back on the road: en route to Soweto. A little background on Soweto… It is part of the Gauteng province as well as the city of Jo’burg. Soweto is actually huge, which is why it is called a city inside a city. There are twelve municipalities inside Soweto and it has a population over one million. It is by no means a small town. The part of Soweto that we stayed in was called Orlando West.
Soweto has a really interesting history. I know what some might be thinking… and the answer to your question is, yes, Soweto is where all of “those riots” happened during the struggle against the apartheid government in the ‘70s and ‘80s. That’s part of the reason why Soweto has such a rich history, as it is deeply rooted in the people’s grassroots struggle against apartheid. I will do my best to talk more about the history of Soweto throughout this post.
The purpose of our visit to Soweto was to experience the history of the area first hand. We did this through Lebo’s Backpackers; this is a small business located in the Orlando West district that provides bike tours of Soweto. The man who started this business, Lebo, is a fascinating individual. Working up from selling merchandise on the street, he now is one of South Africa’s most successful entrepreneurs.
He started this business without any funding; he started off with just a couple of beat up old bikes. Now, his company has over 50 bikes that are maintained by his employees. They give several bike tours per day. When I asked Lebo why he decided to start this business, he told me that he simply wanted tourists to be able to see Soweto first hand, rather than from the window of an air-conditioned tour bus.
The bike tour was about two hours long. Once we were all set with our bikes, we hit the road to see Orlando West.
We went up and down the hilly terrain of Soweto. Our first stop was at the top of a hill so that we could see the famous Orlando Power water towers. These water towers, which are located in Soweto, actually never served the townships with water. Soweto actually didn’t get its power until the 1970s. Up to that time period, the water skipped the South West Townships (Soweto) and went to a nearby white community instead.
Our next stop was in one of the nearby communities of Soweto. Just across the road from Orlando West lies an informal settlement, predominantly made up of black Zulu people. The history of this community dates back to the 19th century, when many blacks in Southern Africa moved to the outskirts of Johannesburg to work in the gold mines.
However, under the apartheid government, forced removals required many of these men to move even further away. To meet the demand for housing, these informal settlements sprang up. Many times these men travelled here without their families, as women and children were not allowed into the worker camps (they were heavily monitored). The men would be allowed to go home once or twice a year to see their families, then it was back to the mines to work for what little money they could get.
When Lebo and his guides took us into the community they explained to us the history of the area and how dangerous it used to be. Apparently, if one tried to cross the road into this settlement, there was no telling if they would make it back. However, it is now relatively safe these days, though the people that live here are still very poor.
The community was very welcoming to us. They are used to having Lebo come through with his bike tours and they all really respect him for showing people their community and Soweto. After our introduction to the settlement, we enjoyed some of their music as well as their homemade beer. Lebo and his guides showed off their traditional Zulu dance moves and made us try them as well. We sang along as best we could and really enjoyed our time there.
They also dressed some of us up so that we could really get into the culture behind their traditional dances. This is my friend Crystal getting all decked out for her dance solo…
After that, we got back on our bikes and headed to our next destination. But along the way, children from the community kept running out to say hello to the new visitors. They were so cute. They would wait alongside the road to give us high-fives and cheer us on. During a brief stop, one little boy hopped on my friend Mickey’s bike.
Our next stop along the tour was the Hector Peterson Memorial. Soweto’s most famous uprising was the 1976 student uprising, when students marched to protest the government’s policy of teaching Afrikaans rather than English in non-white schools. Afrikaans was seen as the language of the oppressor. Peterson was the first to be killed when the police opened fire on the students marching.
The next stop along the way was Nelson Mandela’s former house. Nelson Mandela and his second wife, Winnie, lived here from the 1940s to the 1990s.
When we finally got back from our three-hour tour (which originally was only supposed to be two hours), we were absolutely exhausted. We hung out at Lebo’s for the night, enjoying great braai and great company.
In the morning, we unfortunately had to leave Soweto. This was one of the most memorable parts of my spring break. But we had two more quick stops to make before the end of the IES-planned part of spring break.
Next Stop: The Cradle of Human Kind. Africa is believed to be the birthplace of humankind. South Africa is where fossils from some of the earliest known life forms on Earth have been found. These fossils are believed to be nearly 4 billion years old.
The museum was also really interesting because it had many exhibits that raised questions surrounding our development as humans on this Earth. It really made me think about how far we have come in some respects, and how far behind we are in others. It raised a lot of dilemmas between issues like the preservation of our environment and countries needing to use up natural resources in order to develop economically. This was just one of the interesting dichotomous relationships that I read about. Other issues were raised around water, poverty, education, and the world population.
After this, we had a very distinct change of pace. To finish off our IES-planned portion of the trip, they took us to Segwati Ranch. Here we had the opportunity to go quadding on a game reserve. This was such an adrenaline rush. It made me remember all of the times my father took my sister and I quadding when we were younger and my mother would panic until we came back home, which was, of course, covered in mud.
On the ride we spotted some wildebeests, zebras, and giraffes. It was a lot of fun.
And with that, we were done. We headed back to the Jo’burg airport to say goodbye to our fellow IESers. My friends and I had planned something extra for the last half of our spring break. Stay tuned for part 3!
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