If you have one day to spend in Soweto, South Africa’s largest township, consider the following iconic spots I recently visited: Sir Ernest Oppenheimer Tower, Credo Mutwa Cultural Village, Regina Mundi Church, Hector Peterson Memorial Museum, the Orlando Towers, the Chaf-Pozi Restaurant, Sakhumzi Restaurant and end with Vilakazi Street Precinct or take it from me you will have not toured Soweto. To enjoy the outdoor life of Soweto while at the same time contributing to the sustainability of the environment, simply park your car or your bus and join the bicycle guided tour around the township.
Grasp the origins of Soweto by visiting the Sir Ernest Oppenheimer Tower. Standing majestically over Soweto, the tower that was built using the black bricks that are still not plastered even today was built in the late 1950s as a symbol of appreciation to Sir Ernest Oppenheimer, a diamond mining magnate, who organized a loan to the Johannesburg Municipality for the construction of about 15 000 “match-box” houses in Soweto.
As the informal settlement huts were burnt down to make way for formal houses, the ashes from the burnt down structures was used to make blocks that were then used to build the tower. The walls of the tower are rough with sharp small stones protruding from each brick. To climb to the top of the tower, one has to negotiate a way among trees and flowers that surround it. As you enter the tower through a small gate, you begin a long upward winding journey of 49 steps which takes you to the top of the tower from inside. The 49 steps symbolize the 49 zones of Soweto.
Understand the African way of life at Credo Mutwa Cultural Village. Named after its founder Credo Mutwa, the prophet, the Cultural Village is a sleeping giant just a few steps from the Sir Ernest Oppenheimer Tower. The village has grass thatched hats and superhuman sculptures made of cement and painted in strange colors such as green and while others are snow white.
In the yard, are graves, one of which shows a sculpture of a human being buried head down with the legs exposed above the ground. “This grave shows how criminals and evil people used to be buried in Africa,” says Lebo the tour guide. The other grave displays a person buried in an upright position and facing the East, the burial style reserved for people who led a good life that respected other people.
Hanging on the wall in one of the huts that has a strong smell of burning herbs, is a 1979 painting which was Credo’s 9/11 prediction. The painting depicts what looks like the New York Twin Towers and some aeroplanes flying into these towers and flames engulfing the collapsing towers. However, it is difficult to rule out that this could have been any painting depicting any event and not necessarily the tragic 9/11 incident.
Invite the divine intervention at the Regina Mundi Church which is the symbol of resistance. During the times of the struggle against apartheid the church produced freedom fighters and it also became a refuge for students who were running away from the apartheid police during the 1976 Soweto uprisings. Though now very peaceful with tourists walking about as if they are attending a church service, the Church still has scars from those years. Bullet holes on the ceiling and windows, the broken pulpit and a broken ceramic top of the table are still visible.
Catch the glimpse of Soweto uprisings of 1976 while enjoying the art of African continent by strolling around the Hector Peterson Memorial Museum located in the heart of Soweto. The museum was built to pay tribute to the thirteen year old first police victim of the 1976 Soweto uprisings, Hector Peterson. Outside the museum, are brick walls that do not say much except a few that have some messages written on. Proceed into the maze of aisles of the museum where you will find television screens playing different episodes of the South African struggle history. Tourists torment your ears with different languages they speak which do not make sense to most locals or even to other tourists.
Take a few steps from the museum into the street, you will be overwhelmed by street vendors manning their open-air stalls and inviting tourists to buy. The stalls are neatly arranged in a row. They display items such as sculptures, crafts, garments and T-shirts which are hanging in trees that also provide extra shade to the scorching sun. The whole setup is tourist driven.
But do not let the dust from the blowing wind blind you to the beautiful wooden sculptures on display. Many people seem to be interested in two pieces on display: a Khoisan woman whose body is covered in tattoos and a dead elephant trunk with lizards all over it.
Now it is time to play and distress at the Orlando Towers. Like Hector Peterson, the two colorful towers standing side by side were once bubbly with life. The giant Orlando Towers were cooling towers for what was once a power generating plant from around 1948 until 1998 when it was decommissioned. Amazingly, more than sixty years since they were constructed, the towers were given a second chance in life by the two friends who converted them into a unique entertainment area.
The towers are abuzz with deafening noise from screaming bungee jumpers flying head down with ropes tied around the legs from the top of the towers. The roaring sound of quad bikes buries the sharp noise from the underground soccer field and from the free falling area where some diehards hope that the net hanging inside the tower will embrace them. On the other side of the western tower are rock climbers crawling up to the top of the tower. From time to time paint balling fanatics are also vying for tourists’ attention.
Relax and enjoy some Soweto local cuisine served by Chaf-Pozi, a restaurant at the Orlando Towers. For the best local cuisine do not miss the Chaf-Pozi restaurant, which according to Zweli Mokgata, is a township lingo which means a “hidden spot” since the restaurant is hidden between the two towers. The fresh smell of food catches your nose as you enter the restaurant. Fresh vegetables are piled up at the entrance of the kitchen as though to guarantee you their freshness. At this restaurant you will get all popular traditional cuisines such as pap, chakalaka, samp chicken, beef, mutton boerewors and vegetables and some drinks to quench the scorching heat from the sun.
Pay tribute to Vilakazi Street Precinct which is the home of the two South African Peace Laureates, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former South African President, Nelson Mandela. Nelson Mandela’s home has been turned into a museum. And not far from the homes of Archbishop Tutu and President Mandela is another busy popular restaurant, Sakhumzi with camping umbrellas and tables lining the already narrow pavements. The restaurant has become too small for its customers who are craving for some unique dishes of Soweto. The meals will include dumplings, mogodu, beef, chicken and more.
Heading home now could not be a bad idea after spending the day cycling throughout Soweto and bungee jumping.