Just hop on a flight and come,” said Sylise over the phone. “Come next week.” Now one of us can’t tell the Deccan Chargers from the Rajasthan Royals but for a few hours, we actually considered using the Indian Premier League (IPL) as an excuse to go back. Last June, when we told people that South Africa would be the last stop on our round-the-world trip, most of them presumed we would be hic-ing our way through Route 62 and holding hands on Table Mountain. But Cape Town wasn’t part of our plan—we had already swum with sharks and visited vineyards in New Zealand.
“You’re going to Jo’burg?” The question was normally followed by a look of barely-restrained consternation. Yes, we knew it was reputedly one of the world’s most dangerous cities. And yes, we had read about how the downtown area of South Africa’s capital had been abandoned by businesses and taken over by thugs. We were expecting men with guns.
Dark side: Mandela at his former cell in Robben Island prison, where he spent 19 of his 27 years in jail. Alexander Joe / AFP
Instead, we found a home away from home, a cultural cauldron of African, Indian, European and Chinese people (and 11 official languages, not far behind our 22, but only 48 million to our one billion-odd).
We stayed with old friend Noel Ndhlovu and his wife Sylise and their two rambunctious children, Khensani and Mika, in a peaceful suburb called Mondeor, just outside the famous township of Soweto, epicentre of the anti-apartheid struggle that grabbed the world’s imagination.
The family put its life on hold to introduce us to their city.
In our days there, we visited the Apartheid Museum (make sure you allocate an entire day if you visit); spent a day at Soweto; enjoyed an evening braai-ing (Afrikaans for barbecuing); watched Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday celebrations in London live on television; and ate out at a variety of interesting places right from Moyo, one of the best African restaurants in town, to Golden Peacock at the Oriental Plaza, a largely Indian-run shopping complex which attracts shoppers from all parts of Africa (and even some diplomats) and where the menu included an iconic dish called Bunny Chow (South African fast food consisting of a hollowed out loaf of bread filled with curry).
South Africa—once heralded as the world’s rainbow nation because of its diversities and promise—appeared to be on the cusp of what some called its “second transition” (the first being the passing of apartheid in 1994). It was a time of leadership change, the autumn of Nelson Mandela’s life, fear of the road ahead, and, as Noel interpreted it, a strange and strong streak of negativism.
Soweto was where the first transition began; you can’t go to Jo’burg and not visit the township that was born around 100 years ago when living in the city became out of bounds for black workers who powered the mines and other industries. It was the hub of segregation—and it later became the place where the people first said they had had enough.
We had visited the disturbing Apartheid Museum the previous day (there’s even a scary recreation of the gallows and of bare rooms where prisoners were placed in solitary confinement) and Mika and Khensani couldn’t understand why we wanted to go to another museum. “Hey, this is South Africa,” Noel told Khensani.
Noel grew up in Soweto so he was full of gripping facts on the drive there. Notice how there are no trees in Soweto, he said, just as we were trying to put our finger on what was missing from the landscape. Electricity came here only 10 years or so ago; before that, trees equalled firewood.
These days Soweto is a tourist hot spot. There are B&Bs for those who want to imbibe all that history. There’s even a Holiday Inn perched above the Soweto Freedom Square, where the people congregated to sign the freedom charter all those years ago.
We drove up to Winnie Mandela’s high-walled mansion, across the road from lots of modest houses. Noel had been inside in the days when he was a journalist and he assured us it was as ostentatious as it looked. Then there was the only street in the world where two Nobel laureates (Archbishop Tutu and Nelson Mandela) had houses.
Our next stop was the Hector Pieterson museum. Hector was a 13-year-old boy who was shot dead on 13 July 1976, when the students of Soweto threw their textbooks out of the windows and marched to Miram Makeba freedom songs to protest the use of Afrikaans as a teaching medium.
A visitor at the museum. Alexander Joe / AFP
They carried boards scrawled with “To Hell with Afrikaans” and “We’re not fighting, don’t shoot”—the museum actually has some of the original placards and they send a shiver down your spine. It was meant to be a peaceful march but the police released tear gas and fired live ammunition. Hector was one of the 200-plus victims that day.
The museum has a record of all sorts of horror stories from the past. Of how people used the metal dustbin covers as shields to block bullets and so the authorities changed them to rubber. Of the 3800 Green Chevy that everyone in Soweto lived in fear of because of its sniper, who took out anyone he saw on the streets.
It may have been a neighbourhood museum but it was totally world class. There was even some brilliant footage of the Saturday night subculture called Swanking. Ordinary workers saved their money, spent it on suits and other fancy outfits and walked the ramp in a 10pm-4am show every Saturday night.
Noel announced that he could not bring himself to take us to the ultra touristy Wandies restaurant. We were scheduled to have lunch at his mother’s house, where he grew up and where his brother James and his wife Maureen now stay. But the museum was gripping and by the time we walked out, it was nearing 4pm. We were 3 hours late for lunch.
When we got there, his family had understandably eaten—yet they were expecting us (Noel apparently had a reputation in these parts). For the next 2 hours, like in any old-fashioned Indian home, Maureen didn’t come out of the kitchen. After eating the amazing mutton curry, we went in to befriend the chef and snag the recipe.
Maureen said she just threw in a bit of rosemary, some Indian spices and garlic. Later, when she realized we were not going to give up, she went into the bedroom and came out with a long list of ingredients and a box of Rajah masala, a mysterious mix of spices roasted and ground somewhere in South Africa.
James, a television addict, introduced us to David Kau, a young stand-up comedian who makes fun of Zulus, Afrikaaners and, yes, Indians too. Indians in South Africa, we gathered, are perceived as the ultimate hagglers who can negotiate birth, death and everything in between. It’s the original bania stereotype. Not too surprising that most South Africans of Indian origin, both Hindu and Muslim, are Gujaratis, with a smattering of Naidus from Andhra. Some Indians were deeply involved in the anti-apartheid movement and some are strong nationalists but the general stereotype is strong and true to form—certainly during cricket matches.
Later in the kitchen, we hugged and kissed Maureen and thanked her for the wonderful hospitality. “We love you. Please come back,” she said.
African style and trailing the big five
Shop: Art Africa, a store that sells unique artworks and handicrafts from all over Africa, sources its wares directly from cooperatives and artists. Situated in Parkview, north of Johannesburg.
Wear:One of the best local designers is Nkhensani Nkosi, who retails under the Stoned Cherrie brand that has helped revive/promote the local fashion industry (www.stonedcherrie.co.za). Also look out for Loxion Kulcha and the Young Designers Emporium (YDE).
Eat: Grab some great pizza and pasta at Ciao Baby and Doppio Zero in Greenside, north of Jo’burg—they recently opened a new branch in the cultural hub, Newtown. For great curries there is Sahib’s in Melville or the Golden Peacock in the Oriental Plaza. For food on the go, it’s difficult to beat the grilled chicken at Nando’s. In the south, Rio Sol in Glenanda is a great place for Portuguese food. Wandies and Nambitha’s are popular in Soweto.
Travel: Lion. Leopard. Elephant. Buffalo. Rhinoceros. The Big Five that top every tourist’s must-do list. If you have some time, Botswana is just a quick flight away. If not, South Africa’s Kruger National Park is the size of Wales; a diverse expanse of all kinds of landscapes from rolling granite plains to densely wooded riverines that stretch into Mozambique and Zambia. Most importantly, it’s home to some 150 mammal species. This park is very different from, say, the Masai Mara experience. For one, there are many well-appointed camps within the park, run very efficiently by the South African National Parks. Our accommodation picks: Lower Sabie,?Olifants,?Satara and Shingwedzi.
Sylise Petersen and Priya Ramani