The last time I saw Soweto I took the tour. I met a group of writers in a church hall and we talked about lyric poetry and East Germany. It was 1988; there were armoured cars on the dirt roads and bloodstains in the dust. White flunkeys from the Department of Bantu Affairs did the Soweto sell. Even at the height of the troubles, the tour ran, dodging stone-throwers and burning cars.
Foreign tourists took the tour. You seldom met a South African. There were businessmen from Germany, Japan and Britain, who sympathised with apartheid and now deny it.
Today, the armoured cars have gone. I took the tour again, and my guide was a young man called Tulani. Last time I was there Tulani would have been a target; now he is the future. Otherwise little seems to have changed. And the tour still runs – in its new dimension: “Jimmy’s Face to Face Tours”, a black outfit based in Soweto. And it is still foreigners who take up Jimmy’s offer to go face to face with Soweto.
Soweto was born in banal anonymity. Johannesburg’s sister city, or its guilty secret. A dusty dormitory on the far edge of the known world, behind the mine dumps. Where white Joburg walled up its workers and forgot about them. Miles of brick bungalows in the spreading veld, under the cooling towers of the power station that supplied electricity to Joburg alone. Soweto existed to supply the labour. Even its real name has a certain evasiveness: South Western Townships. Numbers, too, are vague – how many live in Soweto? Three, four, five million?
A Sowetan in his twenties, Tulani rings true. He is free of the hot air that is a feature of public pronouncements in South Africa and that makes the new politicians seem as tendentious as the last lot. He is pretty upbeat about Soweto, and his enthusiasm for the way things have got better is endearing and convincing – even if the abundant violence, which South Africans take so calmly, strikes a chill.
People are no longer being thrown from trains as they travel into Joburg. (There is still no work in Soweto, so everyone must ride into “town”.) And men in the Zulu hostels on the outskirts of Soweto no longer pour murderous fire on any who come near. The taxis no longer open up on each other with submachine-guns in the morning rush hour.
We begin at Baragwanath hospital, the largest in Africa, now the Chris Hani Hospital, named for the black communist leader gunned down in his suburban driveway by two white fanatics before the last election. The Chris Hani, says Tulani, is safer now. Security at the front gates has been beefed up because doctors were being hijacked and shot as they left work.
We walk on. “Let me show you how the classes live,” says Tulani. “First, our lower classes.” We stop in Mandela Village, a squatter camp. Here I meet Tulani’s local rep on the ground, a young man called Henry. When the ANC won power in 1994, the party promised things to Mandela Village, but the cheque is still in the post. The camp has no power or running water, brick houses or jobs.
“Middle classes next,” says Tulani. Across the road is the suburb of Diepkloof, a neat and dusty place of little houses, each with a shack, garage or lean-to in the tiny backyard where, as Tulani puts it, “the tenants live”. No water or light and “very expensive”, says Tulani.
A few blocks away is a richer, greener Diepkloof: the large houses have large garages where the owners keep their BMWs, not their tenants. “Our upper classes live here,” says Tulani. “Mostly bank managers, drug dealers etc. No electric fences here. This is a low-crime area. You don’t steal from drug dealers. If you do, you’re dead.”
We stop off at the memorial to the Soweto Uprising of 1976, where a monument is dedicated to Hector Peterson, shot by the police that first morning of the schoolchildren’s revolt. Around the edges of the fenced-off square, hawkers in silk shirts, with mobile phones clipped to their belts, sell bad American rap and elderly editions of African verse and pass themselves off as the heirs of the schoolkids’ revolt.
Then we pass the school where gunmen recently drove up and shot dead the head, for reasons unknown. And on to Nelson Mandela’s old house, a modest place. And, it should be said, a reconstruction. The original was burnt down by neighbours while he was still in jail, by Sowetans furious with Winnie Mandela and the shrieks in the night when she and her infernal football team kicked around some boy they had kidnapped. Mrs Mandela has turned the house into a Museum to the Struggle: a pound a throw, pay at the door, cross yourself for luck and pray that Lady Macbeth of Soweto does not seek to detain you.
Then Tulani drives me back into Joburg. We stop at a set of traffic lights and I see a brace of breakdown trucks – “happy hookers” they’re called. Stubby little numbers, they wiggle a hook behind them and wait at intersections after dark, like girls on the game, fishing for a bit of passing trade. Except that these guys are after road-kill. They beat the ambulances to traffic accidents, because the cops call them first and take a kickback.
Tulani talks about crooks, cops, corruption and says Mandela can’t bear to lock them up. “He spent too many years in jail. But Mbeki will do the job. He’ll fix them. He’d better: these guys are killing us.”
As the green suburbs of Joburg swallow us up, I see a newspaper poster from the Sowetan, tied Joburg fashion to a lamp-post: “School hall stolen”.