It's early 1999 and time to reminisce about a visit to one of the world's most famous townships.

My doctor tried to persuade me to change my mind about going to South Africa in November 1998. He told me about an acquaintance whose friend had been shot while attending a funeral in Johannesburg. I put that down to bad luck. When he accepted that nothing would stop me from going, he advised me to “make myself as inconspicuous as possible” because he wanted to see my photos, not an autopsy report.

The day before I went to Soweto (an abbreviation for South West Townships), a hairdresser dyed my hair tomato red because I wanted to stand out for my visit. When the mini-bus driver arrived to pick me up, he took one look at me. “So Ronald McDonald is finally coming to Soweto,” is what he must be thinking.  He introduced himself as Adolph – “but not that Adolf.” In a way, it reminded me of the Monty Python’s Life of Brian film scene when Reg (John Cleese) from the Judean People’s Front movement formally declared their newest recruit as “Brian that is called Brian.”

The possibilities could be enormous. This is probably the only driver in South Africa who can tell travellers to “F off” without getting sacked, as in “You have to take the F off the end of my name and replace it with ph.” How could this guy explain to a group of elderly Jewish people that they could trust a man whose first name was similar, but not quite the same as, a 20th century tyrant, as opposed to being left in the middle of Soweto?

With an estimated 1.3 million residents spread across more than 30 townships, it makes up over one-third of Johannesburg’s population (2008 estimate, Soweto Integrated Spatial Framework). Adolph is proud of the township, home to Nobel Peace Prize winners Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black president and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Soweto also houses the Hector Pieterson Museum, a monument to the 12 year-old boy shot and killed by police on June 16, 1976, known as The Soweto Uprising.

“You cannot understand the past without seeing, breathing and feeling Soweto. All this talk of ‘Go to Cape Town because the weather is perfect for scuba diving.’ So what? Tell me one beautiful woman who can live under the sea and I will marry her.” Then he flashed a trademark smile, laughed and added “Don’t tell that to my wife.”  He introduced me to Vincent Matlou, my guide and protector, and an African National Congress (ANC) political activist from the 1970s during apartheid’s bloodiest days. Vincent and Adolph assured me that I would be in safe hands and leave with some wonderful memories. Adolph excused himself, saying that he had to return to downtown Johannesburg and that he would return to collect me in just over 24 hours.

After enjoying a snack of spiced sheep’s brains, Vincent spoke about the dangers of being a student activist in the 1970s. “I was tortured and given electric shock treatment while my head was under water.” He observed that what the two of us were doing – having a discussion on the street – was unthinkable in his time; we would have aroused suspicion among the authorities, and that I could have been arrested by simply talking to a black man. He fled to Tanzania in exile, and would not return until the African National Congress (ANC) was taken off the list of banned organizations in South Africa and he felt comfortable enough to put the nightmares behind him. Both he and his wife started up their own tour company, Phomolong Tours, one that would promise the authentic Soweto experience – homestays, meeting remarkable people, experience the excitement of shebeens (drinking holes) and the mandatory braai (BBQs), and the friendliness and vibrancy that bounces off Soweto. But when his wife passed away, he lost the passion.

These days, he loves to smile and laugh; appropriate, considering that South Africa had been reborn under the manner of the Rainbow Nation, where everyone would co-exist in harmony, a new chapter consigning the painful past to history. But it also jogged my memory of a particular close call I had in Paarl, a small town famous for housing the Vincent Verster (now Drakenstein) Correctional Centre, where Nelson Mandela spent the final three years of his prison sentence before his 1990 release. Three homeless men threw some rocks at me and shouted abuse in Afrikaans, offended by the sight of me walking with a black girl. The sight of us together, she explained later, triggered their anger, but she shut the antagonists up by calling them “white man’s dogs”. Thankfully, the stones did not hit us because the men were too drunk to aim properly.

Every foreigner wants to stay in the slums for a night; nobody would live here by choice. That is why homestays are conducted in the safer confines of Soweto. But it is the warmth and sincerity inside the house that counts. I remember being introduced to Petrinas, a middle aged woman. “We’ve been expecting you,” she said to me. A table full of food was waiting for me – roast chicken, vegetables and beer. I felt honored and embarrassed at the amount of food on offer; surely my visit did not carry such significance. “Come, eat and drink. You are too skinny,” Petrinas said, pinching my cheeks. I tried to counter her statement by saying I had actually put on weight, but her friend added, “You should be jolly and fat like me,” wiggling her hips and letting go a high-pitched laugh. My face had turned the same color as my hair. “He’s a cutie, this one. Very shy, though, just like our three darling angels,” Petrinas added, referring to three young sisters who smiled at me and quickly got back to their room. “They are nervous about speaking with you.”

After breakfast the following morning, I spent a short time speaking with the girls about their classes, as well as joining in their game of hand-slapping, demonstrating my lack of coordination in the process. Before the girls left for school, Petrinas handed me a card. On the front was a smiling President Nelson Mandela with the South African flag in the background. The greeting inside the card read “Soweto loves you”. Next to the printed message was a handwritten message and signed by everybody in the household. It said, “To David, hope to see you soon ’cause we gonna miss you badly. With love, the Mshwakalowe family“. I felt a tear run down my cheek and splash onto the card. I was also issued with the name ntando, meaning “the appreciative one.”

It has been more than 12 years since my visit to Soweto. Hopefully it still loves me.


Author’s note: The host family’s name has been changed to Mshwakalowe for privacy reasons.