Trip of a Lifetime – Soweto

The name “Soweto” is an amalgamation of three words: SOuth WEst TOwnships.  The townships were created by the Apartheid government of South Africa to keep all the Blacks in one area, close by to Johannesburg and the gold mines, but well away from where the whites lived. “Apartheid” actually means separation.

Mural on Chris Hani hospital

We picked up our guide, Collette, who lives there and knows all about the history of the township – there are about 5 million people who live there now, all crammed into an area of 41 square miles (106 square kilometres).  There are various levels of income, and some people do live in nice houses as they raise themselves up and stay in the town, but there are still lots and lots of shanties where people eke out a living somehow.


In the Bara market near the hospital.

Children born after 1990 are called “Born Frees”.

We got a wonderful overview of how things are and were there, and then we visited our second stop to deliver some knitting supplies at the Phaphama Group.

Phapama Group

The table was full of yarn and knitting needles for the seniors.

Phapama knitter

This woman was so proud to show us her wares, which she knit herself.

Before we left (Val had told us the first day that she would be wrenching us out of wonderful experiences under protest from us, only to deliver us to another, equally wonderful place, she was right), the ladies (all dressed up in their best) followed us out to the bus and sang their goodbyes to us. They were all so sweet – there wasn’t a dry eye among us as we climbed back in the bus.

Phapama Group grandmothers goodbye

We were off next to lunch!  Thanks to Collette, we were expected at a private home where lunch was served. We ate traditional food – lots of grilled veggie dishes including “chuckalucka” – all with our fingers.  First we had to wash our hands from a communal bowl. Then we lined up and friends and neighbours who had come in to help out served us some really delicious food!

lunch in Soweto (Joan & Peter Gillespie, Ruth)

lunch in Soweto

I don’t normally post pictures of what I eat, but this is the meal we ate with our hands. It was delicious!

We sat in groups of three: two “bus people” and one “local”. Our job during lunch was to learn how to say “hello”, “how are you?” and “my name is: _____” in one of four languages spoken among the group.

Val and I were sitting with Sydney and he is Setswana.  His job was to give us our African names, and when he found out I was a singer/songwriter, my name became “Miriam Makeba“. I was deeply honoured by this!  Then, they tried to teach me how to sing her clicking song – that was too much for me!

Each one of us stood up and introduced ourselves to the group.  It was such a good way to get to know each other!


“Le Kae”

“Lebitso la ka ke Miriam Makeba!”

Sydney & Cathy

Ke a leboga, Sydney!

There followed singing and dancing by all of us before we got back on the bus.  I could have stayed there all day!

It was on the way back to the hotel that I started to write my Thank You song that we could sing back to them.

We left Collette behind and joined Jo Buitendach for her tour of the Constitutional Court in Braamfontein.  She is a specialist in graffiti – especially inner city graffiti.  I’ve been fascinated by graffiti for years, and was very interested in hearing her take on it. The government has built a beautiful national courthouse on the property that was one of the most notorious prisons in South Africa: Prison #4. This prison has been called the “Robben Island of Johannesburg”, but was in many ways worse.  Robben Island was reserved for freedom fighters exclusively, but in Prison #4, the freedom fighters were incarcerated with everyone else, some of them really dangerous.

Cell block priority

Blankets showed how closely the men had to sleep. Blankets were also used to create art.

Solitary cells

A row of cells for solitary confinement.  On the back of most of the doors were scratchings made by the inmates. Slogans, names, letters.  All ways to say “I was here”.

Solitary cell graffiti

In the Courtroom itself hung an amazing South African flag – all done with beading! The bricks are from the original “Awaiting Trial” block which was torn down to make room for the new courthouse.

Beaded South African Flag

So much in one day! Plus a short visit to Nelson Mandela’s home in Orlando and a very short stop at the Hector Pieterson Memorial. It was our last night in Jo’burg. We fly to Durban in the morning.

ready to rock Soweto

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