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A stranger in Soweto (Part 1)

Text by Mark OWEN

Latest update : 2010-08-11

Mark Owen, France 24's special correspondent for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, capped off football's biggest party with an unexpected and moving visit to the township of Soweto (Part 1 of 4).

FRANCE 24's Mark Owen travelled to Johannesburg to cover football but, once the fun ended, he decided it was time to meet some of the country's poorest inhabitants in  South Africa's most well-known neighbourhood. On a quest to find a bike tour of Soweto, he instead met a series of the shantytown's dwellers, who showed him another side of the country - one he is unlikely to forget.

The day began at 7am with a session in the gym near the flat. I was staying in Melville, a trendy, bohemian suburb of Johannesburg.

My walk along the broken paving stones, past the high walls that hide the well-heeled from those who have less, down the hill to the main road, always brought a chorus of hellos from people I passed. As my stay progressed my hellos became replaced by the Zulu greeting 'unjani'.

Cross at the lights, Timberland jacket zipped up against the keen wind of the Jo'burg winter, up the steps two at a time, off with my Rainbow nation beanie, out with my temporary membership card, and into the gym.

House of Fitness. Melville’s family gym – this had been my morning rendezvous of the World Cup. Manager Barry would always greet me with a handshake, warm, firm, and a slightly puzzled smile, as if to say what is this guy doing here so early when his colleagues are all sleeping off their post programme hangovers?

I went to the gym each morning to continue my physiotherapy routine. In February I ruptured my left knee playing rugby. Each morning the main event: leg press, 6 x 20 repetitions with my body weight on the machine. 80kg…ish.

As well as weights, cycling was a prescribed activity. Instead of cycling in the gym on static machines, I had decided to head off for a bike tour of a place with a history steeped in struggle and courage: Soweto.

I bid Barry farewell, thanked the kind lady who sold the vitamin drinks, and away I hobbled. Sore knee.

This was to be the last day of my World Cup mission for France 24 in Johannesburg. I hurried back to the breakfast cafe, past the group of beggars on the street corner.

Each day I would pass, they would look, I would shrug my shoulders, then we’d briefly discuss the games of the previous day.

I pressed on up the hill, squinting into the sunlight, along the wide street, with its broken pavement.

Breakfast. Chopped apple, strawberries (I always got strawberries, the others did not), walnuts, bananas and natural yoghurt. Muesli and cold fresh milk. Five Roses Tea in a white pot, cup and saucer.

The waitresses were excited when I mentioned my plan to go to Soweto. The manager said: "That’s great, you’re going to Soweto? People there will really like you. It’s good that you go there. Thank you." Thank me? What had I done?

The rented car was slumbering in the apartment car park. The rest of the team was still dreaming on their divans as I turned on the GPS, hit the ignition and set off in the direction of Soweto.

It was around 9am in the morning as I hit Johannesburg’s M1 motorway singing "Freeee-eee Nelson Madel-laaa..." (apologies to the Special AKA). I wondered how I would feel faced with an area, a people and a story so huge.

The city sprawl of Johannesburg, the city of gold, gave way to scrub land, then on the horizon…Soweto began to appear.

Ramshackle houses, shacks, old mine workings on the hills, the living scars of a place that has wounds still open from a time that brought shame to a nation, and to the nations that stood and watched as the Apartheid system was set into law in the 1950s.

I remembered how football at that time was set out in law as the sport of the non-whites, and rugby the sport of the white elite. Just as the Rugby World Cup of 1995 brought about a change in how rugby was regarded by South Africans, this World Cup brought the black game into the homes of the whites.

At 9h30 in the morning, despite the GPS system, I was lost. In Soweto I found no signs, no bikes, nothing. Ramshackle rows of homes that looked less fit for humans than the slum where I ‘d lived as a child in northern England four decades ago.

My old home was demolished to make way for a new sparkling development of executive homes. The homes here in Soweto would stand as long as their occupants could hold them together. A sheer act of human will against the odds – almost symbolising the struggle that had emanated from Soweto to change the South African nation.

Inspite of razor wire protecting the single storey homes, I was about to discover they hid warm and welcoming people.

For now though I was trying to find the bike tour.

Read Part 2.

Date created : 2010-08-10