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A stranger in Soweto (Part 2)

Text by Mark OWEN

Latest update : 2010-08-13

Mark Owen, France 24's correspondent in South Africa for the 2010 World Cup, capped off football's biggest party with an unexpected and moving visit to the township of Soweto (Part 2 of 4).

Read Part 1 of Mark Owen's "A stranger in Soweto"

I knew a Soweto bike tour existed; I had seen it on CNN. So I stopped and asked two guys at a drinks stall, who leaned and looked as I got out of the car.

I was still wearing my kit from the gym, a navy blue Canterbury tracksuit ( a legendary rugby brand), and my slight limp from a knee injury (incurred in a rugby match) made me feel a little bit vulnerable.

But I followed the age-old advice to walk tall, smile and look ‘em in the eye when you speak to them.

"Unjani," I greeted them in Zulu. Bad move. These two guys were actually from Mozambique, they spoke no Zulu, and replied in a near faultless English.

"You want the bike tours? Well, go straight, take a left at the T junction, and straight on. Will you buy us a drink?"

I doubted the men knew anything of the bike tours. They certainly hadn’t ever seen CNN, they said.

I got the drinks, served by a Zulu woman through a jail-cell style grill: cola for me, ginger ale for the men from Maputo. Migrants, jobless, but still a smile and a willingness to help a strange man in a tracksuit.

With an "obrigado" we parted company. As I pulled away in the car, a third man appeared, more to check out the car and the contents than to help. Lean jaw, pointed nose, almost weaselling his way into the locked vehicle. The two Mozambicans blocked his access.

I didn’t mean to be rude, but I was off to find the bike tour.

I followed the directions but found no bikes. Maybe the guys had a flashback to another city? I spotted some women selling vegetables on the roadside.

The ladies squatted by a brazier: one chopped wood, the other bundled vegetables. Neither had heard of the bike tour nor CNN.

I asked if I could take a few photos, and they said yes.

Sister Zanele to the rescue

Then, as if from nowhere, a woman appeared. She was wearing a white headdress, a royal-blue habit-style dress. She was black. I was the only white person in the district, which I later learned was called Meadowlands, a place tourists never see.

With a smile as wide as the street, the religious woman said, "I think you need my help."


"For my heart, for my soul, yes," I replied. "But do you know where the Soweto bike tours start?"

I’d already been given some really abstract and incoherent directions from the two guys at the drinks bar. I was ready for another wander around the houses.

  Sister Zanele introduced herself and offered me a tour of the places the tourists do not see if I would help her with a delivery. I raised my eyebrows. But Sister Zanele only wanted me to help her drop off two bags of cement at her home – so a man could finish tiling her kitchen floor.

That done, Sister Zanele rewarded me with a cup of tea and piece of her delicious banana cake. And off we set into Soweto!

We didn’t even get into the car before the local lads demanded I take their photograph. They talked of English Premier league football and rap music.

Into the Meadowlands

Smiles and poses over, Sister Zanele and I set off down streets that looked half-finished or half-demolished. I couldn’t decide which.

Each house had its own garden, fenced or walled. On the fence there might be washing. On the wall there might be barbed wire.

We drove through street after street, people looking in puzzlement at the white man driving the nun.

Sister Zanele being Sister Zanele, our first stop was at her church, the Jerusalem Healing Mission, Meadowlands, Soweto.

Meadowlands came into being when the local government in Johannesburg decided to clear – that is to say, demolish – the inner city suburb of Sophiatown. According to Nelson Mandela in his autobiography, the apartheid regime was unhappy about what had become a vibrant black district, home to many of the personalities who would be key players in the movement against apartheid.

Today Meadowlands is viewed by the people of Soweto as a good place to live. And while I was taken aback by the outside toilets and the air of desperation about some places, there were also many homes that were well cared for, its residents visibly proud of their homes.

The Jerusalem Mission is based in such a house, but there are outbuildings in the area that was once a garden.

Inside, other nuns were busy with the house work, and when I met Makhulu Janette Manguba, she was in her wash-day outfit. Makhulu Janette insisted the church pray for me, and wash-day clothes were changed for ceremonials. I was placed before an altar, candles were lit.

A preacher informed me they were going to pray in their 'own voices". There are 11 official languages in South Africa. It was like being surrounded in a benevolent Tower of Babel.

I prayed too. It’s the kind of help we all need.

Zanele led me out of the brief but inspiring prayer service as a dozen disciples sang an African hymn.

Read Part 3

Date created : 2010-08-10