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A stranger in Soweto (Part 3)

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 3 of 4).

As we crossed a large patch of wasteland in Meadowlands, I spotted a woman and her children gathering green glass bottles. She was a refugee from Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, jobless, not entitled to social security, her children unable to attend a well-run state school within our gaze a few hundred metres from the scene.

Sister Zanele told me the woman had to guard her pile of green bottles on the derelict patch of land. They would be worth 3,000 rand, about 320 euros, by the end of the month — barely enough to feed and clothe herself and her children.

Meanwhile back at Sid’s house, a car wash I had negotiated with his brother had begun. Our crew’s hire car had gathered three weeks of dust and grime.

I sat and chatted to his grandmother, who sat by her fruit stall outside their home. My Zulu was even more limited than her command of English. She gave me an apple and laughed heartily at my attempt to thank her in Zulu. “Niabongwa” is I think the nearest guess at what I said. The sentiment at least, I hoped, had been clearly understood.

Football-crazy kids

Zanele wanted to whisk me off to the nearby primary school. This was fun.

I was amazed at the contrast between the school and the surroundings. The buildings date back several decades but are well maintained. Mveledzandivho Primary is as smart as its kids.

Football-crazy girls and boys were learning through the World Cup. They bombarded me with questions: What is your favourite football team? Do you know Wayne Rooney? Where do you live? What is your job? I have already had a post card from the class and expect many more to land on my desk at France 24.

The doors to the school were thrown open, and Sister Zanele showed me groups of children sitting together on the ground, munching their lunch — crisps like my own kids might eat, salads like my own kids eat, too.

On the football pitch made of dust and dirt, a match was under way. I was a little envious and disappointed my knee injury prevented me joining in!

Zanele wanted to take me back to Sidney’s house so he could take us to see his fire station. Sidney works at Diepkloof, a district of Soweto.

At the station was a fire engine, old but proud, with water spurting out of a hosepipe riddled with high-pressure leaks. But the firefighters take their job seriously, and their love of their job is obvious.

Their biggest fear is a fire breaking out in the squatters’ camp. It would mean certain death for many hundreds of people. Their homes are nothing more than planks of wood and old signs. Fire would spread too quickly to stop. We’d be overwhelmed.

Our next stop — past roadside barbers giving haircuts al fresco, past fruit stalls, past pavement markets — was a camp where few white people have ever ventured.

Dobe Zulu Hostel is home to around a thousand Zulu migrant workers. Workers they once were, now most of these men swell the ranks of the jobless in South Africa. They live in conditions that in Europe would best be described as squalor; bare, basic, military-style huts. Barracks for an army of workers whose mining jobs had dried up and who could no longer afford to return to their homeland. Men (there were no women) living what seemed like a bitter exile in their own country, estranged from their Kwazulu-Natal province.

An honorary Zulu, of sorts

Before Zanele and Sidney could introduce me, an old man seized my hand and began to shout. He looked me straight in the eyes and continued to shout.

The tighter he gripped my hand, the louder he would shout. I gambled on keeping my eyes on his. Show no fear. That was a phrase going round in my head, even as my Soweto guides began to look more than a little concerned.

The Zulu man shouted, stopped, kissed my hand, turned to the gathering crowd, and all looked to me for my response.

I kissed the Zulu hand, fixing the proud, old, derelict, decaying, once-strong miner in my gaze. He shouted even louder.

Time to get some idea of what was going on, as I didn’t really have a clue. I asked Zanele what I had done to make the Zulu angry.

“No, no. He is very pleased. A white man, and a visitor to South Africa, has set foot in the Dobe camp for the first time. You looked a Zulu in the eye, you kissed his hand. He is happy you are his equal, a Zulu in spirit and welcome to his home.”

The explanation left me relieved; if this was him happy, I’d hate to see him in a temper. And it kind of made me an honorary Zulu.

I was invited inside their hut: brick walls, unlined, unplastered. It must be an icebox in winter, I thought. A kind woman was cooking for a group of eight men who were tucking into a thick maize broth in what looked like a plastic oversized pint glass. The “broth” was fermented alcohol, the maize potently packed with intoxicating juice. The Zulu men were getting wasted, to waste away another day. What else though was there to do on their endlessly open agenda?

I was offered a taste. Sidney drank first. I looked to see if he would immediately fall over and die. No, he was still alive. I had to follow, out of politeness or respect or sheer foolhardiness.

Man! It tasted like no drink I have ever suffered, and it was best described as rough. A sip was all I could tolerate, to the great amusement of the Zulu men.

We shook hands, they told me their European names, and all smiled as they asked to have their picture taken with me.

“Show them how we live,” said one who called himself Charles. The sadness in his eyes will live with me forever.

Sidney the Fireman told me the local government was building nice new homes next door to the Zulu camp. After five years at a low rent, the home belongs to the Zulu who wants one.

“But they do not want to pay rent.” Sidney’s attitude towards the Dobe Zulus was one of exasperation.

A man made alterations to clothes, patching, shortening, shaping for an umpteenth reworking of a garment. He worked in the shadow of decrepit buildings with shops staffed by shopkeepers who smiled at their strange visitor from a foreign TV channel.

Home of pirates and the Mandelas

We pulled away from the Zulu camp and headed towards Orlando, home of the famous football team, the Pirates, and to Soweto’s first family, the Mandelas.

Orlando is as close to gentrification as Soweto seems to have. Streets have been relaid perfectly.

The Mandelas’ original family house is now a museum. A Mandela Family Restaurant does business on the other side of the street. The house has actually been rebuilt; it was burned down while Nelson Mandela was in prison and his second wife, Winnie, was banned from the area by the apartheid government.

Zanele and Sidney want me to see a place special to them. The nearby memorial to Hector Peterson — a 13-year-old boy killed by police gunfire at a school protest in Soweto — is a moving place. His killing was a moment that shook the world into realisation of the horror of the regime in South Africa, of how black Africans were being mistreated.

Read Part 4

Date created : 2010-08-10