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#1 Nov 06, 2019 3:03 pm

New Historian

A trip to Soweto

Okay so let's shake up this place with some close escape stories now! This one's mine, a scary trip to Soweto with my late brother Tom.

Sunday November 7, 1999

Tom and I got back to Harare today after an action-packed weekend in Joburg. We stayed at the Garden Court Hotel. On Friday night I took him to the Bassline jazz club in Melville, all very bohemian. On Saturday Tom only wanted to go one place: Soweto. Although I had been there before (to watch the Windies play cricket!), it wasn’t a place I knew much about – nor really wanted to, truth be told. I had a rental car but didn’t know how to get there so I asked the hotel receptionist; he was horrified. People don’t just go to Soweto like that, sir, if you want I can book you a tour. Now it was Tom’s turn to be horrified; he was damned if he was going to see Soweto from an air-conditioned bus with a bunch of (white) voyeurs; he wanted to really FEEL Soweto.

And boy did we ever FEEL Soweto!

So we drive down to Soweto, entering along Chris Hani Boulevard and past the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital (famous for its trauma emergency unit). Contrary to popular international belief, Soweto isn’t the worst township in South Africa – far from it. There are far worse squatter camps, like the awful Diepsloot (Afrikans for Deep Ditch – so apt) that sits cheek by jowl against one of Johannesburg’s larniest suburbs. We drove down a wide dual carriageway in the early afternoon taking in the sights and sounds of Soweto. The most striking feature are the street lights. A hangover from apartheid, Soweto is lit by tall towers that rise up over the streets and cast a wide arc of light, somewhat similar to a prison camp. It was a Saturday afternoon and the roads were filled with people going about their business: disembarking from buses and trains after a day’s work in Egoli – Joburg, buying groceries at the spaza shop, drinking in shebeens, whistling after girls on the corner.

The last thing you want to do in Soweto is look like a tourist; we tried but stuck out like sore thumbs. For starters we were driving a rental, clearly visible on the licence plate; and for seconds; we just didn’t “fit”. In South African racial parlance Tom and I are classified as coloured, and you don’t see too many coloureds in Soweto – they’re in El Dorado or “Eldoze” the coloured township, which is way worse than Soweto. Then, in my rear view mirror I spotted something funny. A beaten up old BMW, with heavy tints on all windows, kwaito blaring, four young male occupants sporting dark shades and woollen caps pulled low over the eyes in the hip “pantsula” style of the townships. We were briefly side by side before they turned off left. Tom and I looked at each other.

“Clocked that?”

“Yup, dodgy blokes.”

We breathed a sigh of relief and drove on. Five minutes later I looked in the rear view mirror and… uh-oh, there they were on my tail again! They’d turned off, doubled back and were now clearly following us. I turned left; they turned left. I turned right; they turned right. This wasn’t good. Carjacking is South Africa’s number one crime; all the criminals are armed and crimes often end badly for the victims. Drastic action was necessary, it wouldn’t be long before these guys pounced. We came up to a traffic light, or robot, my car at the head of the middle lane and the dodgy BMW drove up on our left. Sidelong glances were cast, tension mounted. Suddenly, one second before the lights turned green I gunned the engine and shot forward, did a handbrake turn, crossed the intersection and sped back in the other direction, with pedestrians scampering. The driver of the BMW, caught unawares, couldn’t follow fast enough before the oncoming traffic made it impossible. As we drove off in the other direction both sets of occupants made eye contact and their message was crystal clear: You get away!

Somewhat shaken but not stirred we nevertheless decided we’d seen enough of “SOuth-WEst TOwnship” for one day! We drove up the N1 highway but rather than go back to Joburg we decided to go to and check out Pretoria, the nation’s capital. And where was the first place we rocked up? The Voortrekker Monument! This imposing stone structure symbolizes all there is to hate about the Afrikaner nation: strength, dominance, power and never-ending toil. We fled from Soweto straight to the bastion of Afrikanerdom, the irony of which wasn’t lost on us. After that we ended up in downtown Pretoria and spent the rest of the afternoon playing pool with some fellas in a shebeen.


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