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#1 May 23, 2021 6:19 pm

New Historian
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Running from Soweto

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 “Eldoz” 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 on our left. Sidelong glances, tension mounts. 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, 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 clear: You get away!

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 as luck would have it, 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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#2 May 24, 2021 6:57 am

Slice
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Re: Running from Soweto

So ah get the feeling that book is very close.  Please post on here where it will be available, once it is out. Use to be friendly with three Caribbean radio personality up here, they were all Trinis, but ah called the main one out for not playing Spice music.  He might still be mad at me, but will try and get interview once you publish.

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#3 May 24, 2021 11:35 am

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Re: Running from Soweto

Thanks Sliceman, soon-soon!

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#4 May 24, 2021 5:33 pm

Dancer
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Re: Running from Soweto

Interesting.

Reading the first paragraph reminded me of a scene in   the  movie Casablanka  , 'end of the war' City in Morocco , bustling , crooked , violent , ...

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