Southern African home cooking sounds comforting: samp, a chunky corn concoction; pap, a filling porridge; mogodu, boiled tripe. OK, the last sounded better before the translation. But my husband and even my 5-year-old daughter are more adventurous eaters than I am. We all find something tempting at the buffet at Sakhumzi; and the popular restaurant is a welcome stop at the end of a drizzly day spent exploring Soweto, with stops at the former home of Nelson Mandela, an anti-apartheid protest museum and overnight at a homey B&B.
We’d started that morning driving through the rows of mine dumps — low ziggurats a tapped-out shade of yellow — that isolate Soweto from the rest of Johannesburg. We entered the famed township on the Soweto Highway, passed neat new homes and headed to our bed-and-breakfast in Soweto’s Orlando West neighborhood.
Soon, our hostess, Nthateng Motaung, who grew up in the home she’s converted to accommodate up to eight guests, was cheerfully ushering us out her door on foot. She said we’d find the neighbors friendly and that the reports we’d heard about street crime in Soweto were greatly exaggerated.
We live closer to central Johannesburg, in an area once reserved for whites, where high security walls and few sidewalks create a pedestrian no-go zone. But Soweto was established in the 1930s as a shantytown. The majority of Black South Africans remain poor 15 years after the end of white rule and Soweto has few cars relative to its population, estimated at just over 1 million — four of 10 Johannesburg residents are Sowetans. Narrow streets off main roads remain pedestrian thoroughfares and sidewalks are being repaved at every turn.
Less than a block from Nthateng Bed & Breakfast, we found No. 8115, one of Nelson Mandela’s first homes in Johannesburg. Mandela has long since moved to a leafier, once all-white neighborhood. His old four-room Soweto cottage is a museum. Mandela moved in a year after the house was built in 1945, with his first wife. His second wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, and their two daughters later lived there for decades, mostly on their own, while the anti-apartheid hero was on the run or in prison. “The house itself was identical to hundreds of others built on postage-stamp-size plots on dirt roads,” Mandela wrote in his autobiography. “It had the same standard tin roof, the same cement floor, a narrow kitchen, and a bucket toilet at the back.”
Today, Soweto has some solid, middle-class houses — or mansions like Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s a few blocks from No. 8115. The day we visited Mandela’s house, we spotted a neighbor headed to a backyard toilet, roll of paper in hand. Our B&B had indoor bathrooms, satellite TV and a dining room where a breakfast is served on a white table cloth.
Mandela’s house was reopened to the public in March after months of restoration that preserved the bullet holes and scorched bricks that testify to its place in South Africa’s violent history. Mementos and multimedia narration give a sense of the country’s past and its hopes for the future. Enlarged photos show Winnie Madikizela-Mandela ironing in the house, another of her being bundled into a police car parked outside. Enter a room and it is filled with recordings of news accounts of Soweto riots. Press a button mounted on a panel outside and hear her describing burying the umbilical cords of her children and grandchildren under a tree that still stands in the cramped yard, bringing to the city a rural tradition that tied new generations to their ancestors and their land.
First-person history is used with equally poignant effect at another museum just up the hill. This one is dedicated to the 1976 Soweto Uprising and overlooks the site where 12-year-old Hector Pieterson was shot and killed by police during the unrest. A photograph of a dying Pieterson carried in the arms of another young protester remains a symbol of apartheid’s brutality. The modern brick-and-glass Hector Pieterson Museum, built in 2002, pays tribute to all the victims of 1976 and chronicles with verve and humanity young people’s involvement in the anti-apartheid struggle. The ’76 protests are often attributed to student anger over being taught in Afrikaans, the language of Dutch colonizers and their descendants. But the museum showcases interviews that make clear young Blacks were rising up against much more — a system that treated them as inferior.
Fikile Ngcobo, an English teacher at Orlando West Junior Secondary School in the 1970s, says she was trained to view her job as filling an empty vessel, not engaging with a human being. “All you do is pour until it is full,” she recalls in an interview preserved in the museum’s archives. “How it gets full, how it feels when it gets full was just one thing that was never thought of.”
The museum’s bookshop stocks a wide range of fiction and history titles about South Africa and the region. Outside, vendors sell handicrafts, including lengths of cloth worn as skirts in the African National Congress’ black, green and yellow colors printed with portraits of Mandela and South Africa’s newest president, Jacob Zuma. Just up the hill, a latte at Nambitha, a popular Soweto spot, can provide a shot of energy before more sightseeing. We could have confined ourselves to Orlando West, where Cape Town’s retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu still has a home. But we managed a few side trips over our two days. One was a short drive to a hilltop site in Soweto’s Central Western Jabavu district where writer and artist Credo Mutwa built sculptures in and around traditional huts in the 1970s. A fading, hand-lettered sign says, “This place is no mere museum or tourist attraction. It is a holy place, where African cultures, religions and ... sciences are preserved in pictures and sculpture form.”
My daughter, Thandi, likes a larger-than-life diorama out of a natural history museum from some alternative universe. It shows a cave man and his wife protecting their child from rampaging dinosaurs. My favorite is a seated king, his head swollen to the point of bursting because he’s too selfish to share his knowledge, according to commentary offered by Phillip Thamaga, a potter and sculptor with a studio in the complex. Mutwa’s folly is set in a park built in 1957 with money donated by mining magnate Ernest Oppenheimer. The Oppenheimer Tower at the center of the park was built from bricks scavenged from homes demolished in Sophiatown when that mixed-race neighborhood in northern Johannesburg was declared all-white in the 1950s and its Black residents were forced to move to Soweto.
Another short drive took us to Thokoza Park, straddling Soweto’s Moroka and Rockville neighborhoods. It’s near Regina Mundi, a Catholic church known as “the people’s cathedral” when it was a center of anti-apartheid protests and funerals. The park was refurbished in 2003 as part of a major effort to bring more services to Soweto. It has a duck pond, barbecue pits on a concrete patio, soccer fields and basketball courts. Art exhibits and jazz concerts are staged on its lawns. A dozen boys were turning swinging into a competitive sport: How high can you soar? Thandi chooses a climbing frame shaped like a jet. “I’m a pilot!” she sang out.