Experiencing the new South Africa

20:47, Jun 27 2013
CULTURAL HUB: What makes Soweto unique is its residents.

At first I think they are singing for me.

Twelve busty, cherub-faced women, they are like sirens as they stand in the foyer of the Soweto Hotel and give a beautiful rendition of Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika - "Lord Bless Africa" - the anti-apartheid hymn and, since 1994, the joint national anthem of South Africa.

Still holding my suitcase, I am profoundly moved - if a little confused. Is this how they welcome every guest? Could I be a VIP?

My ego takes a knock when I learn I have arrived as the hotel's staff are singing in honour of their beloved "Madiba", former president Nelson Mandela, who, it has emerged, is in ill health.

It is an apt introduction to the Soweto Hotel.

This, Soweto's only four-star hotel, is the fruit of the Black Economic Empowerment program Mandela signed into law upon his election in 1994.


The law favours the employment of non-white South Africans in many industries in a bid to redress the inequalities of apartheid.

Owned and entirely staffed by black locals, since opening in 2009 the Soweto Hotel has endeavoured to include the input of this once-marginalised community wherever possible - from the kitchen staff to the artwork that adorns the walls.

The hotel stands beside the Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication, today a landscaped piazza where kids play soccer but previously a dust bowl where on June 26, 1955, more than 3000 liberal South Africans of all colours signed the Freedom Charter.

It was a kind of sub-Saharan declaration of the rights of man that rejected the policies of apartheid and marked the beginning of an organised movement for a non-racialist, democratic South Africa that would come to be known simply as "the struggle".

"We hope that guests can catch a little bit of the struggle in our hotel," says the general manager of the Soweto Hotel, Lindiwe Sangweni-Siddo, catching me as I inspect a photo of the signing of the Freedom Charter.

As Sangweni-Siddo shows me, the hotel's decor celebrates this defining period in South African history. Beyond the reception and its archival photos of the Freedom Charter signing, two tourists sit at Rusty's Bar, named after Lionel "Rusty" Bernstein, a redheaded architect who was part of the struggle. Beyond the bar, the hotel restaurant is named the Jazz Maniacs, after a Soweto jazz group who wailed against apartheid in the 1950s.

The walls of the restaurant are adorned with photos of other like-minded Soweto musicians past and present, including Gideon Nxumalo, Miriam Makeba, Abigail Kubeka and Brenda Fassie.

Nor has style been overlooked in a bid to evoke the early years of the struggle. The pretty round patterns on the corridor walls are based on traditional African "rondavel" huts, while in my room there's a restored 1950s gramophone and the bed pillow slips are made from recycled vintage maize sacks.

Mandela nods at me from a photo above my bed and, as Sangweni-Siddo tells me, his stay at the hotel during a recent African National Congress annual conference has become legendary.

"We wanted him to stay in the presidential suite but as it is located at the end of the hall, his minders told us it was too strenuous for him - they told us he had already done one long walk to freedom!" she says.

After wolfing down the Jazz Maniacs' take on the traditional working-class Sowetan lunch of steak, "paap and gravy" (maize meal with mild salsa; it's tasty but slightly stodgy), I head out on the townships.

What started in the 1950s as a forced movement of Johannesburg's cheap labour to the south of the city (it is an acronym for "SOuth WEstern TOwnships"), Soweto now has 1.3 million inhabitants living in everything from nouveau-riche McMansions to rusting tin shacks scattered across 49 suburbs on the high, dry veldt.

Most visitors concentrate on Vilakazi Street, home to Nelson Mandela's old house (now a museum), former Archbishop Desmond Tutu's residence and the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum, dedicated to as many as 400 Orlando high school students shot dead on June 16, 1976, after protesting against the use of Afrikaans as the language of instruction in Soweto's schools. Hector Pieterson, 13, was the first to die.

For me, though, what makes Soweto unique is its residents: come here expecting to be mugged and you're in for a humbling experience. In the shadow of Orlando Towers, an old power station as curvaceous as the nuclear power plant where Homer Simpson works, I spend my afternoon playing street soccer with local kids and chatting with their parents.

In four hours I am invited into no less than three homes. In one, I ask the owner, "Sunny Boy", what has changed since he first moved here in 1990. "Paved roads, better electricity, home ownership and foreign beer," he tells me fondly.

It's early evening when I return to the Soweto Hotel and a blood-orange full moon hangs over the township, burning through the winter smog of a million cooking fires.

Kids in gangster get-ups play R&B through their mobile phones but the music is drowned out by legions of minivans spruiking their service with a deafening array of toots.

It's not as pleasant on the ear as the singing that accompanied my arrival to the Soweto Hotel, but with an estimated 50,000 such minivans in the township, it is undoubtedly the most suitable soundtrack to Soweto.

The writer travelled courtesy of Singapore Airlines and South African Tourism.

Sydney Morning Herald