From everything we have read about Joburg, it sounded like a war zone. All of the tour books listed the many dangers in the city And warned don’t wear jewelry, never take your camera out, half of the city is totally off-limits, never go out at night. Car jacking is epidemic, if anyone approaches your car and you feel threatened, you can legally run a red light. Could this all really be true, we wondered; could it be that bad?
Of all the areas of Joburg, Soweto has the most dubious reputation. Soweto is short for SouthWest Townships and was essentially a camp where blacks were segregated in Apartheid. Now, between 1.5 to 3 million live in Soweto and its reputation has not changed much. It’s a maze of corrugated tin shacks and tiny houses with a reputation for violent crime and poverty, however over the past decade there has been a rise in the black middle class here. We had read that over the past few years guided tours started in Soweto and have become popular; not only that, but night tours have started visiting shabeens, (local bars). During apartheid these were illegal; shabeens were essentially speakeasies serving a home brew beer made of maize. Helen and I consider ourselves connoisseurs of dive bars and so and the idea of a shabeen tour at night intrigued us. We heard back late that afternoon from the tour company, Imbizo, by email; we did not have much info other than it was from 6.30 to 11pm and they would pick us up at the hotel.
So we pulled into our small boutique hotel in Joburg; through the fortress-like gates, there was a Rolls in the courtyard and the staff met us with a glass of sherry. The room had a walk-in closet and the bathroom was bigger than our living room at home. It was over the top, kind of embarrassing in a way, not really our thing, but you can’t complain! Helen had got a great deal for the night but we had no idea that lodging, food and drink are about half the price compared to the states, so it was completely excessive.
At 6.30 we got a call from the front desk; in a questioning voice the woman said, “there is a driver here to pick you up?”. We walked into the courtyard and two kids in their twenties were standing in front of a red VW Gti from the mid-eighties. We introduced ourselves and hopped into the VW to the wide-eyed amazement of the hotel staff.
We instantly hit it off with our guides, Moyo and Sumi, who later said they were worried when they pulled into the hotel that we would be stiff, and were happy to see us come out in t-shirts and jeans. We asked how the tour worked, “are we meeting other people? “, “No just you two, it’s a private tour, we will fit right in with us and this car”. That sounded great to us.
We stopped for a quick bite and a beer at a popular spot on Vilakazi Street and we chatted about the neighborhood; both Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela have houses on the street; only street in the world to boost two nobel peace prize winners. According to Moyo, there is not a lot of crime in Soweto; not a lot to steal, the robbers go to the more affluent areas; the Robin Hood idea, an ‘informal redistribution of wealth’.
We next moved to a shabeen up the street; The Shack’, Built mostly with corrugated tin and two by fours for support. The bar was a large window with steel bars, which the bartender handed beer through. The furniture was a random assortment of plastic cars old car seats and a couch made from an old bed-frame.
Moyo knew a few people who invited us over to drink with them, but first they had to find us some crates to sit on. I sat next to a slightly inebriated fellow. I could only understand about half of what he said; but luckily this worked out because he kept on repeating himself….drunk. He was teaching me curse words in his tribal tongue until the conversation moved to a car maneuver popular in the township: spinning, which is donuts where I come from. Essentially this is driving in circles as fast as you can with the wheels spinning; I was quite good at this in my youth, and so told him “I can out-spin you any day”. He stood up, pulled out his car keys and said “let’s go right now”. Luckily Helen saved me with a decisive “You are not getting onto a car with him, and You, (pointing at my new friend) you should sit down”. Which, wisely, he did.
The next stop was a open-air club next to a old abandoned coal power plant. There was a DJ and accompanying drummers. Everyone in the place was dancing, so we ordered some beers and joined in. I am the epitome of a white man who can’t dance; no rhythm, off beat, stiff, with moves from the eighties. Not only was Moyo, Sumi and Helen making fun of me, but complete strangers were ribbing me. After a few beers I didn’t care, it is more embarrassing for Helen! Anyway, it was all in good fun and we had a great time.
We pulled up to the hotel, well after 1am! Tour was only supposed to last until eleven, so we offered our two friends some more money but they refused, saying “we should pay you – we had a great time”.
We gave them a healthy tip and hugged them goodbye. They had mentioned earlier that the people of Soweto were welcoming to visitors that made the effort to visit the neighborhood. That’s exactly what we found; everyone was great and interested in ‘the foreigners’ and we felt totally at ease. In fact, totally the opposite we felt in Joburg. Don’t believe the hype!