Passion Points: Learning
If my time in a place is limited, what I want is something I can’t do or see anywhere else but there. So for my culture fix, a tour of the sprawling, storied township of Soweto seemed like the best bet—if nothing more than for the sheer, mind-boggling vastness of it. Though the official census of 2001 put the population at less than a million, that number now is closer to two million, about 40 percent of whom are unemployed. Yet the notion that that it’s all one big slum is wrong. There is a big new shopping mall, a highly-respected teaching hospital, and a thriving arts community. The township comprises some 36 (yes 36) suburbs made up of dwellings that range from stucco “mansions” to cardboard-and-tin lean-to’s, euphemistically referred to as “informal settlements.”
Nelson Mandela himself had a house here, and the church where the heart-wrenching Truth and Reconciliation Hearings were held still has regular weekly services. Begun in the early 20th century to accommodate the growing number of migrants who came to work in the gold and diamond mines, Soweto came to the world’s attention in 1976 during the Soweto Uprising, which grew out of student protests against laws requiring them to be taught in Afrikaans instead of English. And while the township continued to be a hotspot of anti-apartheid activism through the early 1990s, Soweto today is considered quite safe. Because Soweto has relatively few foreigners, the violence that has lately racked the city has been focused in areas where many immigrant workers have settled, such as Alexandra and Orlando.
Our private guide, Tonia Neame, was just the right combination of talk and silence—important to an inquisitive but weary traveler—and her knowledge was thorough. She accompanies individuals and groups not only in the city but also in the bush, specializing in elephants and elephant lore.
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