The first thing I notice when I pull up alongside Freedom Square in Kliptown, Soweto, is the vibrant cacophony of the market-place that almost swallows up the hotel.
The architecture, in fact, is so naturally adapted to the local setting that it is almost impossible to imagine that a four-star hotel, with two majestic presidential suites, is hidden somewhere within the hustle and bustle of informal stalls selling all sorts of goodies, from impepho, a herb used in rituals, to second-hand clothing.
But then an out-of-place-looking, grey-suited man, standing regally near a narrow entrance with the South African flag as his backdrop, is a dead giveaway.
I am immediately directed to a parking area across the road, where I park before taking a short walk to the reception to check in. So begins my mission to see if I can have a meaningful tourist experience in my own backyard.
I am soon ushered up to my first-floor double-deluxe room, one of the hotel’s 48 rooms, and that’s where sentimental childhood memories are, unexpectedly, conjured. On the edge of my bed I notice a little shawl resembling the one my mother used to carry me on her back, the same pattern of the cloth my great-grandmother occasionally threw over her shoulders.
The room is quaint. There are elements that recreate a 1950s township: pillows resembling mealie-meal bags and a famous picture of Nelson Mandela that keeps watch over a modern headboard.
A step to my right is a desk with all the usual coffee, tea and sugar. Near the desk is a sliding door that opens on to a balcony overlooking the eternal flame on the Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication.
I freshen up and head back downstairs. I ask reception to confirm my booking for the next morning to go on a bike tour of this historic site, where the Freedom Charter was signed in 1955.
While I wait for confirmation I quickly check my emails at a small business centre.
Next door there’s a crowd enjoying pre-dinner drinks at the Rusty Bar, which — in keeping with the hotel’s theme — is named after struggle stalwart Lionel “Rusty” Bernstein.
A while later I’m in the Jazz Maniacs Restaurant, eyeing a collection of black-and-white pictures of musicians from the golden era of the 1950s and 1960s.
I note the familiar greats: Miriam Makeba, Letta Mbulu and Caiphus Semenya, but some are unknown to me. I wish the hotel had provided captions for the pictures.
I grab the menu and opt for a basic Greek salad for a starter. For my main meal (as the waitress tells me later), I have Mandela’s favourite curry. I discover that the late minister Dullah Omar’s wife, Farida, used to prepare this dish for Madiba. It is aptly named Farida Omar’s chicken curry.
The food proves to be good and, satisfied, I hit the sack early in anticipation of the next day’s adventure.
I have a traditional breakfast before heading out. Near the entrance to the hotel there is a line of bicycles and a young and fit-looking tour guide is eagerly awaiting my arrival.
I sign an indemnity form and put on my helmet. But there is one final issue — what, I ask, are the fitness levels needed to undertake the tour? “It’s mostly flat,” says my tour guide, Ntokozo Dube.
He encourages me to test my bicycle before commencing his briefing and, like an excited kid, I go around in small circles before saying: “All good — let’s do this.”
We are joined by the newspaper’s photographer and Dube explains the route and gives us a brief history of Kliptown, emphasising its significance in the country.
We cycle up a small path with the hustle and bustle of the township market to our right. To our left is the Kliptown Community Centre, recently used as the venue to interview proposed judges for the Constitutional Court.
Our first stop is at the far end of the square and Dube points out a row of 10 sculptures made out of stone, which he says were created by local artists.
Dube tells us each statue is a symbol of the 10 declarations that make up the Freedom Charter.
We cycle to the first tower in the square. Inside there is a sculpture, resembling a pie cut into 10 slices. A closer look shows that each slice contains one of the 10 declarations of the Freedom Charter.
At the centre of the installation is the eternal flame of freedom, which, Dube explains, is lit only once a year.
Dube says the tower was designed to be inviting, open and transparent, with multiple entrances, signifying the various parts of South Africa from which delegates had to travel to get to the square to sign the Freedom Charter.
Dube points out that one of the entrances marks a direct pathway to Vilakazi Road, where Nelson Mandela’s former house still stands.
The other end points towards the famous Union Road and leads to the house of another great South African — artist Gerard Sekoto, who died in exile in France in 1993.
The second tower, I later find out, is made of corrugated iron and symbolises the plight of ordinary South Africans who still live in poverty.
At Sekoto’s former house I see a resident, a coloured woman is sweeping outside, a reminder that Kliptown has been and still is a cultural melting pot.
The bike tour takes us across railway lines into an informal settlement across the road. Here I meet and chat to young people belonging to a developmental organisation that is sponsored by members of the National Basketball Association.
The bike tour takes three hours. Along the way I meet a friendly local “leader” who worked on the set of Hollywood blockbuster District 9 and a sweet granny who offers me a warm vetkoek.
I can’t help thinking that such a tour of Kliptown is an authentic South African experience — even for this boy from the streets of Orlando East.
- The Soweto Hotel on Freedom Square’s physical address: corner Union Avenue and Main Road, Kliptown, Soweto. A 45-minute drive from OR Tambo and 30 minutes from Sandton City.
- Midweek rate: R1082 single and R1195 double (including breakfast).
- Weekend rate: R978 single and R1093 double (including breakfast).
- Daily activities:
walking and bicycle tours of Kliptown;
power swinging from the Orlando water towers.
- Monthly events: jazz sessions on the last Sunday of every month (from January to August); jazz and braai on the stoep (last Sunday of every month, from September to December); Phuza Thursday — the New Friday (on the last Thursday of every month).
- Conference and meeting facilities available for up to 60 people