/ 15 March 2023

My love/hate relationship with Soweto

000 1q213i
Tourist hub: Visitors on a bicycle tour along Vilakazi Street in Soweto. It’s hard for those who grew up in Joburg’s oldest township to leave.

It pains me to admit this but I have an uncomfortable relationship with ekasi lami. Those of you who’ve read my column before know that I’m one of those people who is really from Joburg in every sense; my parents are from here, grandparents and great-grandparents too. 

Like my siblings, I was born in Soweto and lived there for most of my life. While growing up in Soweto had its pitfalls, it’s also an unforgettable place to call home. But. 

While I’m incredibly proud of the delicious lemonade that my people have made out of the lemons of living in a township, I have become increasingly weary of our comfort with the hood. 

The reality is that a generation of people were moved from wherever they lived — maybe I should be more explicit here — actually I should say from where they chose to live, and forcibly moved to Soweto. 

This is not a story unique to Joburg — the same happened in District Six in Cape Town — but Soweto is my lived experience so that’s what I’m going to focus on. 

Created in the 1930s by the racist National Party, Soweto’s sole purpose was to separate black people from white people in Johannesburg. 

The integration was making the Afrikaans government and their prejudiced WASP counterparts quite nervous and the forced removals were executed. This meant that people of colour — because Noordgesig and other neighbourhoods that housed coloured people were close to Soweto too — were far from places of commerce, leisure and convenience. 

My childhood is scarred with memories of waking up at the crack of dawn to catch two taxis and a bus in order to make it to school on time. 

If one thing happened on the way to school — an accident, bad weather or a protest — you could find yourself so late for school that it would be hard to convince your teacher that you woke up at 4am. 

Those mornings were brutal — my mom was overworked and tired and had to commute to Hillbrow Hospital, while my dad was doing his best to also keep the family afloat. 

When I got older, I couldn’t believe how well the other side was living. My white colleagues have recollections of eating burgers at drive-ins, weekends away to Harties and spoke of beach houses in uMdloti. 

A stark contrast to the teargas, poverty and lack of facilities I was used to. Like many others, I didn’t know I was poor and growing up around dysfunction until I was out of ekasi. 

The realisation that we had it rough first broke my heart, then it made me angry and later that grew into resentment. The preference to remain in a space you’re used to was the thing to pledge allegiance to instead of one’s personal freedom to choose where to live. Why would you willingly choose to live in a cage? 

I’m not saying everyone should move out of the hood but it’s dangerous to glorify a place that our ancestors didn’t willingly choose to live in. 

Soweto is no longer the once-oppressive cage we were locked in. Vilakazi Street, Baragwanath Hospital and many malls around the hood are proof of Sowetans continuing to make lemonade out of lemons.

But it’s a place that was built with no trees, very little space and no consideration for the wellbeing of its residents. What I’m advocating for is not to shame people who want to leave ekasi when they eventually get enough cash to afford a place closer to work and other amenities. 

So often when people leave ekasi they’re labelled negatively and while I understand, it causes serious survivor’s remorse for those who choose to leave. 

My feeling is that those who want to stay in Soweto — like some of my hood’s legendary residents like the late Mama Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse — should do it with love because it’s their home, not because they are under duress. 

One of the things to love about it is the Miss Soweto pageant that was created in 1979. I’m 43 years old and the pageant is as old as I am. Over the past four decades, it has created some of the country’s biggest names in media, launching the careers of businesswomen and philanthropists Basetsane Kumalo, Lerato Kganyago and Augustine Masilela. 

Throughout the years, the pageant brought hope to young women who see it as a springboard for careers in whatever sphere they chose. 

This is why I was excited when Oupa Nkosi told me that he attended the pageant’s 43rd birthday and wanted to write about how it has evolved throughout the years. His story attests to the strength and resilience of the people of Soweto. 

That we can turn a bad situation into our advantage, that we can bring tourism to a place that was a mining dump meant to be a dump for black and brown people. 

I don’t know what the township will be in 100 years when I’m a fossil, but what I hope for is that ekasi lami will have a rapid transport system, with trees lining most streets. 

A place where young girls can walk around safely at night. 

But until then, let’s continue to make lemonade out of the lemons.