The Africa Journals
The Street of lions
It was the opposite of grand, but it was my first true home of my own and I was mightily proud. A man is not a man until he has a house of his own.—Nelson Mandela, The Long Walk to Freedom
So here I am on the most famous street in Soweto, if not all of South Africa, and I do not yet understand its significance. Nothing had prepared me for this--nothing I’d read, nothing in the trip’s itinerary, nothing Brian or our local guide Ngugi said.
Vilakazi Street is bustling and vibrant with people and businesses and sidewalk vendors. Most of the nearby houses are behind solid walls, but we can see they are neatly tended and appear to be mostly middle-class family homes.
When local guide Ngugi casually waves his arm and tells us we’re standing next to Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s house, I’m floored.
We walk past a sidewalk bazaar and into a restaurant called Sakhumzi. Apparently it’s famous, too, for both locals and tourists. In business since 1895, Sakhumzi was once a shebeen, which are quite like a speakeasy in the U.S. As the shebeens were usually in private homes, many people living in Soweto under apartheid preferred drinking in shebeens rather than in the dismal, concrete, government-owned beer halls. They were also an excellent source of income for the impoverished people in the ghetto.
A buffet and several tables are reserved for us in a large dining room.
The food is delicious, especially the steamed bread.* Dense and slightly sweet, it calls for seconds.
|Chicken, squash, beef sausage, cole slaw, curried pasta, steamed bread, mashed potatoes, and maize and beans. Had to try a bit of everything.|
I’m sitting against a wall and have a view of dancers in the adjoining outdoor establishment.
The restaurant has filled to capacity, inside and out. I wander around, pass the kitchen on the way to the restroom, and stop for a photo. All the women in the kitchen smile and wave, and mug for the camera.
Then I find the real African buffet. I see dishes like the ones we had, but also a pan of tripe, obviously not something we Americans would have gobbled down, nor was it offered.
We leave the restaurant, cross the street, and walk up the busy sidewalk. We pass vendors, street performers, and people taking photos. It’s a glorious, sunny day on Vilakazi Street.
Just a couple blocks from Archbishop Tutu’s home, we come to a barred fence and then a very modern portal. This is the most renowned address in Orlando West, Soweto: 8115 Vilakazi, the former home of Nelson Mandela, where he lived when first married in 1946, and which he called home until the 1990s.
This is the fame of Vilakazi Street, the only place on the planet that was home to two Noble Peace Prize winners.
Mandela was unable to spend much time there as he was often on the run for his political activities, or in prison.
Inside the gate is a modest home of red brick, called a “matchbox” house, identical to hundreds of others built by the apartheid government.
Inside, now a museum, the home is even more humble.
Bookcases line the walls in one room, filled with photos and awards, but the centerpiece of the room unquestionably is the dark red sofa chair under a window at one end. This is where Mandela sat when he greeted leaders and dignitaries from around the world.
Outside in a small courtyard, Ngugi speaks of Mandela and points out the bullet holes in the exterior walls and the areas charred by Molotov cocktails. They are a sobering reminder of the dangers inherent in opposing apartheid and the sacrifices so many made in the cause.
|Ngugi speaking of Mandela.|
|Black charring from Molotov cocktails.|
We leave the Mandela House and drive two blocks up Vilakazi and run into more history. On this block, at this corner, because of what a group of black schoolchildren did, the evil of apartheid was knocked to its knees, but not until much blood was shed.