A rich cultural history

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Forsaking anything like croquet and desiring instead some lessons in South Africa’s rich, chequered history, I paid a visit to a couple of the city’s museums. The Apartheid Museum features an exhibition that celebrates the life of local Jo’burger, Nelson Mandela: Leader, Comrade, Negotiator, Prisoner, Statesman. Says Christopher Till, Director of the museum, “The exhibition attempts to breathe fresh life into a story that has been well told in countless books, documentaries and other exhibitions around the world.”

The beauty of the exhibition is that rather than solely examine Mandela’s strengths and greatness, it doesn’t shy away from his (self-acknowledged) weaknesses, allowing visitors to really see the human side to the man. In one corner of the museum stands the big red Mercedes given to Mandela as a gift from the auto brand, upon his release from prison. That he has given it back to Museum for display rather than whip around the streets of Jo’burg in it says volumes about the icon’s lack of material interests.

An interesting quirk about this museum is that upon entry, guests are given a ticket that is marked with the word ‘black’ or ‘white’ and are then encouraged to ‘see’ the passage of apartheid and its attempts – many successful – of resolution from the perspective of either or both.

Not far from the Apartheid Museum, on a quaint little street called Vilakazi in Orlando West, Soweto, is the Mandela Family Museum, where Nelson, ex-wife Winnie, and their kids all lived before the patriarch was imprisoned in 1961 and jailed for 27 years. The house is tiny and packed with fragments of the past: gifts to the activist couple from political associates around the world, and memorabilia of a domestic nature.

Mandela now lives in Houghton, a suburb several kilometres north of Johannesburg, with his third wife, Graca (widow of the late Mozambican president, Samora Machel). Winnie lives in the more affluent part of Orlando West, the wall of her home decorated in various flags of nations who provided supported during she and her ex-husband’s activist years. For the real estate curious, an average house in these quarters costs around 600,000 rand (about AUS$100,000) with property prices on the rise.

Johannesburg city, the capital of the Gauteng province, is not only the cultural and economic hub of South Africa, but all of Africa. It is the embodiment of a continent grappling with change from a heavily racist past into an uncertain future. But as new business and major social events have taken shape (eg: last year’s World Cup), Jo’burg and its people have been keen to sharpen the city’s image of late. The city now boasts countless establishments of fine dining, pristine shopping malls, and art galleries aplenty.

But you’ll still find much of the traditional South Africa at its heart. Figuratively, you don’t really need to venture into the grounds of a game reserve to get a taste of African ‘wild’ life. Jo’burg is fastly becoming the great African bazaar. Street hawkers advertise their wares on the sidewalks, selling anything from wooden tribal masks to counterfeit sneakers, fresh fruit to dreadlock hair styles.

Soweto, which may sound like an African name but is actually and acronym for ‘South Western Townships’, is the most populous black urban residential area in South Africa, with interracial mingling increasing by the year. The township, which is 20 kilometres out of Johannesburg, is a melting pot of South African culture where Afro-American influence runs deep but is adapted to local conditions. In their speech, dress and outlook, Sowetans exude a sense of cosmopolitan sophistication.

The township has spawned many political and social luminaries, including Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, both whom lived in the now famous Vilakazi Street in Orlando West. We paid a visit to the Hector Pieterson Memorial Museum that offers tourists a detailed account of the student uprisings in Soweto of 1976, including visuals and eye-witness testimonies. The museum is named in honour of Hector Pieterson, a young student shot dead by police during the uprisings which changed the course of history for South Africa.