Soweto Rising

Once A Hotbed Of Violence, South Africa's Soweto Has Become A Top Tourist Destination For Those Who Want To See Where The Anti-apartheid Movement Got Its Start.


ROSE MALINGE REMEMBERS emerging from her Soweto home in the late 1990s and watching scores of slow-moving tourist vans -- each loaded with curious foreigners who pressed their cameras against the windows. They smiled. They waved. They clicked.

But they didn't dare ask the drivers to stop.

"They would take all these photos, but they wouldn't talk to us," said Malinge, who knew why the visitors had chosen her area of the sprawling, black South African settlement for the snail's pace tour: It was Orlando West township, one of the most popular in Soweto (an acronym for South-Western Townships) because of its origins in the anti-apartheid movement.

In fact, her street, Bacela, intersected Vilakazi Street, the only neighborhood in the world to house two Nobel Peace Prize laureates -- Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela. You could see Tutu's residence from her front door; the latter's was about two blocks away.

Malinge also knew why tourists didn't bother to look around. Back then, most came to Soweto with heightened fears -- forewarned to exercise the strictest caution while traveling through an area known for its rows of shanty dwellings, heaps of pungent trash and crime so violent that some motorists refused to stop at traffic lights after dark.

And it didn't matter that her neighborhood was visibly middle class. Sometimes Malinge and her neighbors would smile, wave back at the tourists and beckon them to get out of their vans.

Nothing doing.

"The main thing is we just wanted them to get out of the car and mix with us and share stories with us," said Malinge. "We wanted them to know exactly who we are, and share some of our history and our culture."

Nowadays, you would never know such fears existed. Travel along the dusty roads of Orlando West, and you'll see empty tourist buses everywhere. The passengers can't get enough of the place. They huddle before groups of school-age street performers, browse roadside vendors' displays and sample local cuisine at posh restaurants.

Not only are they stopping for a spell, they're also staying overnight. In 2001, Malinge converted her home into a bed and breakfast, the Rose B&B, and she welcomes guests from all over the world - most from the United States.

"Now, you can see them out in Soweto throughout the night or going out for a walk in the hillside in the morning," she said.

Business boom

Long regarded as a hot spot among South Africans, Soweto has undergone a global image makeover - from a post-apartheid danger zone to one of the most popular destinations on the continent.

At the start of the decade, South African officials sought to capitalize on Soweto's rich history, commemorating several Orlando West-area sites where the struggle against apartheid was felt the deepest.

Then, the Soweto Tourist Association last year launched a "Get out of the Bus" program, encouraging visitors to "stop, eat, meet the locals, stay overnight and spend money."

As it highlighted many of Soweto's historic sites in travel brochures and Web sites, the tourist association encouraged residents in this job-starved area to start businesses that cater to tourist attractions.

The result: Five apartheid-related museums, 147 tourist-oriented businesses and 17 restaurants that draw an average of 3,400 visitors each day, making Soweto the nation's third-most visited place behind the oceanside city of Cape Town and Kruger National Park.

"The trend of the past is to have organized tours that treated the township like an urban jungle," said tourist association chairman Dumisani Ntshangase, who added that tourism is the fastest growing industry in Soweto, an urban complex of 4.3 million people.

"Now, we want [foreigners] to touch, feel and experience Soweto. We work with the locals to get them to understand the value of tourism," he added, "and that means that through the tourism business, we can create jobs and a sustainable livelihood that invariably reduces crime."

People who come for the tourist attractions will likely discover a vibrant, energetic, people-friendly venue that serves as the country's cultural pulse, setting trends in fashion, music, arts and food.

"There was a time when people thought, `You can't go into Soweto, you'll get killed.' But with the tourism, word has spread that it's not like that," said Paula Majola, owner of Ekhaya Guesthouse in Orlando West.

"Now, with so many Americans and Europeans visiting here," said Majola, "white South Africans, who in the past would have never come, became embarrassed, and now they're coming as well."

During apartheid, the only whites who came to Soweto were police, military or foreigners such as journalists who were granted temporary permits. Their presence often drew suspicion.

When the racial-separation policies ended with democratic elections in 1994, unlimited access was granted throughout the country, and scores of tourists came, eager to see where the struggle for South Africa's freedom began.

Tourist magnets

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