We are on the road to Phelamanga*
Beneath a copper sky
It was an inauspicious start to the day, my last in South Africa. The 8:00 am pickup was delayed until 8:30; not a problem, more relaxing for breakfast. Out in front of the hotel promptly, I began pacing in the sun as each minute ticked past the allotted time, inching ever closer to 9:00. I was in the midst of composing a text when the vehicle arrived to park in front of the gate. The driver popped out of the Corolla; tall, sporting a fedora, he waved me over, offering a seat, front or back, whatever my preference because I would be the lone tourist, unexpectedly, for the Apartheid Museum and Soweto tour.
We exchanged greetings and engaged in some small talk. Audrey then began talking about the day, confessing he was not certain the Apartheid Museum would be open. I was puzzled, thinking, as the guide, he would have that information at his finger tips. No worries. Yet.
Audrey started explaining about buildings within our sights, providing some history to Johannesburg, pointing out attractions as we motored through the city in the direction of the museum. The parking lot was empty, a lone security guard lingering outside the entrance doors. Maybe we were early.
Nope. Audrey was informed the museum was closed Mondays and Tuesdays at this time of the year.
“I guess we can substitute another venue. I had seen a number of sights suggested by Trip Advisor. Perhaps we could explore some of those instead.”
“Okay. Was there anything you wanted to see?” Audrey asked, not offering up any suggestions.
I dug out my smart phone and began a Google search of sights in Johannesburg. The only one of interest not already included (presumably) was a place called Constitution Hill.
“What do you think?”
“Okay. We can do that. I will drive to Soweto. After we will stop at Constitution Hill.”
Back onto the road, heading for the highway, we continued, the remainder of this half-day tour now in question, at least in my mind. The descriptions started up again, pointing to a modern, enclosed stadium built to support the World Cup several years ago, allowing 3,000 fans. When questioned, he changed to 30,000 which on the ride back ratcheted up to 90,000.
In the distance, we caught a glimpse of Constitution Hill. Audrey’s tone changed. His statements emphatic. “The courts were built on the site of a prison where the people were treated like animals. No, they were treated worse than animals.”
The Hector Pieterson Memorial would be our first stop in Soweto. The accompanying museum was closed. Audrey began describing the 1976 events which led to its construction.
Without hesitation, he spoke with reverence of the protest for equality in education, how the site was named after the young boy in the picture, one of several hundred who died that day when troops opened fire on the crowd. The running water represented the tears, flowing over the stones which were the only weapons of the people, the pillars depicting the lives lost, the spaces in between for the unidentified victims.
Back into the car we headed for the stacks, now an iconic symbol of the township. Built by the people of Soweto, within its confines, providing electricity for other parts. Soweto itself would remain dark, a hint of disgust in Audrey’s voice.
On to Vilakazi Street, home of two Nobel Peace Prize winners, Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela. With equal pride, I recalled watching the release of Mandela from prison. Audrey was too young to remember the day but emphasized its importance.
Leaving Soweto Township, we engaged in conversation about class and wealth; Audrey began identifying areas according to their income status, placing himself as middle. The towers of Constitution Hill were in our view again, so Audrey repeated some of his earlier history lessons, ending with an indignant, “Prisoners were treated worse than animals.”
The list of sites to visit understates the significance and impact of Constitution Hill. A trifle unassuming when we arrived, the horror of South Africa’s past and the hope for it’s future are encompassed in a recreation of the old and the construction of the new.
The notorious prison stripped the dignity of its captives with open lavatories adjacent to the eating quarters, frequent use of isolation cells without light and blankets, food rationed according to your race – white, coloured or black. Audrey examined the exhibit with the interest of a tourist, absorbing the material, listening intently to video explanations, ensuring I did not overlook the salient pieces.
The judicial chambers of the Constitutional Court were built with the bricks of the holding towers to constantly remind the judges of the grounds surrounding them, of the ghosts which haunt South Africa’s history. The atrium outside displayed the art of apartheid and the vision of reconciliation.
Walking to Mandela’s cell, in the old fort portion of the complex, Audrey repeated for the third time, “people were treated worse than animals” with a conviction emboldened by the displays. If his description of most aspects of Johannesburg sounded learned and static, Audrey’s portrayal of black lives under Apartheid emanated from emotions deep within.
Time was up, the tour was over, Audrey had more customers for the afternoon. He drove me back to the hotel, hoping it met my expectations and apologized for the museum mix up.
The accidental stop, Constitution Hill, arose as the most important visit on my very brief stay in South Africa.
Scatterlings and fugitives
Hooded eyes and weary brows
Seek refuge in the night
They are the scatterlings of Africa
*the end of lies, where truth begins
3 thoughts on “Scatterlings of Africa”
Nice post Henry. Sometimes, going off the beaten track unexpectedly turns out to be the right path.
It is a pity you were not able to see more of the natural beauty and the positive aspects of this country where people of all races are working together towards a sustainable future, albeit in the face of the prevailing political conditions.
I am expecting a return trip in February 2023 assuming the project proceeds according to plan. Should that trip happen, the visit will be extended to take in the natural beauty everyone talks about. From my perspective, a healthy remembrance of the history is a step to a better future. I applaud this effort of reconciliation and there are plenty of signs people are working together, albeit with the inevitable bumps along the road. Thanks for reading and responding.
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