Monday, June 19, 2006


Soweto seeks its place in the sun.
By Peter Biles BBC Southern Africa correspondent.

Vilakazi Street in the Soweto suburb of Orlando West is the only street in the world where two Nobel Peace Prize winners have lived: former President Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

The Mandela Museum draws crowds of tourists every dayThe tiny red brick home that once belonged to Mr Mandela is now of one of Soweto's big attractions, where the tour buses begin rolling up from 0930. The museum's administrator, Bernadette Komane, says the tourists are often very emotional. "They are touched by the history of Mandela's house and Soweto. They often cry a lot. "Previously, people were afraid to come and visit Soweto, but now a lot of people are coming here," Ms Komane adds. "It shows they're more confident. They can see Soweto is not as bad as it sometimes appears on TV."

However, there is a mixed response from the tourists when they are asked whether they would spend a night at Soweto's new hotel or at one of the many bed and breakfast guesthouses that are opening. "I hear it's very safe and yes, I would certainly stay here", says Janice Hoffman from Boston in the US. But Matt Russo from New York is hesitant. "I'd have to think about it. I'm not sure, because it's probably dangerous walking in the streets. That may not be such a good idea at this time".

Some reassurance comes from McMillan Topisi who is involved in a private tourism protection unit close to the Mandela Museum and the Hector Peterson Memorial. A four-star hotel and conference centre will make visitors stay longer. "We're working with the police in monitoring crime. We have guys stationed here in Orlando West to look after the tourists, and everything is cool", he insists. Hapiloe Sello, the Marketing Manager of Johannesburg Tourism Company, hopes that in future, many more tourists will come to Soweto, stay longer, and gain a better understanding of South Africa's most famous township. "On average, tourists spend about three hours in Soweto. The only problem is that it minimises the expenditure levels," she says. "So we're trying to stimulate a demand for people to sleep over, spend a couple of days in Soweto, and enjoy the entire area."

The headquarters of the Soweto Tourism Information Centre are on Walter Sisulu Square in the suburb of Kliptown: the place where anti-apartheid groups signed the famous Freedom Charter in 1955. Walter Sisulu, for whom the square is named, was a South African liberation leader who once wrote that the history of South Africa cannot be understood outside the history of Soweto.

Bernadette says tourists are more confident about coming to SowetoHapiloe Sello says Soweto's significance has as much to do with its present as with its past. "Soweto has played a pivotal role in the political developments in South Africa," she says. "But there's also another side to Soweto. There's a vision, there's growth, and there is the potential to create a booming twin city to Johannesburg." Behind the line of street traders and hawkers on Walter Sisulu Square, a new four-star hotel and shopping complex are now under construction.

New shops are part of plan to create jobs in SowetoThe hope is that the new shopping malls, the hotel and the growth of tourism will all bring desperately needed jobs to Soweto. The township, which has traditionally been a pool of labour for Johannesburg, wants to become more than just a dormitory town. Few white South Africans ever venture into black townships, and Ms Sello has the job of changing public perceptions of Soweto as a place of crime and violence. "Our biggest challenge is encouraging domestic tourism and getting other races to come here. They need to appreciate Soweto for what it is today: fun, vibe, and soul."


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