South Africa Dispatch series

Travel Weekly senior editor David Cogswell departed for South Africa on March 21 to begin an eight-day trip sponsored by South African Tourism. David will be exploring "Africa beyond the safari," particularly South Africa's cultural health and sociopolitical environment 13 years after the end of apartheid. He'll be filing on-site reports to Travel Weekly's Web site on a daily basis (Internet access permitting).

On my second full day in South Africa I learned more about apartheid and its nightmarish legacy than I had previously learned in my whole lifetime. The day's itinerary included Soweto, the Hector Pieterson Museum and the Apartheid Museum.

Soweto is a contraction for Southwestern Townships, the towns created by the apartheid government that came to power in 1948 for the black Africans who were moved out of Johannesburg en masse to be isolated from the white population.

When Soweto was first established, our guide, Joe Matsogo, told us, it lacked even minimal sanitation facilities. People pieced together whatever sorts of dwellings they could from scrap metal or any other available materials. The government built some single-sex hostels that provided minimal living facilities but in fact weren't much better than prisons or concentration camps. Today, much of Soweto is still pretty much a shantytown, but it also now includes some areas with strikingly beautiful homes. Joe drove us around the area looking at both the shanties and the handsome brick and stucco homes of the newly affluent.

After a short driving tour, we visited the Hector Pieterson Museum, which was named in honor of a 13-year-old boy who was fatally shot during an uprising against apartheid. The museum exhibits, including many historical video clips that played continuously on mounted monitors, offers a historical overview of the rise and fall of apartheid.

We limited our time there in order to save more time for the Apartheid Museum, which many consider the definitive exhibition of that history.

We had lunch at Wandie's, a famous soul food restaurant that used to be a "shebeen," a sort of speakeasy or underground nightclub where bootleg liquor was served when black Africans were prohibited by law from drinking alcohol. Wandie's maintains its funky, underground ambience, with low ceilings and exposed brick walls and arches. But these days it is distinguished by visits from celebrities on the order of Evander Holyfield and Richard Branson, whose dinner there is recalled in a photograph on the wall.

After lunch we stopped in for a short visit to the Soweto home of Nelson Mandela, a modest little dwelling that is, oddly enough, on the same street as the original home of another Nobel Prizewinner, Archbishop Desmond Tutu. We joined a procession of visitors who packed into Mandela's tiny house to see personal artifacts from his years in the house.

The highlight of the day (and one of my most powerful experiences in recent memory) was the visit to the Apartheid Museum. Its elaborate, detailed exhibit retraces the history of South Africa, beginning with the first people known to have lived in the area, the San people or Bushmen. It proceeds through the establishment of Dutch farm colonies and the discovery of gold in 1886, which led to the rapid influx of people from around the world that turned the mining camp into a thriving city in 10 years.

The discovery of gold and the need for cheap labor set the stage for the social struggles that were to follow for more than a century, until the repeal of apartheid laws, the release of Nelson Mandela from prison in 1994, the extension of voting rights to the entire population and the building of the new South African republic of today.

The experience was gripping and intense, condensing a century of suffering and turmoil into an afternoon.

We closed out the evening with dinner at the Back of the Moon restaurant, a flashy establishment named in honor of a famous nightclub in Sophiatown during its heyday. Located in a new theme park area adjacent to an opulent casino, it offered a stark contrast between the emerging prosperity of South Africa and its tormented past.

To contact reporter David Cogswell, send e-mail to [email protected].


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