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Originally published Saturday, December 14, 2013 at 6:07 AM

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Amid Soweto’s tin shacks, a luxury hotel rises

The Soweto Hotel and Conference Center is decorated with images of the late Nelson Mandela and other anti-apartheid activists. But only a few yards off, a jammed slum is testament to work still do be done for South Africa to fulfill his mission.


The New York Times

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SOWETO, South Africa — A cool pitcher of ginger-infused water greets guests at the Soweto Hotel and Conference Center in the Kliptown section of this township, which grew over decades of racial oppression to segregate black workers from the rest of Johannesburg.

Now single rooms at the luxury hotel go for about $180 a night, or $250 for the presidential suite, and the complex attracts tourists, business people and conference attendees.

Behind the registration desk are imposing mosaic images of the late Nelson Mandela and his fellow anti-apartheid activists, Walter and Albertina Sisulu.

The hotel’s restaurant is called the Jazz Maniacs, a reference to the vanished black Johannesburg neighborhood of Sophiatown, which, in the 1940s and 1950s, produced Miriam Makeba and other renowned artists until it was dismantled by the apartheid government and its residents were moved to black townships.

“It was a happy town, and we hope to capture the spirit of those old days,” said Lydia Monyepao, a desk clerk.

Rooms run along a narrow 50-yard corridor — named the “Long Walk to Freedom,” a reference to the title of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography — with the presidential suite at the end.

Large black-and-white photographs from the anti-apartheid struggle, many featuring Mandela, overlook each bedroom. “Mandela will watch over you while you are sleeping,” Monyepao said of the former president.

The balconies peer across Walter Sisulu Square, the former open field where 3,000 of South Africa’s nonwhite leaders and 7,000 spectators — including Mandela, hiding from the apartheid government’s police atop a nearby drugstore — gathered in 1955 to proclaim the Freedom Charter, inaugurating the liberation movement that led, four decades later, to multiracial democracy.

In the memorial square, begun in 2003 and dedicated four years later, only a handful of township residents meandered along the tile promenade under a cloudless sky.

The memorial site is divided into an “old square,” built atop the field where the Freedom Charter was enacted, and a “new square,” where giant brick X’s, visible only from the sky, are surrounded by lines of acacia trees, meant to symbolize the long lines of black people who finally got the right to vote in 1994.

The conference center is dark. A few businesses occupy the long office building at the opposite side of the square from the hotel.

There is Koogan Foods (“King of Achaar,” an Indian pickle relish made of mango, lime and chilies) and the J.B. Lumo Gift Shop (“also instant messaging”). A long line of black residents waited to use the square’s only ATM.

Along a third side of the square are 10 concrete pillars topped with statues of working people, each pillar dedicated to one of the preambles of the Freedom Charter.

“The people shall govern” is emblazoned on one pillar. “The land shall be shared among those who work it,” reads another.

In the center of the square is a tower inside which an “eternal flame” resides. On a recent afternoon, it was not lighted.

A few women had set up stalls beneath the acacia trees, selling crafts and bags of oranges. Newspaper sheets and other debris blew across the open paths.

On the fourth side of the square, just beside the hotel entrance, is the Kliptown rail line, which connects the area to downtown Johannesburg, 15 miles to the northeast. And just beyond the tracks, not 30 yards from the hotel entrance, is a sprawling settlement of tin shacks and shanties.

Young people scamper across the tracks, or play around the open pools of reeking water. Older men and women rest in the shade of the tin and brick dwellings or walk along the narrow paths between the shanties.

“We are staying here because we don’t have an option,” said Beauty Kula, 42, who said she did piecework when she could get it.

She has lived in one of these shacks for 20 years, and, like much of the rest of the nation, praised Mandela, despite the shortcomings in her own living situation.

“Our heart is broken,” Phindi Mbolekwa, 37, said of Mandela’s Dec. 5 death as she cooked a pot of chicken. “He did everything for us.”

Her devotion to him remains unshaken even though she says there was still work to be done to fulfill his mission. She lives in a crammed tin shack with her husband, Moses Niewenhoudt, 43, who is unemployed and has encountered one empty government promise after another that they would get new housing.

“That is not Mandela’s responsibility,” Niewenhoudt said.

Rather, he and his wife chalk it up to failures of the governments that have succeeded Mandela.

“He did something for us — now we can go anywhere we want,” Mbolekwa said. “When we stay like this, stuck in one place, we feel like nothing is done.”

South Africa will choose a new government next year, and the campaigning has already begun in earnest.

What would the people of Kliptown like for their settlement? Running water, flushing toilets, reliable electricity. Do they expect to get them? Kula looked on sadly and said nothing.

She had never even been inside the nearby luxury hotel. The very idea shocked her.

“It is not for us,” Kula said. “It is for someone else.”



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