First night in Soweto

I’d been in transit for two days straight before I arrived in Soweto (thanks to the axial globalisation which means that the only way of connecting to Joburg from Santiago is via Madrid). With a couple of hitches, I managed to arrived at Dakola Bed & Breakfast and was offered a nice cup of Roibos tea by the every hospitable Ma Dolly. After a shower, then an hour to find a way of connecting to the 3G network from my laptop, I took a much anticipated nap.

I awoke around 6:30pm with a gnawing hunger. Ma Golli recommended an a la carte place around the corner. It turned out to be about half a kilometre away. I’d never walked around Soweto at night before. I was quite wary. There were lots of people wandering about — well more like dancing actually.

I expected to find a quiet tourist restaurant that is normally packed for a weekend lunch but pretty empty on a Sunday night when the tourists are home getting ready for the working week. But when I entered, I was hit by a wall of sound — a crowd of people talking and laughing. The placed was packed with a stylish and elegant mostly young black crowd. The decor was still plain, and no one was dressed up, but it had the feel of a happening place.

I went up to a couple of staff and asked meekly if they had a spare table. I tried to appear relaxed, but I felt very nervous as the only white person in this intense scene. There wasn’t a spare table, but there was a group with a table that could be detached. This made me feel doubly out of place.

I was attended to immediately, which I interpreted as a sign that they wanted me out as soon as possible. The menu had breakfast, lunch and dinner. Many of the dishes involved hake and chips, but there was a marinated chicken that came with a choice of pap, samp or rice. I chose pap — when in Soweto…

There was a couple on a table next to me. The man asked how I was, and then asked if I would like to join them. I felt it would be awkward to be eating my meal when they were without food, so I said I would be happy to when I had finished my meal.

The chicken was delicious and the pap was perfect for absorbing the spicy marinade. I spoke with the couple at odd times throughout and then joined them once the waiter had taken my plate away.

It turns out they both work for the telecommunications company MTN (Hello! The World). He has just spent six months in Iran, where we spoke highly of the strong leadership of their President. And he is about to head of for Nigeria, where he would be away for 18 months. His Xhosa girlfriend was very dubious about his ability to be faithful during this time. I realised that one of my roles in the conversation was as relationship counselor.

The Tswana man grew up in Soweto but now lives out near the airport. He made strong declarations about the importance of travel as a way of countering stereotypes based on race. He said it was important for make a world where children could do better than their parents, and he wanted his children to travel the world.

The women said that she was quite impressed to see a white man sitting alone in a restaurant like this, reading a book by Zakes Mda. He said that if his white workmates ever come to Soweto, they insist that he drive them and keep close watch over them. Clearly, ignorance is my privilege in this setting.

When I explained why I was in Soweto, the man says he has an artist friend who lives in Soweto and is closely connected with South America. He send him my mobile number and within minutes I am speaking with him on the phone and arranging to meet. My host says that he went to Cuba when he was young, part of the communist support for the black cause, and found it the best place in the world. He said he knew this from the conversation that he had with a taxi driver from the airport. ‘A conversation like that, when you talking person to person, like just like sex, man. It’s real.’ His girlfriend started to roll her eyes, then stopped half-way.

They were very keen to know what the ratio of black to white was in Australia. I spoke about the recent migration of Sudanese, but chose to avoid speaking about the racist feelings encouraged by the current Minister of Immigration.
Eventually, at the end of the evening, the man called for the bill. Despite my intense protestations, he insisted on paying for my meal. I said that the next time I saw a black person sitting on his own, I would invite him for company and pay for his meal. He responded, ‘Yes, that’s Ubuntu!’

A promising start. You wouldn’t expect anything else in South Africa, but you never know.

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