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Gold Mines, Trash and Memories: Soweto’s Urban Hikes

 

Soweto is full of gritty cityscapes and alleyways that are reminiscent of its history as one of the battlefields of apartheid.

However, there is also a softer, more folksy side to the sprawling city of Johannesburg, which local entrepreneurs portray to curious tourists.

Every Sunday morning, Masike Lebele takes about 20 tourists for a walk through his childhood neighborhood, opening their eyes to a vista where the countryside, abandoned gold mines, trash and deeply rooted folk beliefs coexist.

“It was my playground,” said Lebele, a wiry 40-year-old wearing a leopard-print shirt and wide-brimmed hat.

“As a child, I was adventurous,” he said, his eyes were sharp and he smiled.

“We used to be little hunter-gatherers here,” he said, pointing to the dam of an abandoned gold mine. “We learned to swim here.”

The starting point of his walk is “shebin” – a local tavern, set up in a house that belonged to his grandmother.

A recent hike along a six and a half kilometer route started early in the morning.

For security purposes, the group was accompanied by a dozen friends.

Passers-by crossed a street littered with rubbish and old tires where fresh fruit and snack vendors had set up their stalls.

“This is where Soweto begins,” said Lufuno Machiza, the guide’s elegant partner, wearing futuristic glasses, oversized earrings and hot pink lipstick.

In the distance, the silhouettes of the skyscrapers of Johannesburg could be seen – another world.

Wasteland, dotted with reeds, descended to the stream.

“Sangomas” – the Zulu word for traditional healers – “consider this first part of the holy ground,” Masike said, asking the tourists to keep quiet.

– “The Untold Stories of Soweto” –

A naked man sat quietly in a stream, while six others in cassocks sang melodies. A little further on, three women wrapped in shawls lit colored candles that melted on the stone.

A scream broke the silence. “What is it?” asked the alarmed pedestrian.

“This is a man roaring, reaching out to his ancestors,” Matiza answered laconically, without slowing down her pace.

The path ran through a mountain of golden tailings, sometimes streaked with chemical blue.

More than a century of plundering the land for gold has left Soweto with a strange but compelling legacy.

Pollution from mine dumps is common, and erosion has created unstable compacted sand galleries that are impressive but crumbly.

“The gold is always there,” said Lebele, who said he was deeply attached to the seemingly desolate landscape.

At the exit from the ocher galleries was a plateau of yellow sand.

“Here we became masters of kung fu. We fought every group we faced,” recalled the tattooed Lebele.

From the top of the junkyard, there is a breathtaking view of Soweto, divided by streets into a grid of small houses.

“This is our home,” Matiza said.

As the cradle of apartheid, Soweto maintains a thriving tourism industry, offering tours of museums, show business and the street that was once home to two Nobel Prize winners, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.

But nearly 30 years after the advent of democracy, the town is plagued by ailments ranging from poverty and unemployment to substance abuse and crime.

Christo Welgemoed, 62, who lives just 11 kilometers from Soweto, said the hike broadened horizons.

“If I hadn’t heard about this hike at a local post, I would never have come here,” he told AFP.

“Usually we go to nature, to streams, mountains and so on, (but) it’s more of a cultural experience than usual.”

Noreen Wahome, 29, a Kenyan who lives in Johannesburg, said she came for the walk because of her love for “the untold stories of Soweto.”

Lebele said his trip to Soweto Ndofaya was booked weeks in advance.

“People just think that mine dumps are a dangerous place, but… they are places for fun and exploration,” he said.

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