Posted by Jemele Hill
SOWETO, South Africa -- No matter what happens over the next month, my tour through Soweto and downtown Johannesburg on Thursday is going to be marked as one of my most memorable days in South Africa.
I visited the Carlton Centre, a 50-story skyscraper and mall in downtown Joburg. A security guard asked me where I was from, and after I told him I lived in a city named Orlando in the United States, he excitedly asked me how close I lived to Whitney Houston's house. I suppose this is like when South Africans visit the U.S. and we ask them whether they go bar-hopping with Nelson Mandela. Of course, it could have been worse. He could have asked me if I was Whitney Houston.
Also in the Carlton Centre, there was an athletic store -- something akin to a Foot Locker -- where the window display featured the jerseys of J.J. Stokes, Dwyane Wade and Reggie White. Hmm, now which one of those doesn't belong?
My tour guides then took me and 12 others to Soweto, where things took a more serious tone. Soweto is South Africa's Montgomery, Ala., which many consider to be the birthplace of the U.S. civil rights movement since it's where Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a boarding white passenger.
Likewise, one of the most historic days in Africa took place in Soweto on June 16, 1976. That was the day of the infamous Soweto uprisings, when police opened fire on student protestors, including 12-year-old Hector Pieterson, who would become the symbol of oppression. No trip to Soweto is complete without a stop at the Hector Pieterson Museum, which provides an excellent layout of the history of apartheid. Outside the museum is a touching memorial that features the iconic photo of a bloodied and dying Pieterson being carried by another child.
From the museum we went to Vilakazi Street, the only street in the world where two Nobel Peace Prize winners were once residents -- Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Mandela's house has been turned into a shrine, otherwise known as a tourist trap. Of course, it's worth seeing, but when I saw the Mandela restaurant across from his old home and the vendors selling everything from Mandela posters to Mandela skull caps (seriously), it reminded me of that "Boondocks" episode when Martin Luther King Jr. came out of a coma after 32 years and was saddened by the fact that his likeness was on McDonald's value meals and was being used to promote parties. I'm not knocking the hustle, especially since in the U.S., you can buy custom-made, Barack Obama Nike Air Force Ones.
Anyway, Soweto, like many urban cities in America, is equal parts success and struggle. While it's important to remember that South Africa has been without apartheid for only 16 years, I couldn't help but observe that the American version of haves versus have-nots is almost laughable compared to the differing levels of poverty I saw on the Soweto streets.
A street that's barely wider than the average American driveway separates the middle class from the impoverished in Soweto. The poverty-stricken live in shacks smaller than most of our garages and sell fruit, potato chips and candy on dirt-covered streets, and neighborhood kids try to entertain visitors like me with songs, dances and conversation, in hopes we'll spare a few rand, the South African currency. You can see the endless rows of squatter camps from a Soweto home that's owned by former South African first lady Winnie Mandela. Progress has occurred, but the struggle is still nipping at Soweto's heels.
I had many sobering thoughts in Soweto, but something that will linger is a light-hearted conversation I had with a friendly man at the Pieterson memorial.
He told me he'd give 25 cows to marry me if he had them, which ranks in the top five of the best compliments I've received from any man because a single cow can cost as much as $1,500.
I'll tell that to the next American man who thinks he's doing something by buying me a martini.
Jemele Hill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.