Gold mines, trash, and memories: urban treks in Soweto

Soweto is replete with urban landscapes and alleyways that evoke its history as a battleground for apartheid.

Yet the massive Johannesburg township also has a softer, more rural side, which local companies are promoting to curious tourists.

Every Sunday morning, Masike Lebele leads approximately twenty hikers through the neighborhood where he grew up, exposing them to a landscape where countryside, abandoned gold mines, rubbish, and deeply established folk beliefs coexist.

Lebele, a wiry 40-year-old man wearing a leopard-print blouse and a floppy cap, stated, “This was my playground.”

“I was an adventurous child,” he said with bright eyes and a grin.

“We were once small hunter-gatherers here,” he explained, pointing to a dam near a defunct gold mine. Here, we learnt to swim.

The beginning point of his tour is a “shebeen” – a local tavern established in his grandmother’s house.

Recent hiking on the six-and-a-half-kilometer (four-mile) trail began in the wee hours of the morning.

A dozen buddies accompanied the group for safety purposes.

Pedestrians traversed a street strewn with trash and worn-out tires, where fresh fruit and snack vendors had set up stalls.

“This is where Soweto begins,” said Lufuno Matidza, the partner of the guide, who was elegantly attired in futuristic glasses, huge earrings, and bright pink lipstick.

The silhouette of Johannesburg’s skyscrapers rose in the distance, representing another planet.

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A reed-covered wasteland dropped towards a brook.

“Sangomas,” a Zulu term for traditional healers, “consider this first section holy land,” added Masike, requesting that trekkers speak quietly.

A nude man reclined quietly in the stream, while six other individuals dressed in robes sung melodies. Three women wearing shawls had lit colored candles, which melted on a rock a short distance later.

There was a wail that disturbed the silence. “What is it?” inquired a concerned hiker.

Matidza said nonchalantly and without pausing her stride, “It’s a person roaring to the ancestors.”

Doug Mahugh’s image from Flickr.
The path wound its way through a mountain of gold-colored mine tailings with occasional blue chemical streaks.

More than a century of gold mining in Soweto has left behind a peculiar but intriguing legacy.

Pollution from mining dumps is frequent, and erosion has produced stunning but fragile passageways of compacted sand.

Lebele, who claimed to have a profound attachment to the apparently lonely area, stated, “Gold is always present here.”

At the end of the ochre galleries was a golden sand plateau.

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“This is where we became masters of kung fu. We attacked every group we encountered,” the tattooed Lebele recalled.

The heights of the dumped debris provide a breathtaking view of Soweto, which is separated into grids of modest homes by streets.

Matidza stated, “This is our home”

As the birthplace of apartheid, Soweto has a thriving tourism business, including tours of museums, shebeens, and the street where Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu formerly lived.

However, nearly thirty years after the introduction of democracy, the township remains afflicted by a variety of afflictions, including poverty, unemployment, substance misuse, and crime.

Christo Welgemoed, 62, who lives barely 11 kilometers (six miles) from Soweto, stated that the trip broadened his horizons.

“Had I not heard about this increase on a local post, I never would have visited,” he told AFP.

“We typically visit nature, streams, and mountains, but this experience is more cultural than usual.”

Outside the Hector Pieterson memorial museum in Orlando West, Soweto, is a photograph of a recently shot Hector Pieterson. Image via Flickr, taken by BK 14

Noreen Wahome, a 29-year-old Kenyan who resides in Johannesburg, stated that she participated in the walk due to her passion for the “untold stories of Soweto.”

Lebele stated that his Soweto Ndofaya Hike was scheduled weeks in advance.

“People mistakenly believe that mine dumps are dangerous, but they are actually fun and explorable places,” he remarked.


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