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Soweto

Soweto is an acronym for South West Township, a description that hardly does justice to the sprawling city of up to five million people that is Johannesburg's dark twin. It is something of a metaphor for South Africa where, disconcertingly, two parallel worlds and economies exist together as if Los Angeles and Lagos found themselves conjoined. We went bicycling round it.

For anyone who has lived in the 20th century Soweto is synonymous with violence and deprivation. Who could forget the daily pictures on television screens of the police gunning down schoolchildren or the appalling black on black civil war fought out between Inkata and the ANC with their 'necklaces' - tyres filled with petrol and hung flaming around the victim's necks? We had visited Soweto briefly before, exactly twenty years ago, and it was then a real Hobbsian nightmare with gangs of unemployed single men, forcibly separated from their families, housed in hostels with no restraint from a hierarchy of society or police, running wild at night to rape at will. It is difficult to shake off these associations and it was with some trepidation that we drove into Soweto to find our bicycle tour.

Poor it certainly is, but a disconcerting mix of tin shacks within a few hundred yards of middle class well-built houses, surrounded by walls for the most part, but with none of the razor-wire and electric-fences of the paranoid affluent suburbs of Johannesburg. It is almost entirely single story which gives it a less threatening mien than the tenement blocks of other cities. Life is lived in the open and every street has a football game amongst children who are keen at every opportunity to high-five you and shout a smiling hello. It is hilly and surrounded by the spoil-heaps of the gold mines that spawned it.

The tour was in and around Orlando West, not exactly the centre of a city that does not really have such a thing, but the spiritual heart where Mandela once lived and Desmond Tutu still does. It started with a dip in the deep end as we crossed the road into the former Inkata heartland of Zone 1 and into a shocking slum of corrugated shacks and piles of rubbish picked over by rats. We stopped by a shebeen - a pub of sorts with no windows - and went in for a drink. In former times these were illegal and everyone had with them a bible so that all a police raid found was a prayer meeting. We sat, in the gloom, on a bench with the regulars who were drinking the local beer that comes in carton rather than a bottle or tin and sells at about 25p a pint. It tastes like a malty home brew. We were welcomed with smiles and jokes as the loving cup was passed round. We all relaxed.

From then on former associations melted away. Threatening groups of men waved and smiled as we passed. Wild drunks would shake us by the hand and cars would wave us through at intersections. We were liberated from our fear and it was exhilarating. We had arrived with the burden of association and only saw danger. We drove away seeing people coping with poverty and deprivation with admiration - and gratitude for the luck of our own lives.

Everyone should do it - certainly the denizens of the other South Africa. Fear is always corrosive and without it you are liberated to see people differently.
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