Words and pictures by Khanyi Magubane
The people on Vilakazi Street in Soweto, south of Johannesburg, seem to walk with an air of grace, which tells you there’s something special about it. The vibrant, tourist-swarmed neighbourhood is the only one of its type in the world – home to two Nobel peace prize winners.
The first thing you see when you turn on to the street is the house in which Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu still lives with his wife Leah. Painted light grey and enclosed by high walls, there's no sign that a legend lives inside. Locals say that when he’s in back in town Tutu loves to walk about and freely mix with the community.
Tutu was honoured with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his efforts in fighting apartheid. His equally famous compatriot, former president Nelson Mandela, also has a lifelong history in Vilakazi Street.
Mandela, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, lived in Vilakazi Street from 1946 to 1961. He stayed in the redbrick five-roomed house with his first wife, Evelyn Mandela, until their divorce.
When he remarried, Mandela remained in the house with his second wife, Winnie Madikizela Mandela. The couple divorced in 1996, six years after Mandela was released from prison.
The house is now the Mandela Family Museum, and a South African heritage site. The museum is open to the public for tours on weekdays.
Inside, the house is decorated with photos of a young Mandela, his children, other African National Congress (ANC) stalwarts, and his ex-wives. Memorabilia include gifts he’s received from across the world, and honorary doctorates he’s received from international universities.
Tour guide Jane Monakwane explains that the structure has undergone serious revamping. "The house came under attack many times before Mandela went to prison. At that time, Mandela spent many nights on the kitchen floor, as it was safest. Bullets could not penetrate through the kitchen.
"Shortly before Mandela’s release, Winnie had the house renovated to welcome him back."
Inside the main bedroom are three pairs of shoes: a pair of size-nine army boots worn by Madikizela Mandela; a pair of hiking boots, the first pair of shoes Mandela wore as a free man, which were too small for him; as well as the shoes he wore in prison.
A block up from the Mandela family museum, on the corner of Moema and Vilakazi Street, is the intersection where Hector Peterson was killed by police. Peterson was the first victim of the June 16 1976 students’ uprising, a key event in the struggle against apartheid.
The image of the boy’s death, captured by photographer Sam Nzima, sent shock waves around the world. The Hector Peterson Museum was later built close to the site, where visitors are walked through the events of June 1976.
Vilakazi Street was named after Dr BW Vilakazi, one of South Africa’s earliest black intellectuals, poet and novelists, who wrote in a number of indigenous languages. Vilakazi’s main works include three novels and poetry collections Inkondlo Ka Zulu and Amal'eZulu. He was inspired by Dr John Langalibalele Dube, who was the founder of the Ohlange Institute and the first ANC president.
Vilakazi was the first black man to teach at the University of the Witwatersrand. Officially employed as a "language assistant", he was in fact a lecturer – the race laws of the day did not permit the technically white institution to call him a lecturer. While teaching at Wits, he obtained a PhD in literature. During his lifetime Vilakazi helped to develop the languages of isiZulu and siSwati in written form and helped develop the isiZulu dictionary.
Over the years, the tourist excursion to Vilakazi Street has been extended to include lunch at eateries established to cater for the many visitors who pass through. A popular restaurant in Vilakazi Street is Nambitha (meaning "to taste" in isiXhosa). Established in 1999 by entrepreneur Khulani Vilakazi, the restaurant has already been host to many famous visitors.
The Sakhumzi Restaurant, just down the road from Nambitha, is also a big attraction for tourists. It was started by Sakhumzi Maqubela, and boasts a wide variety of traditional meals sold at the venue, including a daily buffet, where visitors have a chance to sample the different types of South African dishes.
Johannesburg’s only community television station, Soweto TV, is also based on the street. The station broadcasts from a classroom at a local primary school. It’s here that young producers are taught to generate local content that will appeal to the community. Soweto TV reaches about 4-million viewers in the township’s largely low-income market.
A most recent development in Vilakazi Street was the addition of a health and beauty spa, Afro Nubian, opposite Nambitha . Here guests get to be treated to manicures, pedicures hot stone massages and makeovers, and are pampered thoroughly in the process.