Soweto's Vilakazi Street spruces up

SOWETO, South Africa — When the World Cup kicks off in June, all eyes will be on Soweto, the famed Johannesburg township where the opening match will be played at a bright new soccer stadium shaped like a traditional African cooking pot.

Nearby Vilakazi Street, one of the country’s most historic streets and a main tourist draw in Soweto, is undergoing a physical transformation as it prepares for an influx of soccer fans. But some residents say that not enough is being done to ensure that this poorer community reaps the economic benefits of having the world’s attention.

Vilakazi, famously known as the only street where two Nobel Peace Prize winners have lived — Nelson Mandela, whose home is now a museum, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu — is being given a facelift that will set it apart from Soweto's other crumbling, potholed streets. The makeover includes fresh pavement, interlocking brick sidewalks, streetlights and newly planted trees, plus “street furniture” such as benches and concrete pillars that see double-duty as places to sit and barriers to prevent cars from parking on the sidewalks in typical Sowetan style.

The Johannesburg Development Agency, which is behind the changes, envisions a gentrified Vilakazi Street as a laid-back boulevard for strolling, a place where tourists and locals can walk up a safe street filled with cafes, restaurants and shops. Currently, most of the estimated 1,000 tourists that visit Soweto a day arrive on group tours, encased in buses.

Soweto women walk up historic Vilakazi Street.
Soweto women walk up historic Vilakazi Street.
(Erin Conway-Smith/GlobalPost)

Khulani Vilakazi, who runs Nambitha, the first restaurant to open on the street in 1999, says that while the changes are positive — and mirror his dream for the street — they are on too small a scale. Not enough is being done to remake this special street as a tourist draw, and too few locals are taking advantage of the opportunity on their doorstep, he says.

“If this heritage, this legacy, this history was in a white suburb, they would have taken advantage of it hugely,” said Vilakazi, who is also chairman of the Vilakazi precinct steering committee. “We are a bit slow. If this neighborhood was in New York, or anywhere else, it would be big.”

The street is named after his grandfather, B.W. Vilakazi, a poet, novelist and intellectual who was the first black lecturer at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, though at the time he was only allowed to be called a “language assistant.”

It was at a Vilakazi Street corner where in 1976 young Hector Pieterson was killed by police who fired on black schoolchildren as they protested the mandatory instruction of Afrikaans in school, in what is known as the Soweto Uprising. An iconic news photograph shows a fellow student carrying Pieterson’s body through the neighborhood.

“It’s very historic for many reasons,” said Vilakazi, who swapped an IT career to become a restaurateur. “This type of an investment can allow visitors to experience Soweto, be closer to the history, to walk and really connect to the whole vibe.”

World Cup tourism is already creating jobs in the area. Vilakazi is expanding his busy restaurant, which will boost the number of employees from 42 to 60, with seating for up to 280 guests, when it reopens in a month.

Sakhumzi, another famous Vilakazi Street restaurant, opened eight years ago with four employees and eight tables. Now it employs more than 45 people and can seat 450. “For me it’s quite an opportunity with the 2010, and I will be able to create more jobs for my community as well,” said owner Sakhumzi Maqubela.

But he complains about some of the changes on the street, saying that the new concrete pillars inconvenience guests by preventing them from parking directly in front of his restaurant. And he says that tourists on group tours aren’t staying long enough for a stroll because the tour operators haven’t budgeted enough time.

Vilakazi says he is planning to build a South African craft market that will stretch for three properties across the street from his restaurant. He hopes that it will empower artisans by getting them off the street where they currently hawk their wares, and into a venue where tourists will be more inclined to stay longer and spend more.

However the craft market won’t open in time for the World Cup, which he says is partly due to delays in purchasing the properties — the bureaucracy of rezoning the homes for commercial use was a nightmare, he explains. “There’s just no proper strategy between us as business people and the authorities,” Vilakazi said. “We’re going to have tourists here in the thousands, and where are they going to buy souvenirs?”

Rets Dolamo, sitting with friends on the porch of a shebeen — or local watering hole — on Vilakazi Street, questions what impact the World Cup will have for the average local resident.
“So if you’re not a Nambitha and not a Sakhumzi, and if you’re not employed by the Mandela museum — I don’t know the impact. I think more could be done.”

She and friend Thabo Nkosi, whose family owns the shebeen, seem bemused by some of the changes to the street. “They call it a ‘precinct’ now, it’s not just an ordinary street,” said Nkosi.
But they have noticed more tourists taking time to walk around the neighborhood and stay longer to experience the authentic Soweto, sometimes sleeping overnight at one of the new bed and breakfasts.

Dolamo said, “They go out to the shebeen, sit on a crate and drink beer from the bottle — they don’t want a glass.”