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Soweto's Vilakazi Street spruces up

World Cup will highlight historic street that was home to 2 Nobel prize-winners.

The Johannesburg Development Agency is trying to turn Soweto's historic Vilakazi Street, the only street where two Nobel Peace Prize winners have lived, into a boulevard where visitors can stroll and enjoy the area's restaurants and street vendors. (Erin Conway-Smith/GlobalPost)

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.”