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One Day in Katlehong

I was already saying OMG IT IS HOT, as we arrived in Katlehong for our walking tour. It was 3000 degrees in the shade and not yet 9 am. As I scrambled out the car to join the group, momentarily remembering how much I hate groups, I realised I hadn’t bought my sunglasses.

Fuck fuck I was muttering, squinting into the glare as I introduced myself and elbow bumped Bongani Mabuza and his assistants, all ready to guide and guard us for the day.

As I waited for our fellow walkers, faffing and what on earth where they all doing, I popped into the African Accent Spaza Shop.

The first thing I saw were sunglasses. They were funky, hip, oversized, mirrored, glitter, and not my style. Most spaza shops sell drinks, chips, sweets, cigarettes and some fruit and veg. But this was Bongani’s spaza shop and Bongani does everything with flair, including fashion.

I was in luck!

Although I didn’t really feel like spending money on a pair of glasses I would not normally wear.

What about a rental, my friend joked?

R 50 for the duration of the tour, Bongani’s smart assistant suggested.

And so I gave him fifty bucks, put on my rented sunglasses and looked for a shady spot to wait for the group.

Oops, they were being briefed. I’d missed the briefing.

Katlehong is a township, just 40 minutes out of Johannesburg, one with an extremely violent history. In the 80s, thousands died or disappeared at the hands of the secret police and army, in anti-apartheid protests. In the 90s and just prior to our democracy, thousands more died in factional violence between the ANC and IFP, well fuelled by a third force. I remember watching all this unfold, albeit on television.

The people of Katlehong remember it, in real time.

This is why I was doing the tour. Not just to see the Spaza shops which are teeny, colourful and on almost every corner, or the fabulously creative hair salons of which there are hundreds, but to learn and hold on to our history.

Bongani took us through the hostels and as a first time visitor, I must admit to being a bit nervous. Most hostels have been cleaned up and ‘refurbished.’ They are a thousand times better than during the apartheid days, when they were cruelly and systematically built for male migrant workers, but they are still pretty damn bleak and overcrowded.

Chickens cluck, music blares and families squeeze into teeny rooms, or nearby shacks. There is little shade and a lot of dust. The hostels are built around a large open space, I hesitate to call it a courtyard, with spaza shops, a restaurant, and a tavern in the centre. We were treated to local delicacies, which most of the group tried with gusto. I panicked a bit, but decided to get over it. Social distancing is not possible in Katlehong. There is almost no sign of a pandemic because it becomes abundantly clear that the people of Katlehong have a lot more to worry about than a pandemic.

Bongani explained that Katlehong’s political violence was their first lockdown, when stepping foot outside your home could easily prove fatal. Covid-19, is a different kind of lockdown, and a far less violent one at that.

We continued our walk through the bustling streets, from Katlehong to Thokoza. They are two townships but growth and development has almost turned them to one. On the way we passed women walking under umbrellas, the only respite from the sun, men drinking in taverns and kids playing soccer in dusty fields. No parks, no gentrified coffee shops, a few well maintained but small homes, a lot of shacks, and definitely no boutiques.

I was extremely grateful for my rented sunglasses.

The area is poor and neglected but seemingly joyful. I loved the group of kids that rode past us in a taxi, shrieking and giggling, calling out Umlungu Umlungu.

Umlungu means white person, in a slang kind of way.

Bongani led us to the Thokoza Memorial, which is where we met his dad, Odert Sidala Mabuza. Papa Mabuza has an extraordinary presence. He lived through the violence and has the battle scars and bullet holes to show for it. We were all moved as he shared his stories, pointing out the flowers laid down earlier that morning.

Family members still visit, almost daily.

For many, it’s the only place of remembrance they have.

We walked a little more, stopping to meet Bongani’s friends along the way. Kids came out to stare, not just at us, but at the two dancers we came across. They had a boom box (I don’t think it is called a boom box anymore) groovy hip clothing and were doing a dance challenge of sorts.

In the road.

There are no obvious dance studios in the townships.

Shoot me, shoot me, they asked, wanting pics and selfies.

I think they thought I was hipper than I was. The sunglasses, you know!

When it was time to go, Bongani hailed two taxis and we were whizzed back to African Accents. The timing was good; I was starting to get snippy with our group.

Are you claustrophobic, the woman who kept asking a billion questions in the boiling sun asked me.

NO I AM MENOPAUSAL AND YOU ARE NOT SOCIAL DISTANCING, I wanted to yell at her. But then I realised I was just hungry. Even though I’d eaten the best Spaza slap chips along the way.

Back at African Accents, Bongani’s sister, Nokuthula, had an incredible lunch ready for us. Tons of meat, pap, chakalaka, mielies, salad, fresh out-the-oven bread, home made beer, and the sweetest most delicious trifle for dessert.

Lunch was festive and a perfect ending. I even found myself bidding goodbye to the fellow walkers I had hated. Maybe it was the beer. Maybe it’s because in retrospect they were quite nice. Maybe it’s because we had a great tour guide.

This not a commercial tour. Call it cultural tourism! Wear sunblock, a hat and good walking shoes. If you don’t like other people, do it privately. And don’t worry if you forget your sunglasses.

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