Soweto a step out of the ordinary

MORRIS DALLA COSTA, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:05 PM ET

SOWETO - It isn't your typical South African shebeen.

On Tuesday, it's a cross between a roadhouse and revival meeting. The religion is Bafana Bafana, South Africa's World Cup team, and on this day, it is playing its last group game against France.

Shebeen is a place to meet friends, drink, gamble and dance. Shebeens allowed black culture to survive.

A typical South African shebeen is often located in black townships.

Traditionally, it was a meeting place for blacks during apartheid because they couldn't enter a white establishment.

The owners brewed their own beer and alcohol. Many shebeens fostered political movements. But they were also places where violence took place.

Shebeens were illegal during apartheid, were often raided. The owners were fined or jailed and closed down.

But somehow they always resurfaced. Shebeens were the centre of activity in black townships.

Soweto is perhaps the most famous township in Johannesburg. There have been many changes in the black township. Once known for its shanty towns, poverty, crime, unemployment and shebeens, Soweto has worked to improve the state of its people.

Soweto is still beset by those problems but you couldn't tell by what was happening at Sakhumzi Restaurant in Soweto. This modern-day shebeen is located on Vilakazi street, one of the most famous streets in Soweto.

Next to Sakhumzi is the home where Desmond Tutu lived. About 200 yards down the road is the place where Nelson Mandela lived. Tour buses travel up and down the street.

A group of individuals act as parking authorities. They wave you to a place by the road, promise to watch your car and wash it for a fee, even if you don't particularly want them to.

This is the new kind of shebeen. All gussied up and ready for tourists. If you go far enough into the township, you will find shebeens that still rarely see a white face.

But they are coming back in vogue and some shebeens that are safe and accessible for tourists have been cleaned up for the World Cup. Reports have satellite dishes appearing on shanty roofs as everyone tries to make a buck on the World Cup.

Shebeens are now legal but many still aren't regulated. But Sakhumzi represents the new face of Soweto.

On this day, when France and South Africa played, blacks and whites share tables and drinks. When the South African national anthem is played on television before the game, everyone stands and sings it.

When South Africa scores, everyone stands and sings Shosholoza, a traditional football song. They stomp so hard the wooden floor shakes, Hell, the entire structure shakes.

They share lamb stew, sausages, cooked cabbage, pap (ground maize) and rice.

The beer here is your standard brand. There is no umqombothi, a traditional African beer made from maize and sorghum.

Sakhumzi Maqupela is the owner of Sakhumzi. He opened the pub and restaurant about nine years ago in his parentsą home. When business got better, he expanded to build a small, two-story addition.

He is a successful businessman.

"We lived through apartheid," Maqupela said. "You couldn't sit like this, a black and a white man, talking because you would be arrested. Police would terrorize you just to show you who was in charge.

"This is now a tourist place. Around the corner is a shebeen called The Shack, far different than Sakhumzi but still not the shebeens of inner Soweto.

"But if you want to see real shebeens, you have to go further in," he said pointing. "Those are where blacks still meet."

On June 16, 1976, a few blocks from Maqupela's parents' house where his restaurant is now located, Hector Peterson, a 12-year-old schoolboy, was killed by police. The event spawned the Soweto uprising and the eventual end of apartheid in 1994. The date is now a national holiday called Youth Day.

Many of the leaders of the uprisings meet and Maqupela calls those people heroes because it allowed him to become the businessman he now is.

"I wanted to do something to give people jobs," he said. "I said to myself, instead of complaining about the government, why don't I do something for myself."

Inside his restaurant is Khanykile Baloyi, a doctor who is a health advisor for the Chamber of Mines of South Africa.

Baloyi, 48, lived in Soweto until he was 29. He remembers the shebeens and how the police used to come to make arrests.

"If you were drinking or drunk on the street, they would take you away," he said. "But that didn't stop people. They would still meet and talk. There are still many shebeens today and they are legal, but tourists don't go there.

"Things are changing. My father could only read a little bit. Now I am a doctor. It will take time because even now there is crime and unemployment.

"But there is hope."

In a strange way that kind of hope is represented by the new-style shebeen that sits at the end of one of the most famous streets in Johannesburgs, a street where two people spawned hope for a nation.

morris.dallacosta@sunmedia.ca


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