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On historic South African street, tourists trump traditions

Selina Mkhabela lives across from Nelson Mandela’s former house on Vilakazi Street in Soweto.

Erin Conway-Smith/Erin Conway-Smith

In the gritty urban sprawl of Soweto, the most famous of South Africa's black townships, a new experiment is emerging: a European-style boulevard, complete with benches, trees, streetlights and cobbled sidewalks for leisurely strolls.

Soweto, the heartland of anti-apartheid ferment in the 1970s, is still a mostly poor community of matchbox houses and tin shacks on the outskirts of Johannesburg. But when a half-million soccer fans descend on South Africa for the World Cup this summer, Soweto will be scrambling for a piece of the tourist dollar - even if it has to abandon some of its unruly traditions.

The World Cup is a golden opportunity for Soweto's two million people. The tournament's opening match, along with the championship game and several other matches, will be held at the massive 95,000-seat Soccer City stadium on the edge of Soweto, attracting hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors to the township.

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Until recently, its best-known street, Vilakazi Street, was potholed and dusty. But now, in an $8-million gentrification project, the street has been freshly paved and beautified with streetlights, benches and other "street furniture." Concrete pillars have been installed to prevent motorists from parking on the newly widened sidewalks, so that tourists can stroll freely along the upscale boulevard of cafés and museums.

The ambition is to persuade visitors to venture out of the tour buses. If they are on foot, the tourists will spend more time on the street - and more money.

Vilakazi Street has played a pivotal role in South African history. It was the site of the bloodshed that sparked the Soweto uprising, a crucial event in the anti-apartheid movement.

Vilakazi is also the only street in the world where two Nobel Peace Prize winners have lived. Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu both have houses there, although Mr. Mandela's house is now a museum and Mr. Tutu's house is rarely inhabited by the man himself.

One of Soweto's top restaurateurs, Sakhumzi Maqubela, worries the government planners are distorting the street's traditional identity. "They didn't want the character of the street to change," he says, "but they are changing it."

The traditions of Vilakazi Street, he says, are simple ones: showing off your car by washing it on the street, or inviting friends over to slaughter a goat in honour of the ancestors. But because of the new parking restrictions, these traditions aren't so easy any more, he says. He also worries his customers will have to walk long distances to their cars because of the new parking rules.

Not everyone is so worried by the changes. Selina Mkhabela, a 67-year-old pensioner who lives on Vilakazi Street, says the street is much improved. "Everything is better," she says. "Other streets haven't had this. We're very fortunate. The street looks like a lover's walk now."

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At the other end of the street, an entrepreneur named Khulani Vilakazi is busily expanding his restaurant, doubling its size and hiring more workers. "We're already fully booked every weekend, and with the World Cup it's going to be uncontrollable," he says.

The street is named after Mr. Vilakazi's grandfather, Benedict Wallet Vilakazi, a poet and novelist who was one of South Africa's earliest black intellectuals and the first black man to become a lecturer at Johannesburg's main university, although he was designated as a "language assistant" because of apartheid rules.

Mr. Vilakazi has bought three properties on the street and is turning them into a crafts market for tourists. But he laments the lack of new businesses on the street. There should be 10 restaurants and cafés, not just the three that now exist, he says, and zoning restrictions should be loosened to encourage more private development.

"This street has huge potential, but I think we're just scraping the surface," he said.

"We're not taking advantage of what we have. We haven't invested enough. We're going to have tourists coming in their thousands, but where are they going to go? We're missing our chance."

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About the Author
Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More

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