For many people, especially visitors to Johannesburg, Vilakazi Street is the epicentre of Soweto life. On the one hand this makes it one of the most lively and interesting places to visit, but on the other it also means it has very quickly become ‘tourist central.’ Even so, a visit to Vilakazi Street provides something for every member of the family and is a must-do for visitors to the city- provided you take a few precautions to avoid the worst of the tourist bustle.
At the heart of the Vilakazi Precinct, the Street runs east to west through a mostly very normal-seeming residential neighbourhood in Orlando West, Soweto. Its main claim to fame, of course, is Nelson Mandela’s former house which sits at number 8115. Madiba lived here with his family for most of his life, from 1946 until into the 1990s, keeping the house even after he became President. The property was donated to the Soweto Heritage Trust in 1997 and turned into a museum of the life and legacy of the man so revered by South Africans and foreigners alike.
What many people don’t realize though, is that Vilakazi Street is home to another Nobel Prize Winner as well- in fact it’s the only street in the world to be able to claim such a feat. Desmond Tutu, the Archbishop Emeritus of the Anglican Church in South Africa, and his family have had their house there since 1975. Despite being offered access to a much more luxurious house in the wealthy, white suburb of Houghton at the time because of his position in the church, Tutu chose instead to live in the isolated and much poorer suburb of Soweto in solidarity with the oppressed majority of South Africans who were restricted at the time to living only in suburbs reserved for black people, and which tended to have little in the way of public services and be located far from the city centre. The house still belongs to the family, and so isn’t open to the public, but is worth taking a stroll past to see the former home of another inspirational struggle icon.
A short walk away from Vilakazi Street you can find the Hector Pieterson Museum, named after the 12 year old student shot and killed by police during the anti-Apartheid protests of 1976, a photo of whom became famous worldwide. That event, and that year, proved to be a turning point in the struggle in South Africa as youth engaged in the struggle like never before, taking to the streets to demand better and fair education, while the Apartheid government responded with violence that killed over 550 people. The museum and the nearby memorial to Pieterson make for a sombre yet incredibly inspiring experience. Today South Africans celebrate Youth Day on the 16th of June every year in honour and remembrance of the brave students that Pieterson represents.
After learning some of the most important and treasured pieces of South African history through a short walk along Vilakazi Street, I recommend making a more light-hearted stop at a chesa-nyama for lunch or dinner. There are a number of them – informal restaurants that serve a buffet of traditional grilled meat and vegetables – on Vilakazi Street itself, but they’ve become exorbitantly expensive (and crowded) with the recent tourist boom. I recommend instead taking a bit of a longer walk away from the hub of Vilakazi Precinct and finding another spot for a bite to eat. There are many places around, all serving various braaied meats and playing loud music, sometimes even a live band if you’re lucky.
There are a number of other pieces of artwork and memorials around Vilakazi Precinct of significance. For example Hastings Ndlovu Bridge, on the corner of Klipspruit Valley and Khumalo roads, was constructed in honour of the first student killed that day in June 1976. There are information signs and sculptures dotted around that all give more of an insight into the rich history and meaning of this little corner of Johannesburg. A visit to Vilakazi Street is far more than a fun day out, though it doesn’t lack on this either. For those looking to understand this country and its people, and to look deeper into the soul of our society, it is an ideal experience. Vilakazi Street represents all that we as South Africans are ashamed of, but more importantly it also represents everything we are most proud of. It provides insight into the modern South African culture and helps to understand where this beautiful country has come from, and where we are moving towards.
Vilakazi Street can be accessed by car in about 30 minutes from the Northern or Central suburbs of Johannesburg, by taking the N1 South, following the signs towards Soweto and then exiting at Klipspruit Valley Road. Take a right onto Pela Street, left onto Makheta Street and finally right onto Vilakazi itself. Alternatively the Re Vaya bus system stops close by. Get off at the Boomtown Station and turn right on Sofesonke Street and you’ll find it on your left.
The Nelson Mandela House Museum is open every day from 09:00 to 16:45, but closed on Good Friday and Christmas Day. Entry to the house is cheap (and even cheaper for African citizens- R40), but lines can sometimes be long, so it’s best to avoid peak hours of the day.
The Hector Pieterson Museum is open Monday to Saturdays from 10:00 to 17:00 and Sundays until 16:30, and costs R30 per adult.