Travel Tips - Vilakazi Street, Soweto
There are so many interesting places within our cities that we hear about but, as locals, never actually get around to visiting. So I’ve decided to make it a quest of mine to start checking out South Africa’s places of interest so that I may expand my knowledge of this diverse fantastic country that we live in. It also helps when advising incoming tourists with disabilities on how accessible these sites are!
My first choice had to be Vilakazi Street, which as everyone knows is the only street in the world that can claim two Nobel Prize winners as residents - Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. This street is named after Dr BW Vilakazi – an intellectual, poet and novelist, writing in numerous indigenous languages. He was also the first black man to teach at Wits University, although he had to be employed as a “language assistant” because of the apartheid doctrines. Later, after completing his PhD in literature, he helped to develop the written form of both isiZulu and siSwati, and helped put together the isiZulu dictionary.
But this street is not just a street, it has become a “Precinct” almost a kilometer long shaped in a triangle incorporating public art, memorials and benches showcasing its historical sites. Unfortunately, parking is limited and there are no accessible curbs onto the pavements, which will necessitate having assistance should you be a person with mobility impairment. Most of the pavements are paved, but there are lots of vendors and cars that park across driveways. Even the bus shelter, which has place for a wheelchair, does not have the compliant gradient on the access ramp!
Halfway along the famous Vilakazi Street is No 8115 – Nelson Mandela’s house, now the Mandela Family Museum, which has been restored to its original 1946 layout when Nelson and his first wife, Evelyn moved in. In 1958, he brought Winnie to live here, and he briefly stayed here again in February 1990 after his release from prison. It’s a two bedroomed house that is filled with awards and memorabilia from our “Tata’s” life. Access to the museum is via a paved area, which has one small gap with pebbles, just before the gate. There is an accessible WC next to the ticket office. There are two intercom points that are placed within the garden which give information about the trees and history. These are placed behind the low brick wall and may not be too accessible to people with limited balance. However, Jenny – a local guide is more than willing to assist with information. She is based at the Mandela Museum, but does do walking tours throughout the precinct. A short distance down the road on the opposite side is the house that “The Arch” still maintains, and when in town, is often out and about strolling around this precinct.
There are two well-known restaurants on the street – Nambitha and Sakhumzi that have now become tourist attractions, serving local cuisine but with prices to match overseas currencies! But lately the number of new establishments has increased, all traditional and international cuisine. Most of the restaurants have stairs and very steep ramps, but some have tables and chairs off the pavements, which offer access, the Mandela Family Restaurant, Next Door both have level access off the pavement. Along the street are tuck shops and general stores for the locals.
One street over, The Hector Peterson Memorial stands on the spot where Hector was shot and killed in 1976. The Museum is across the next intersection, and there is a site line within the paving in the Museum’s outer area to link the spot to the museum. Access into the Museum is via a ramp, and once inside, the ramps to the various areas are quite steep. Some of the exhibits are at heights that are not accessible to wheelchair users, children or people of short stature. It is an extremely emotional experience, but so well presented that it is an absolute must to visit.
At the bottom of the “Precinct triangle”, where Vilakazi Street intersects with Khumalo Street there is a very interesting piece of artwork – eight huge grey hands spell out “Vilakazi” in sign language, and these accessible art pieces have become play objects, with children taking time out to climb all over them!
Other art includes metal structures depicting two bulls, denoting the Nobel Lauriates, and metal depictions, of schoolchildren facing a policeman with a growling dog. On the corner of Moema and Vilakazi streets is a memorial wall in slate. There are mosaic and concrete seats throughout the precinct, places to sit and contemplate the events of all those years ago.
Vilakazi Street is indeed a different place. Take time to visit.