My second day in Johannesburg underscored my still-developing theory that you get what you’re not looking for. After breakfast and a brief exploration of Melville that included stumbling onto the perfect view of the downtown Joburg skyline, I boarded Rea Vaga, the rapid-transit bus system connecting Johannesburg’s central business district with what was then still the great unknown to the south.
“Which side do I take to Boomtown?” I asked, after buying my Rea Vaga card and immediately topping it up with 50 ZAR ($4.87). None of the other stops listed on the route map had meant anything to me. Neither did Boomtown, but it reminded me of The Boomtown Rats and David + David’s 1986 Top 40 hit “Welcome to the Boomtown.” Bob Geldof’s former band was Irish, and David + David were referring to Los Angeles in their song, but who knew what I’d find in Johannesburg’s version of Boomtown?
I boarded the next bus headed in the direction away from the CBD. It was nearly full, and I took one of the last remaining empty seats beside a woman who kept nodding off. I looked around me. Everyone on the bus was black. I wondered about all of the political allusions I’d been temporarily brushing aside until I was rested enough to process them? Johannesburg’s story — its tortured, tortuous history — was beginning to unfold before me. I know evidence of continued segregation when I see it.
And where were all of these people — a mix of working-class men and women and fresh-faced kids wearing school uniforms, speaking English and various languages I didn’t understand — all going? As the chatter grew louder, the scenery outside was changing dramatically. Previously relatively flat, well-manicured and distinctly suburban, it was becoming more rugged, more mountainous, more green, more beautiful (in that tattered way I’ve grown to love ever since my first trip to Buenos Aires). Rows of colorful modest-looking houses peppered the landscape. We passed by a number of stops whose names meant nothing to me before arriving at one called Orlando — as in Orlando, Florida, the big city next to my hometown (Kissimmee). Could it be?
Boomtown, too, came and went. By then it was raining, and the place looked like nothing special. I figured I’d stay dry inside the bus until it reached the end of the line. Maybe by then it would have stopped raining, and I’d be able to explore a little before returning to my starting point. Several stops and a few twists and turns later, we arrived at Thokoza Park. Everyone departed the bus. This must be the place.
I looked at the beautiful greenery on both sides of the platform (see the photos above). It was quietly breathtaking — so peaceful, so rich, so wet. The only thing stopping me from descending the platform and running to greet it was the torrential downpour that was raining down with varying levels of intensity. It looked like I would be heading back earlier than expected. But how?
As I looked at the numerous bus routes listed above the platform, I searched for one that might be the one where I had started. Though I’d forgotten the full name, I remembered it was “Sophia”-something, as in Hagia Sophia (in Istanbul) or Sophia Petrillo (on The Golden Girls). But where was Sophia?
That’s when I was stopped by the woman whom I’d been sitting next to on the bus. She hadn’t said a word to me the entire trip, but now she couldn’t stop talking. She explained in minute detail how I should get back. Her accented English was perfect, but she was giving me so much information that all I was able to process was “C3.” That was the bus I needed to take to find my way back to Sophia.
I thanked her for her kindness and proceeded to walk about 300 meters or so to the other end of the platform. There was a C1 bus already waiting. I stood there staring at it, wondering when it would pull out of the station and make way for the C3 that hopefully was right behind it. I was disappointed by my truncated journey. Boomtown had been a bust, the sky was pouring, and I had no idea how to get to Soweto.
Nobody came to Johannesburg without going to Soweto. Along with the Apartheid Museum and my Argentine friend Dolores, it was the only thing I had on my must-see-in-Joburg list. (In another one of those coincidental twists that has been a regular occurrence in my life since Berlin, Dolores, whom I met years ago in Buenos Aires, and who left BA for Cape Town around the time that I left it for Melbourne, happens to be in Johannesburg renewing her Argentine passport on the exact same days that I’m here.)
I didn’t know very much about Soweto other than what I’d heard about it in the mid to late ’80s and early ’90s when Apartheid had replaced feeding the world as pop music’s cause du jour. I knew that during the Apartheid era it had been more or less South Africa’s version of the U.S. Indian reservations of the 19th century, a place where the country’s natives had been forced into after being displaced from their own land by the white ruling class.
Just as I was wondering how difficult it would be to get there from where I was, I looked over and saw the woman who’d helped me before. She was approaching me, as if she had something urgent to share. She wanted to make sure that I didn’t get on the C1. “You have to take the C3,” she said, smiling. “This is the C1. It goes somewhere else. The C3 is right behind it.” I thanked her again and watched as she walked away, wondering what I’d done to deserve her kindness and concern.
A few minutes later, I was back on the bus, heading in the direction from whence I’d come. This time, instead of studying the scenery, I focused on the signs. I should at least know roughly where I was. I saw one that said “Soweto” with an arrow pointing to the left. Could it be? Several “Soweto” signs later, I knew exactly where I was. I’d boarded a bus headed to Boomtown and ended up in Thokoza Park, in Soweto.
I was kind of crushed that I wouldn’t get a chance to see more of Soweto until another less-rainy day, but now I knew exactly how to get there. And I didn’t even have to look for it.
“Soweto” Jeffrey Osborne