SOWETO SWINGS

The clubs in Johannesburg's notorious black township are wild and wonde rful

Soweto. Those three troubled syllables trip off the tongue to invoke a nightmarish, as-seen-on-TV world of stabbings, shootings and tyres flaming with petrol hung around tortured necks. Rightly or wrongly, Soweto belongs, in the media-fuelled imagination, to the unlovely litany of Falls Road, Gaza Strip, Toxteth, Kent State and Tiananmen Square.

Unfair? The reality of no campus, street, town or square is ever exactly black and white. The equation in Soweto is slightly different: white doesn't come into it. When I go down town on the back of a Ford pick-up one Friday night to drink some and to hear some new sounds, I am very aware of being one of only three whites in sight. This is not something that should bother me, but it does, because Soweto's reputation goes before it. And although I know there is far more crime in other former townships (there are 10 black townships around Johannesburg), and although the gang of farm workers taking me out say everything is OK, I can't help feeling out of place.

Soweto itself is out of place; always has been. Its name, like those you find in New York (SoHo, Tribeca), signifies its geographical location; Soweto might sound like an African word, but what it means is South West Townships. It was created at an administrative stroke in the early days of apartheid, a system of segregation set up by the British and codified by the white Afrikaner supremacists who took power in 1948.

A great percentage of the black population of Johannesburg was dumped unceremoniously in Soweto, so that today it is a city on the edge of a city. Soweto is densely settled and has a population of more than two million. Any Jo'burger will tell you that the horror stories wrapped around those three syllables are not exaggerated, so when I ask those white Jo'burgers if they will come for a night on the township, they find themselves, all of a sudden, otherwise engaged. Not knowing Johannesburg (this is my first trip to South Africa) and having few contacts, this leaves me with two choices. Either I can book a place on Jimmy's Tours or I can walk right in, sit right down and order a beer.

Jimmy's Tours is clearly the sensible option. This recently established outfit will take you on a daytime tour of Soweto. You get bused in, walked around, drink tea with locals, see inside houses and buy the very best of those glorious toy cars and planes shaped from Coke cans, wire coat-hangers and telephone cables. A Jimmy's tour offers you safe conduct in, around and out of Soweto and those who have been on one recommend it because the guides are locals.

I toyed with the tour and then bottled out. I would still say it's a good idea, but I wanted to hear the live music that is meant to be so good. So, the only option was to ask. My first night in Johannesburg I visited a friend who lives on a farm on the north-west edge of the city and asked some of the labourers if they might take me to Soweto in exchange for petrol, beer and, hopefully, some fun . Yes, no problem.

Off we went, racing down the freeway. Even the weather was disturbing: a savage thunderstorm was brewing, the sky ablaze with forks of brilliant lightning. Soweto came as a surprise. It wasn't just its size (though that is nothing compared to the slum mega-cities of, say, Manila or Mexico City), nor was it because of the knife fight that broke out in front of us as we pulled up outside a corrugated-tin drinking club. (This, said my new friend Abe, was a gang-war feud between rival taxi drivers.) No, Sow eto surprised me because it is far from being all tin shacks and primitive shelters. Within its spotlit boundaries (a city from hell in this respect, it is policed by vast football-stadium lights that blank out the southern stars and make you feel like a laboratory rat), it contains a whole range of houses from shabby to chic, and many that seem just plain respect-able. The big houses belong to local businessmen doing well despite the general out-of-luck character of the area.

There is clearly more money and more cellphones here than you might imagine. And more poverty.

Poverty, and the long decades of apartheid, mean Soweto is, for the moment at least, a bit of a no-go area for whites. This was not the case during the election year (1994), but since then the expectations of young black men have been raised high. Economic reality cannot and will not come close to matching them for some years so the young men seek release for their frustrations by living wildly.

Should this put you off, it is only by way of counsel. I had a great time in Soweto going from club to club, bar to shebeen, sharing drinks and dances, listening to music that ranged from reggae and gospel to funk and jazz. We went to a few small bars to chat to chums of my companions, to the Blue Fountain (the swishest club in Soweto) to check out the latest fashions (raunchy) and to a drink at the Protea Hotel in Diepkloof, one of the smarter parts of the township.

The two-star Protea opened about two years ago, the first tourist hotel in Soweto. Business has not exactly been brisk, but it is a brave venture. Inside we meet the only other whites I see that night: two men in loud shirts, cellphones and shorts who are plying a sangoma (witch doctor) for news of how the horses will run tomorrow. Sangomas play a big part in Soweto life. Sometimes they go too far. Abe tells me that last year a sangoma was "necklaced" after the contents of his suspiciously dripping carrier bag turned out to be the severed limbs of a four-year-old girl. The local police set up an Occult and Related Crimes Unit some years ago. It is kept very busy.

The biggest club I went to had no name (and will probably have closed by summer, if not before). I doubt I could find it again, but the joint jumped, the live sounds were great and people seemed keen that I should enjoy myself. I was literally, and quite happily, swept off my feet. There was some nastiness when a gang of youths began kicking up rough with a gaggle of hip schoolgirls. Young Soweto men, unschooled and unemployed, says Abe, deride and even attack girls and boys who go to local schools in uniform. Trying to learn means trying to be a white person and so the intimidation is intense. But, the volume is turned up, the dancing gets going and the row subsides as the young bucks begin to groove and perhaps to realise that they might have more success if they try to charm these gorgeous girls rather than tormenting them.

We dance on till 4am when we roll back north - accompanied by the songs of crickets and frogs - and away from the South West Townships. JG

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