It boasts 23 registered millionaires, has 126 schools and a university. Sarah Johnstone (left) is surprised by the reality of Soweto. Toby Follett (right) takes a trip to Robben Island, and discovers a country prepared to confront its recent past
The scariest thing about visiting Soweto has to be your fellow tourists. "Well at least they're doing something," the man from Australia nods in the direction of our hosts, "not like the Abo who just sits there and takes." Now, if that's the sort of dumb-headed, ignorant remark you'd never expect to hear in the heartland of the new South Africa, try visiting Soweto on a package tour.

The thing most South Africans will tell you is that if you set out to explore the country's most famous township on your own, dead is very probably how you'll end up. Even if you're black, your clothes and car will often leave you at risk.

"Tell me, was there any time you did not feel 100 per cent safe?" asks George, one of the Sowetans "doing something" as a tour guide, once the humid morning's trip had come to a close.

Well, now that you mention it, George... Sure, this might have been by far the safest way to visit, but I still couldn't put out of my mind those countless stories of hold-ups which dominate whites' dinner-table conversation throughout this troubled land. Since 1994, when Nelson Mandela walked out of political mythology and into the parliament building in Cape Town, it has been possible to visit South Africa without incurring the sort of dubious looks usually reserved for elderly German exiles in Uruguay. But a journey to Johannesburg and its environs, including Soweto, is full of other perils. It has become the most dangerous place in the world outside a war zone. On an average day, 14 people are murdered, 17 are raped and 100 are mugged. Another 24 have their car hijacked at gunpoint. No longer able to rely on repressive policing, Johannesburgers have been left feeling so paranoid you almost have to hold a pistol against their head to persuade them just to drive downtown.

Although tours to Soweto began operation about 10 years ago, well before the downfall of apartheid, many white South Africans have never set foot in a township. However, fuelled by a mix of political fervour, curiosity, and fear, I decided there was nothing for it but to throw in my lot with a local guide and a bunch of other pasty-faced Westerners. In less than an hour I started regretting it, as the stupid questions began to fly.

"Do children from Soweto go to school?" "Is this where the doctors from Cooba come to train?" "Can you take me to a witch doctor?" Never mind the very real risk of being shot, the scariest thing about visiting Soweto has to be your fellow passengers.

"We know that there were a lot of lies talked about Soweto in the past," George says, when he first picks us up in Jo'burg. "Now we want people to see the truth about Soweto. We know there were a lot of people in other countries who were against apartheid."

But as we walk past the colourful market stalls and the long queues for the overcrowded mini-van taxis, we hardly look like the crusading types. A German woman seems to have trouble hiding her distaste as we pick away across the mud and dirt into a very makeshift cafe: the suburban Yanks among us look uncomprehending as they survey the chaos.

All the same, it's perfectly understandable why Soweto should prove such a draw for Mr and Mrs average tourist. The name became synonymous in the 1970s and 80s with the riots and uprisings against the National Party regime. Its poverty came to represent the inequities of apartheid.

My first glimpse of this vast sprawl of not one but 33 townships was unexpected. Although there were pockets of squalid-looking hovels, in some areas Soweto has all the features the modern urban dweller has come to take for granted - brick houses, schools (126 of them), libraries, sports grounds and a university. Apart from the townships' 23 registered millionaires, there are a few local, self-styled gangsters who are also thought to have broken the six-figure barrier through one scam or another.

Rumour has it that the leaders of SA's infamous car-jacking syndicates are white. However, the townships' Mad Max landscape of disembodied vehicles in police compounds and "chop shop" car yards is testament to the fact that at least some of those involved live here. At every turn, as we wind our way through the red dusty streets, there's someone polishing their BMW, shining up their Mercedes. There's even a guy on his mobile phone, washing his silver BMW only a few feet from a group of squatter camp inhabitants collecting water from a standpipe.

Any visit to Soweto soon involves its most famous local boy made good, the President. George shows us the Orlando football stadium, where Mandela staged his homecoming rally after his release from Robben lsland in 1991. He also shows us rainbow murals where Mandela's face radiates down, next to another of the most enduring icons of the anti-apartheid movement, the pieta-like image of murdered schoolboy Hector Petersen being carried from the carnage of the Soweto riots.

The Hector Petersen monument is probably as close as the township gets to a tourist attraction. As we stop at the point where the 12-year-old was gunned down by government troops in June 1976, George explains how students in the 1970s started demonstrating by staying away from school. "If you have any questions, feel free to ask," says George. Given the chance to ask something sensible, we fall totally silent.

Then we pile back into the bus to look at some houses: government-built versions with the deadly "luxury" of asbestos roofs; tall skinny edifices reserved for lone widows; squat cinderblock structures and corrugated iron annexes.

Pulling up to Winnie Mandela's house though, it's clear that this is another barrow of bricks. Her abode high on a hill is a mansion by township standards, and notorious for being the place where Stompie Mketsi was killed in at incident involving the ANC youth football league, when Winnie's reputation began its slide. The house has the added distinction of representing probably the only collaboration between Jane Fonda and Libya's Colonel Gadaffi. Both contributed to funds to build the house after the Mandelas' earlier home was firebombed.

After this we drive down the only street in the world with two Nobel Prize-winning residents (at least nominally, because both Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu now spend their time elsewhere). Nothing we see seems to spark quite so much interest, though, as the simple "Welcome To Soweto" sign. We've already been travelling some time when we happen upon it and it provokes a scramble to take pictures of each other standing in front of the sign. Some pose in front of the shield and nine spears representing Soweto's tribes. Five minutes later, when we call in on some of George's relatives in Orlando, one of us distinguishes himself by racing to camcorder round the family living-room, with its faded orange and brown decor and tattered football posters.

"Feel free to ask anything," George coaxes us one final time, as we hop back in the bus and continue on our merry way. Suddenly, a man in the back starts saying something. George looks expectant. "Yeah, say can you turn the air-conditioning up?" the man drawls.

By now, I'm beginning to think it wouldn't be such a bad thing if our sorry bunch of gormless voyeurs were hijacked after all.

Majority rule came gloriously to South Africa in 1994 with the election of Nelson Mandela, but it will be decades before the ugly evidence of apartheid's racist social planning is swept away. The country's wealthy European cities are still dominated by whites, with vast black dormitory townships on their outskirts. And Cape Town is no exception.

They say everything's bigger on the Cape. Big white beaches off which Great White sharks cruise are overlooked by the mansions of the rich and famous. Madonna has bought a big house here. Sting keeps a big yacht in the harbour. As for the Cape winds - they're so big they sometimes have to rig up ropes along the buildings down the main street to help pedestrians pull themselves along. Men hang out of office windows to catch a glimpse of the girls' legs as their skirts fly up around their waists.

Some cynics have said that the recent opening up to tourists of the notorious Robben Island Prison off the Cape coast where Mandela was held for most of his 27 years in jail is just another attempt to cash in on South Africa's recent tourist boom. But you'd be crazy to boycott this trip if you are in the Cape. One of the very few opportunities the tourist in South Africa gets to confront the recent past, the low-key day trip out of Cape Town harbour to the island lodges itself in the mind like no other "history tour" I have been on.

This is astonishing modern history at its most modern. A jail for the opponents of apartheid since the early 1960s until the release of political prisoners in1991, Robben Island Prison remained in service for "common criminals" until the end of last year. Its most famous inmate, who spent 19 years in solitary confinement here, is the serving President. The boat which takes you on the 40-minute ride from Cape Town harbour to this bleak and rocky island is the same boat that has been ferrying prisoners and supplies there for the past 30 years.

Captain Jan Moolman, an Afrikaaner, has been working on board for 25 years - before this he was a prison guard - and is pleased to talk to anyone who wants to hear his story. He makes no attempt to pretend he was against (or, for that matter, in favour of) apartheid, despite being surrounded by an all-black crew. "In those years you didn't worry about the prisoners. But life is more relaxing now - taking tourists is very nice compared to taking prisoners."

Moolman is clearly surprised by the tolerance of his new government and says he's happier than he's ever been in his work. "Since 1994 you never knew what was going to happen, but life just goes on. And here I am - I've still got a job!" Political prisoners in handcuffs and leg-irons were held in the forward cabin, "common criminals" aft. He skippered Mandela off the island, but he doesn't think the President would remember him.

On arrival we are ushered on to a bus outside the prison gate and introduced to our guide, Theophilus Mzukwa - Muthi for short. A young, thin, serious- looking man he welcomes us to Robben Island and tells us it is a nature reserve so he's afraid we will not be able to get out of the bus while outside the prison walls.

Once inside the prison, Muthi tells us he served time on the island. In 1987 he was jailed for 25 years. One of the lucky ones, he served just three years until all political prisoners were released.

Muthi stops his tour group in a prison corridor, by steps leading up to the door of the censor's office. "That office was meant to break us, demoralise us, frustrate us," he says, keeping his eyes on the door, as if braving the place out. "It is here that psychological torture took place. It is in this office that our newspapers and letters were censored. Where applications to visit us were approved or turned down." It is as if Muthi is reminding himself of what happened here as much as informing us of it; catching the recent past before it slips away. "It is in this office that marriages were broken. They forged the handwriting of wives and wrote asking for divorce. They might superimpose your wife's head on a photograph of a naked woman making love to a man." He speaks as if he understands that we are hardly likely to believe the perversity of this regime.

It is, of course, the details that hit home. In the 1960s, black prisoners were issued with short trousers (the island is freezing in the winter), no socks, and open sandals; Coloureds (of mixed race) and Indians got long trousers and proper shoes. But they were given shoes that were too big or of odd sizes. "Something to make you feel ridiculous, to make you sorry you became an opponent of this evil system called apartheid," says Muthi.

The block where Mandela and other ANC leaders were held in solitary confinement has their names printed up on the doors of each cramped cell. Each still has a slopping-out bucket in the middle of the floor. Nineteen years in there.

Back to the bus we are driven out to the lime quarry where political prisoners were forced to labour. At first Mandela was told he would be labouring here for six months. Six months stretched to 13 years.

"Do you remember our President, Nelson Mandela, had an operation on his eyes recently?" asks Muthi. "It was to remove the lime which had blocked his tear ducts. He can now cry at last."

Muthi now takes us on a short tour of the island, a leper colony before it was a jail. He points out the lepers' church with no pews (they were so disabled they were unable to stand) and the lepers' morgue, which later became a bank. Standard stuff for an island tour, a mere sideline on this one. But Muthi does his tourist guide duty. He shows us the penguin colony. They were extinct on the island until 1992. There are now thousands of them. Are they celebrating the release of the political prisoners? He points at a pair: "They are monogamous," he says. "There are no divorces with penguins." He indicates shipwrecks, even a modern yacht wreck, victims of Cape storms. He points to the place where the notorious Kleynsman warders buried their political prisoners up to their necks in the sand and forced their comrades to urinate in their mouths.

We return to Cape Town harbour. Two tyre fenders are slung over the quay, hanging just above the waterline. Each has a seal asleep on them.

The author travelled with Satour, the South African Tourist Board (0181 944 8080); and South African Airlines (0171 312 5000).

FACT FILE

Tours

Robben Island tour. Three tours daily; price 80 Rands. Book on to a tour early or, if travelling independently, get to the port (jetty 1, V&A Waterfront) early in the morning and join the queue for spare places. For more information, call 419 1300 in Cape Town. Soweto tour: can be booked through most hotels in Johannesburg.

Flights

To Cape Town start from pounds 329 via Paris with Air France if you depart before 25 May. Otherwise travel direct on South African Airlines any time to the end of August for pounds 433. These are available through Trailfinders 0171 938 3939.

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