The Beautiful and the Damned Ugly

This post is fourth in a series about South Africa.

SOWETO — An early highlight of this trip was a helicopter ride over Cape Town. Storms buffet the Cape much of the year, but that morning the South African International Marketing Council somehow busted the conspiracy of rain and clouds and provided a windless, clear day and a scenic tour of what must be one of the prettiest urban and suburban landscapes in the world. The city sprawls, and on its wealthy fringes the cliffs, seascape, and ubiquitous backyard swimming pools give the impression of having been transported from Pebble Beach.

I am now in Soweto, where the scenery is different, for a host of reasons. The first is poverty: “matchbox houses” line the streets, and any building older than a decade bears every mark of having been constructed during a time when belonging to the middle class was not even an aspiration. The second is geographic: beautiful country surrounds Johannesburg, but the crowded urban environment has erased any lingering charms in Johannesburg proper.

I stayed for one night in Soweto at the Holiday Inn, which on the inside does a passable job of seeming not to be in Soweto. (Portraits of Steven Bantu Biko are over the beds, and throw-cushions are disguised as sacks of maize, but otherwise the place is indistinguishable from a Kansas City Holiday Inn.) The balcony opens onto Sisulu Square, a “township entertainment explosion centre” in Kliptown. In the middle of the square are monuments, and on its edges vendors sell fruit and cheap goods. Plain concrete, which is the architectural medium of choice, does the square no favors, and virtually all the monuments and buildings are sinfully ugly. For aesthetic reasons unknown to me, the pillars on the Square side of the Holiday Inn, built in 2007, meet the ground at a slight angle. The hotel looks like something Frank Gehry might have designed after a prefrontal lobotomy.


So much of Soweto makes sense to me: the pride in the city’s role in South Africa’s freedom struggle, the appetite for improvements in services and standards of living, the restaurants and dance floors. But Soweto’s aesthetics of memory are as foreign to me as the mourning rituals of any Polynesian tribe. Other Soweto historical sites suffer from the same concrete blight, and have none of the foliage I associate with beauty and memorials. I’m used to calm gardens, with simple stone monuments. At the museum to Hector Pieterson, the child killed by South African police on June 16, 1978, there is a line of dirt that points from the museum to the large stone monument at the site of his murder. The line of dirt is supposed to have trees, but instead it is just dirt. The one Soweto site that did have greenery is Oppenheimer Park, a lush little oasis in Central Western Jabavu, named for the father of the diamond industry. And unlike every other place in Soweto I visited, Oppenheimer Park was utterly empty. The one man visible when I entered the park was sitting on the concrete foundation of a steel lightpost, his ass firmly planted on the only artificial surface within fifty meters.

Lest this critique sound like pure snark, let me quickly pivot to say that Sisulu Square is also a place of mirth and activity, where vendors sell fruit, men and women laugh and pose for photos, and groups gather at a tshisa nyama or braai or barbecue place for cookouts. So when I say that the place looked nothing like my idea of a monument, I emphasize “my.” The temptation is to think these as failed memorials, botched urban architecture. That temptation is worth resisting. Why might someone love these places, and feel them worthy of the struggles they commemorate? What is it about these spaces that is attractive to Africans, but so unattractive to me? The answer, I think, has to do with the urban lives that most South Africans now lead. Soweto is a place without trees and open spaces, and without the kind of bucolic images that someone like me associates with parks and beauty. Most people who live among those monuments do not think of the countryside as a retreat, but as a place they have happily escaped. The monuments are not erected with me in mind; they are erected for South Africans, and to those South Africans they are perhaps ideal.


For lunch in Soweto, the International Marketing Council took us to Maponya Mall, one of the nicest and most modern malls I have ever visited. It had tidy bathrooms, chic restaurants, and great deals on memory cards, among other things. A sushi joint inside had a cardboard cut-out of a ninja, and the ninja said: “I don’t fight for honor — I fight for sushi!” This could be my motto. There is an irony, though: the Marketing Council was working hard to ensure my comfort, and to replicate familiar comforts of home, but the differences between South Africans and mine are significant. Part of selling a country consists in making it seem like the country of the person to whom they’re selling it. But the monuments show that it is a very foreign place indeed.

Photos by Flickr users ign11 and oso under a Creative Commons license.