Reclaiming the streets for tourism – Soweto Night Out with Nomsa Mazwai

04 Jul 2024
It’s Thursday night in Soweto. The air has a wintry bite, and we are walking the streets of Orlando West, cutting a path through this famous neighbourhood where the youth of 1976 stood up bravely against the machine that was apartheid. It set in motion a chain of events that would lead to South Africa’s first democratic election 18 years later in 1994. 
Soweto NIght Out with Nomsa Mazwai. Photo: Heather Mason
 The inimitable Nomsa Mazwai (centre), founder of Soweto Night Out. On the right is tour guide Linda. Photo: Heather Mason. See 2Summers' blog for her experience of the night.

Thirty years on, we are retracing some of their steps, marking the path of the youth leaders who gathered on these streets. Among us is Seth Mazibuko, the youngest prisoner jailed for his politics on Robben Island, and members of his June 16 Youth Foundation. His small frame is deceptive, as his words pack a mighty punch. He talks of unfulfilled promises with a fire that warms up the night. 

Symbolically, we are walking a few days after a watershed national election, the candidates’ posters still looking down on us from street poles. 

It’s an unusual gathering. Led by the powerhouse that is Nomsa Mazwai, we have been invited to take part in this walk, one of the routes that forms part of Soweto Night Out. It’s a new way to experience the area and launches on Thu, Jul 4, 2024. 

It’s remarkable to be walking so freely outdoors, walking at night, walking in Soweto; a reminder of the freedom we would love to have in this city. It’s this taste of freedom that Mazwai has nurtured since starting her walking experiences in Soweto under the banner of Funk It I'm Walking.

Mazwai started Funk It I'm Walking after the Covid-19 lockdown as a way of motivating people to get back out on the streets, but also as a protest against the lack of safety for women to walk at night in Soweto. For the past 18 months or so, she has led a group of walkers through the Soweto streets on the first Thursday of the month.
Soweto Night Out aims to liberate the streets, and liberating people to walk them. Photo Heather Mason. See 2 Summers blog.
Soweto Night Out aims to liberate the streets and liberate people to walk them at night.
Photo: Heather Mason. See 2Summers' blog.

Mazwai is an activist for change. Her Soweto Night Out experience has been formed out of these walks and a growing recognition of what a night economy could do for tourism in Soweto. 

Earlier in the day we met up in Rosebank and took a pre-arranged shuttle to Soweto as part of the Soweto Night Out package. As our quantum headed into the late afternoon traffic on the M2 highway, our worries drifted away. The shuttle inched its way to Soweto and brought us to Just Badela, an upmarket shisa nyama joint that draws huge crowds on the weekend. 

Inside was warm and after the delicious welcome drinks, we headed out into the street, where we were joined by a youthful crowd, many of whom were members of the Phakama MaAfrica Youth Choir. Someone unfurls a banner with the badge Funk It I'm Walking emblazoned across it. 
Soweto Night Out Photo: Heather Mason
Tour guide Linda leads the night walk. Mazwai hopes to change Soweto's nighttime economy with this experience. Photo: Heather Mason. See 2Summers' blog.

Mazwai addressed the crowd. “All right, so why this business?” She mentions that Soweto is densely populated. “Nobody knows how many people live in Soweto. Some stats say four million,” adding that it is a tourism attraction. She says an estimated 300,000 tourists visit Soweto each year and mostly leave by 16:00. 

A combination of a lack of information, and perceptions of a lack of safety ensure this pattern. But Mazwai is determined to change things. 

“We want the tourists to stay longer because if they stay longer, there's a better chance they'll sleep at one of our many bed and breakfasts. There's a greater chance they will patronise our restaurants, which are really amazing, and spend their money. One of the main causes of crime and insecurity is the lack of jobs in our communities, so we want to be a job creator.” 
Just Badela shisa nyama
Just Badela serves a top-rate shisa nyama platter in Soweto. Photo: Johannesburg In Your Pocket. 

The youth choir take up their positions behind her as she says: “Tourism is entertainment, it's culture. And when you are on Vilakazi Street [Soweto’s most famous street, once home to two Nobel Peace Prize winners, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu], there are dancers, there is music.”
The choir accompanies us along the route which winds from Just Badela into the famous suburb of Orlando West, stopping at key sites from a blanket shop to a corner where the youth leaders of 1976 gathered. We head towards Vilakazi Street in the suburb’s quiet streets and to the Nelson Mandela House Museum, which has opened especially for our nighttime visit. In the hands of the museum’s guides, we are given deeper insights into the lives that Winnie and Nelson Mandela lived here. 

The choir bursts into song at key moments, with many songs singing of safety. “They come along with us on the route,” says Mazwai, “because we want to show the community that safety has an economic value. One of my valued partners is the Community Policing Forum. These are people who guard the communities at night, volunteering. 

One night a month I pay them, but I'm showing them that if I can get more bookings there's more likelihood that I'll be able to pay more people. If I get bookings all the time, I've got CPFs working every single night. So I'm creating this economy.”

It’s the perfect way to visualise the impact of successful tourism initiatives. These things pay themselves forward in ways that can truly change lives. 
Photo: FunkItImWalking
A Soweto Night Out experience. Photo: Photo: Funk It I'm Walking.

“We want our government to see what we're doing so they can also imagine a 24-hour economy in Soweto. So many businesses could be open 24 hours because Soweto is so densely populated. We need that kind of productivity and imagine creating double the jobs. Many jobs could double up with a night shift. That would be amazing.” 

She mentions the moral of the Starfish fable, that one person can make a difference. “Community safety in South Africa is a mammoth task, but this is my little effort to throw that starfish back into the ocean to make a difference by working together.”

She introduces our guide Linda, and says: “We want to keep working with our local tour guides from Soweto, giving them an opportunity to work at night as well.” 

There are two rules to walking with Mazwai at night. The Funk It I'm Walking flag must always be ahead of you, and along the walk when Mazwai yells out “Funk It! I’m Walking!” you shout “Let's walk to freedom!”.  

Walking back from Vilakazi Street, which is strangely quiet on a Thursday night – by day it’s crammed with tourist buses, tourists, traditional dancers, and street vendors – we head past the last house in which Winnie Mandela lived in Soweto. A tribute song is sung. We then wind our way back through the streets to the warmth of Just Badela, where heaving platters of delicious food await. Braaied cuts of meat, mielie pap, and chakalaka. Seth Mazibuko takes the stage for a conversation. 

Our spirits are high, and there is a sense of exhilaration at having completed the walk (around 7,000 steps for those counting). 

“Let's walk to freedom. Funk it! I'm walking!”

Book a Soweto Night Out experience here.


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