Alien action flick ‘District 9‘ is set up to be one of this summer’s biggest hits, albeit an unexpected one. Some are even calling it an early Oscar contender. Why unexpected? The film is the debut feature from a relative unknown — 29-year-old South African-born director Neill Blomkamp. We wouldn’t want to be in the same situation as the aliens in ‘District 9,’ but we love the film for showing real-life Johannesburg, including the rarely-seen area of Soweto. See it for yourself (plus ‘Alive in Joburg,‘ the short film that inspired it all) after the jump…
In Blomkamp’s sci-fi fantasy documentary, an alien race has found its way to earth — South Africa, specifically. Once there, they’re forced into a concentration camp-like slum called District 9. More than just an alien adventure, the film is an allegory for South Africa’s difficult past under apartheid. In fact, the film’s title references the segregated, white-only District 6 in Cape Town. For the film, District 9 is played by Soweto, a real-life neighborhood in Johannesburg.
An acronym for South Western Townships, Soweto is a collection of townships (or neighborhoods) known for its four-roomed matchstick houses and its painful history of apartheid, as many blacks were forcibly relocated to the area under segregation, and the triumphant struggle to overcome oppression.
A good place to start a trip to Soweto is with a visit to the township of Orlando and the first home of legendary anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela. You won’t be able to go inside, but Mandela’s matchbook-style house is clearly visible from street. Soweto is actually the only area to have raised two Nobel Peace Prize Winners, Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and both had homes on affluent Orlando West’s Vilakazi Street. Today, Mandela House (number 8115, at the corner of Ngakane and Vilakazi streets) is a museum dedicated to the legacy of South Africa’s first democratically elected president, one that still bears the pockmarks from Molotov cocktails and bullet holes from its past.
Just a few blocks away from Mandela House is the Hector Pieterson Museum (8288 Maseko Street). The museum is named after a 12-year-old boy who died during the events of June 16, 1976, when police opened fire on a group of 10,000 student protestors, the event that led to the Soweto Uprising. There you’ll find a vivid history of the struggle to end apartheid.
Throughout Soweto, you will find many landmarks to apartheid and the fight to end it, including Regina Mundi church, the spiritual center of Soweto, and Kliptown’s Walter Sisulu Square, formerly known as Freedom Square.
While the history of apartheid is an important part of Soweto, there is much more to see and do in this urban community. Catch a train at Naledi Station, for a lively and musical ride you’re sure to remember. Soweto also has a strong culinary tradition which is celebrated at the many restaurants throughout the area, as well as at the first Soweto Food Festival, Oct. 1-4, where you can sample traditional eKasi favorites.
Visiting Soweto is safe, but it is best to go with a local guide for the best taste of the area’s past, and present. For more information on visiting Soweto contact the South African Tourism Services Association.
images: District Nine poster TriStar Pictures; Orlando and Hector Pieterson Memorial photos via iStock