Riaan Wolmarans
Riaan Wolmarans

Spend the night in Kliptown

The historic area of Kliptown in Soweto was in the news on Monday when a swanky four-star hotel opened its doors — the first such establishment in Soweto.

The Freedom Charter was signed in Kliptown in 1955, and the area — which includes Freedom Square — is now one of the attractions helping Soweto grow its tourism industry.

In an IOL preview of the hotel last year, Florence Panoussian wrote this sappy description of the hotel:

Its futuristic rough balconies will overhang streets where horse-drawn carriages and taxis slalom among chicken pens and stalls with brightly coloured tomatoes, pawpaws and other goods for sale at bargain prices.

TV news images on Monday evening showed what appeared to be a classy establishment indeed. Professional-looking women in neat uniforms waited behind (an empty) reception desk; mealie-meal-bag cushions lay scattered on luxurious beds in immaculate rooms.

Outside, however, there were no slaloming horse-drawn carriages, and the pawpaw stalls must have been hidden behind the crowd of protesting Kliptown residents.

The good citizens were up in arms over such a large, shining new development in their back yard, where so few of them have, thus far, found employment. Fair enough: living in abject poverty while such a colossus of prosperity rises across the street would anger even the most peace-loving citizen. Unemployment is a massive obstacle, and surely many Soweto residents saw the scaffolding as a sign of good times to come.

On the other hand, as someone who may have been the hotel owner explained on camera, it’s not easy to run a four-star hotel. It calls for skilled, trained people and therefore the hotel couldn’t employ many locals. Fair enough to him, too — although one wonders exactly how many unskilled workers (chambermaids, waiters, gardeners and so forth) were sourced from the neighbourhood.

It’s a bit of a catch-22 for Kliptown’s people, it seems. They are part of the attraction of the area, yet they can’t profit from it. And speaking of profit, it has been reported that many Soweto B&Bs stand empty because tourists arrive by the busload — and then leave by the busload without spending the night. Will the hotel with the “futuristic rough balconies” be the catalyst to change this?