How to get home

Patricia Kühfuss


Over twenty years after Apartheid ended, history echos through South Africa, and the results filter down to everyday life of people living in the townships. Today many black people still have to move up to 40 km every day into town to get to work, because their grandparents have been moved out of Johannesburg to the townships of Soweto to make the city a "whites only" area under Apartheid.

While the state’s infrastructure like the metrorail break under the amount of people and crime, private minibus taxis have become one of the booming economy branches in the country. As the system has evolved on its own, there are no official stops in the townships -- but there is a simple, even elegant solution to it.

This series of set up photographs explores the unique hand signs used in Soweto, Johannesburg, to stop a taxi going in the right direction, which are also know as „South Africa‘s 12th language“, referring to the fact that South Africa boasts 11 official languages. It is a language mainly understood by the black community, showing that white and black people still face a different reality.

By making them blend into everyday situations in Soweto, the signs do not only tell the story of how to get home in Johannesburg, but also show what this home looks like.

All directions are referring to travels to/from/in Soweto. The meaning of some signs may vary in other parts of the Greater Johannesburg Metropolitan Area.

Local advice and hand model: Siya Ndzonga

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  • Sweets:

    Informal stands with vegetables and sweets can be found all over Soweto at the side of the road. Under Apartheid it was restricted how many and what kind of businesses the black people were allowed to have. They were forced to ship in the "white" areas, which was more expensive and farer away. In the last twenty years more and more malls have been built in Soweto.

  • Street kitchen:

    A pot with pap, the basic ingredient of the South African kitchen, is heated over a wooden fire beside the road. Pap is maize mash similar to polenta which accompanies the traditional barbeque, called Braai, together with Atchar. It is very cheap.

  • Trainhopping:

    The state-owned yellow Metrorail trains are connecting the townships with downtown Johannesburg. Due to frequent breakdowns, cable theft, being overcrowded and safety issues they are seen as unreliable. If possible, many people prefer to take a minitaxi owned by private companies to get into town, which have become a booming part of South African economy. Young boys surf the trains in the township for fun.

  • Palmleaf:

    Johannesburg is situated about 1700 metres above sealevel, the climate is quite dry and temperatures are mostly between 20-30 thirty degrees, in winter only occasionally dropping in one-digit areas. Johannesburg is the only big city in the world not located near a river or the sea. It was build on a giant gold reef found in 1884. At times it provided 40% of the world's gold demand, attracting immigrants from all over the world.

  • Abortion:

    All over Johannesburg informal posters with only one word, "ABORTION", and a telephone number can be found. Though having an abortion is legal in South Africa, often doctors will refuse to undertake it because of their Christian faith, and due to the lack of providers often there are long waiting lists. This can make women feel it is better for them to go to an illegal place. The quality and safety of the treatment can vary tremendously.

  • Plucking Cosmea:

    Flowers grow on the side of the road into Protea Glen. The flowers bloom each year after good friday for a month. Christian faith plays a very big role in Soweto, there are many big and small churches people will attend, many of which are independent African churches. They are the community hub. Everybody tries to look their best on a Sunday.

  • Car Wash:

    Having a car wash is one of the successful business models in Soweto, people feed their families with it. A full wash costs about 50 Rand(ca. 3 Euros). Cars are a status symbol in the township, the dust is washed off every week.

  • Chicken, still alive:

    Chicken is the most common meat in the township. People will slaughter one themselves on special occasions like a wedding, birthday or a funeral. Due to Apartheid, there were no official meeting places like cafes or restaurants built in the townships, so you will recognize celebrations by seeing crowds gathering before people's homes.

  • Telephone Booth:

    Communication is very expensive in South Africa. Though cellphones are a standard today, the rates are quite high. Calls are often interrupted by people running out of airtime. Mobile data has to be bought seperately. Many people don‘t have WiFi in their homes, which can make it difficult to keep up in the business world.

  • Atchar:

    Atchar is a basic ingredient of the South African kitchen, which is influenced by the gold-seeking immigrants from all over the world. It is derived from the Indian chutneys and consists of cooked green mangos in oil with pepper, chilies, garlic and other spices. It accompanies almost all the typical South African dishes like pap, kota and braai.

  • Exhaust pipes:

    Exhaust pipes arranged into „trees“ display the different exhausts that are offered to repair a car. Most of the repairs are undertaken at the side of the road. Of course, you can have your broken refrigerator welded as well. Problems are there to be solved.

  • Handpainted Ads:

    Most advertisment is handpainted in Soweto, often very creatively displaying the local specialities in a distinct style.

  • Hairdresser:

    Hairdressers can be found in small stands at the side of the road, as are shoemakers, taylors and other small services. Under Apartheid urban development was repressed, the townships where meant to be mainly workforce housing. A lot of the small businesses are still offered in makeshift locations.

  • Menu of a "Kota-Shop":

    If you buy a "Kota" you know you will not stay hungry. The name comes from a loaf of toast bread, that will be cut up into four „quarters“(=kotas). Originally having been filled with pap and Atchar, the only ingredients available in the townships, today you find chips,
    mince, sausages, cheese and other custom additions like a fried egg or coleslaw. You can say it is all meals in one. It can be bought all over the townships from small «Spaza»-stores.

  • The „Sowetan“:

    The Sowetan is a daily newspaper that started in 1981 as a liberation struggle newspaper and was freely distributed in the segregated township of Soweto. Currently it is one of the largest national newspapers in South Africa, the tone leans to the left. Presently, the political situation in South Africa is very unstable.