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Golf in Soweto offers a stark contrast in reality, which makes it a popular vacation destination

By Michael Vlismas,

SOWETO, South Africa -- The traditional concept of a golfing holiday is of lush green fairways, lavish air-conditioned clubhouses and cool, leafy suburbs. So why would you want to tee it up in a sprawling black ghetto amidst tin shacks and the thumping music of taxis?

Well, it just might be the most memorable round of golf you'll ever have.

About 15 minutes southwest of Johannesburg, covering an area of 150 square kilometres and with an estimated four million residents, is the township of Soweto.

It is the biggest black urban settlement in Africa with a history of political struggle in the days of apartheid. And it is also home to the Soweto Golf Club, which attracts a surprisingly large number of international tourists who want to experience of playing golf in this famous township.

Soweto is an acronym for South Western Townships, the collective name given to the group of townships in this area which developed into one big city as a result of South Africa's policy of separate development areas for blacks.

The townships emerged at the beginning of the century when the gold mines on the Witwatersrand led to a large influx of black labourers seeking work.

They were originally housed in compounds on the mines. But as the gold rush gathered momentum and the demand grew, there became a need for more settled accommodation.

So the miners were housed in settlements outside the city of Johannesburg and away from white residences and suburbs.

As the mass urbanisation of blacks from the rural areas increased, so too did the borders of these informal settlements until they merged into the sprawling mass that is Soweto.

The township is famous for being the hotbed of political activism as blacks attempted to gain equal rights in South Africa.

On June 16, 1976, the township erupted into what became known as the Soweto Riots, when thousands of students staged a mass demonstration against apartheid that resulted in a battle with the police.

The day is especially remembered for the death of 13-year-old Hector Peterson, a schoolboy who was shot by a policeman.

The riots went on for days, and by June 21, 130 people had been killed, while 1,118 civilians and 22 policemen were amongst the injured.

But these days, the white Afrikaans policemen who drive into Soweto are usually armed with Big Bertha's and are on their way to the first tee of the golf club.

The golf club was opened in the mid-1970s, and today it has about 200 active members of all races.

"In the days of apartheid, whites were not allowed to play the course," explains William Lucas, the chairman of the golf club.

"In fact, not even colored (people) or Indians were allowed to play here. It was a course only for black people. But when apartheid ended, we opened our doors to all races."

It's an 18-hole layout that plays quite long and surprisingly tough, although this may have more to do with the conditioning of the course. The local municipality is responsible for the up-keep of the golf club, and in an area where people make their homes out of cardboard boxes, it's understandable that not too much time or money is invested in the golf club.

"If this course could be looked after properly and some money could be invested in it, I've got no doubt it could become a championship layout," says Lucas.

The golf club emerged as almost a last resort for the golfers of Soweto, who were forced to find new areas to play when the fields they used were annexed by squatters.

"In Soweto, there have always been open fields where people have played golf," says Lucas. "All the courses had sand greens. One such course in the middle of the township was the Mofolo Golf Club.

"But one Saturday, when the golfers arrived at Mofolo for their round, they found people had built houses on the 10th, 11th, 12th and 14th holes.

"So they moved to what became known as the Pimville Golf Club. But the government of the time decided to use that land to build houses on as well, and the golfers moved on again until settling at the Soweto Golf Club, which is located in the south eastern part of the township."

The club has enjoyed a few highlights in its time, the most notable of which were the appearances made by stars such as Gary Player, Mark McNulty and Ernie Els, who have played and hosted clinics there.

"But we've never had a professional shoot the lights out here," Lucas says with pride. The true beauty of playing this course is akin to making your next holiday Cambodia instead of Paris.

The quality of the course is not the objective, but rather making golf part of an entire experience of life in one of the most vibrant, exciting and shocking townships to be found anywhere in the world.

"I have a lot of people phoning me through the tour agencies, very educated people, who want to play the course because they want the experience of playing golf in Soweto. This includes a lot of overseas people," says Lucas.

Through a recognized tour agency, you could combine a round of golf with a tour around the township.

Soweto is a cultural melting pot which offers a startling cross section of abject poverty and surprising opulence.

In Diepkloof, you will see the small shacks the locals call "matchbox houses", many of which are the original dwellings of the first Sowetans. But you can move into one of the many Diepkloof Extensions and get a look at the lavish homes of the emerging black middle class.

Orlando was the first township of Soweto, and was home to most of the famous anti-apartheid activists.

The tourist attractions here include Nelson Mandela's first house, where he stayed until his imprisonment in 1961, and the mansion of his estranged wife Winnie Madikizela Mandela.

This area was also home to other activists such as Walter Sisulu and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

The Hector Pieterson Memorial Museum is also in Orlando, and stands as a testimony to the 1976 riots.

Other attractions include the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital -- the largest of its kind in Africa, the thriving Baragwanath taxi rank, and the various squatter settlements, shebeens and nightclubs.

The Credo Mutwa Village, named after an African traditional healer and fortune-teller, is also worth a visit for some insight into the world of African traditional medicine. It is located in central western Jabavu.

Kliptown is home to Freedom Square, where the Freedom Charter was adopted as the guiding document of the African National Congress.

For a taste of good township cuisine and atmosphere, the famous Wandie's Place in Dube is a regular tour stop. The local name for these restaurants is "shebeen." Other well-known shebeens are Tyson's in Pimville, Vardos in Mapetla, The Rock in Rockville, Boyce in Diepkloof, and Cornish in White City.

Go through a recognized tour agency

The only way to see Soweto and play golf there is through a recognized tour agency. It would be too dangerous to do so on your own, with even many black South Africans wary of traveling into certain parts of the township.

Jimmy's Face-to-Face Tours have been running trips into the township for a few years now. They are also recognized by the Gauteng Tourism Authority.

For R240 (roughly $24) per person you would be taken on a day tour of the shebeens, squatter camps and historical sites by guides who live in Soweto and know exactly where to go and where to stay clear from.

There is also a night tour, costing R510 (roughly $51) per person and including dinner. Golf and safe overnight accommodation in Soweto can also be booked through Jimmy's, who can be reached on +27 11 331 6109.

If you prefer, you can book your tee-off time directly with the captain of the Soweto Golf Club, Victor Mncqibisa, +27 83 650 6811.

The fees are ridiculously cheap, with a round set to cost you only R15 (just over one dollar).

Michael Vlismas is a freelance golf writer and has covered the game for Reuters, several international newspapers and publications such as the Daily Telegraph, Golf Digest and Golf Weekly, as well as having done radio work for the BBC World Service and other stations worldwide.

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