Successful Joburg tour operator Joe Motsogi remembers vividly the fateful day of June 16, 1976 as if it were yesterday.
It was a day that catapulted the shocking horrors of the illegitimate and much-discredited apartheid government onto the world stage.
Back then, Mot-sogi was repeating Grade 12 at Sekano-Ntoane High School in Soweto, where he was one of the militant student leaders advocating against the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in black township schools.
Today, he runs an established tour operating company, JMT Tours, and takes tourists from around the world on tours around southern Africa’s largest township, Soweto.
When I call Motsogi on his cellphone to confirm that I and The Star photographer Matthews Baloyi are on our way for our scheduled interview, he tells us that he’s already at the rendezvous – the Apartheid Museum.
When we get there, Motsogi is in the company of two US tourists, Bob and Ann Schrage, who have been left stranded by their tour operator. Motsogi tells us he will be taking them on a round trip through Soweto – without them paying him any greenbacks.
Motsogi comes across as a down-to-earth family man. But he’s not modest about his achievements as he proudly refers to himself as one of the “pioneers of township tourism” in the country.
Confident and talkative, Motsogi would later reveal that he got into the multibillion-rand a year tourism industry by sheer chance.
Together with the tourists,I hop onto his Hyundai H-1 tour minibus, while Baloyi follows our lead in the company pool car. And thus the interview begins.
“Joburg is divided into four regions: North Rand, South Rand, East Rand and West Rand. The Apartheid Museum is more on the South Rand. Some people say it opens up closed wounds. But we say it’s part of the healing process. People need to know who did what, why they did it and where it was done,” he says matter-of-factly, as he occasionally glances at the tourists through the car’s rearview mirror.
Even though many of us were not yet born in the 1970s, Motsogi paints a worrying picture of a country in turmoil, engulfed in flames, with many states of emergency in effect.
Three days before the June 16 massacre happened, he tells us, “the country was burning, literally. He’ll never forget how, on the day, the apartheid police ordered the pupils to disperse within three minutes, failing which “they promised to shoot at us”.
Numbers of the dead vary, but it’s believed at least 147 were killed in cold blood on the day, some of them barely out of childhood.
“Those are the registered deaths. Many of the students were maimed and many left the country,” Motsogi says, looking sadly at the road ahead, before continuing: “The police came with their armoured cars. It was like a battle zone. They were given instructions to shoot to kill, and many died.”
He makes sure the tourists understand that the protest was not planned by any political organisation.
“It was initiated by students. I was a student at that time.I was a leader at my school.Like the many who were detained, I was detained as well.
“We were saying apartheid was an illegitimate government. It was not elected (by the majority of the people). We were very militant, we were fighting the apartheid government.”
Today, Motsogi makes his living by telling this history to eager tourists from around the world, taking them to all the tourist spots around Soweto.
He is the chairperson of the Gauteng Tour Operators Association and deputy chairman of the Southern Africa Tourism Services Association. Association stickers are proudly emblazoned on the back of his minibus.
Motsogi, who owns properties in Soweto and Cedar Creek, says he is an accidental tourist in the tourism sector.
He used to work for SA Breweries as a sales rep, covering the greater part of Soweto.
“When the brewery had visitors or delegates, they would ask me to take them around. Then my interest (in tourism) came up. My job is leisure and I do this with passion. I love what I’m doing,” says Motsogi, adding he was not motivated by money to start his business, but passion.
“I started JMT Tours with little or no experience at all. I took a couple of crash courses in tourism. Market access was difficult to penetrate,” he says, adding: “I’m one of the pioneers of township tourism.”
He also tells of the difficulties he and other small tour operators encountered in their quest to get a bigger slice of the cake, saying: “In the beginning, we were regarded as illegal tour operators by the powers that be.
“But a lot of ground has been covered since then. We are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.
“Look, we want a big chunk of the business – but not in a militant way. We want to be in the thick of things. The cake is big and we’ve got to share,” he says.
Motsogi’s passion in what he does is self-evident. He has all the facts about South Africa, Soweto and Joburg at his fingertips, to the tourists’ amazement.
First, he tells them about how big the country is (1.2 million square kilometres) and about its population of 53 million, made up of 70 percent blacks, whites 15 percent, Indians seven percent and coloureds eight percent.
“Coloureds are people of mixed race,” he says to the Americans. In the US the term is regarded as derogatory.
Motsogi then tells the tourists about the history of the first explorers to set foot in South Africa.
When we get to Soweto’s affluent suburb, Diepkloof, Motsogi gives them all the information they need to know about Soweto.
When we pass the Bara taxi rank, he points to the parked minibus taxis, saying: “There are more than 20 000 of them in Soweto.”
Finally, he stops at the Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication in Kliptown, where the Freedom Charter, a symbolic precursor to the constitution adopted in 1996, was signed during the Congress of the People on June 22, 1955.
The tour is over.