In Soweto, a South African who celebrated history is mourned

Mourners have gathered in South Africa’s most famous township for a well-known community figure who died of COVID-19

JOHANNESBURG — Benedict Somi Vilakazi had been surrounded by history.

His grandfather was South Africa’s first black lecturer at Witswatersrand University and produced an English/Zulu dictionary, enormous achievements in a country then divided sharply by race. The most famous street in Soweto shares his name, and two Nobel Peace Prize winners — Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu — lived along it.

Vilakazi was proud of that past and put a mural about his grandfather in his coffee shop that was popular with tourists and locals alike.

Some of them gathered, carefully, keeping a distance and many wearing facemasks, on Thursday to mourn the 57-year-old Vilakazi, who died of COVID-19. The pallbearers wore full protective suits.

“Somi knew how to welcome people, serve them a nice coffee and make them laugh,” said his cousin, Sipho Vilakazi, who has a gift shop next door. “So many people will miss him. Our family, our neighbors and many others.”

The coffee shop is located by the Hector Pieterson Memorial, a landmark of South Africa’s struggle against apartheid, the previous regime of racial oppression.

“Somi took great pride in telling people about the history of the family and Soweto,” his cousin said.

Vilakazi had taken the coronavirus threat seriously, observed precautions while serving customers and closed the shop well before South Africa went into lockdown on March 27, family members said.

He died on April 11, leaving a wife and two children.

South Africa has confirmed more than 2,500 cases of COVID-19, and more than 30 deaths. Its nationwide lockdown was imposed relatively early and is credited with helping to control the spread of the disease, bringing the daily average increase in cases down from 42% to 4%.

Health experts warn, however, that the disease is expected to continue to spread in the country of 57 million, especially in the crowded, often low-income townships surrounding Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban and Pretoria.

Those townships include Soweto, the most famous of them all.

“We pray that we will all stay safe and healthy,” Vilakazi’s cousin said.



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