Tuesday, September 9, 2008

SOuth WEstern TOwnship

About a month ago my friend Saf visited me in Cape Town for a few weeks. During her time here we flew to Johannesburg to stay with her friends Lisa and Angie for a weekend. Being my first time in South Africa’s biggest city, I was especially keen to visit Soweto, the largest township in South Africa.

Initially I was wary of the day-long tour of Soweto that Lisa had booked us on, my feelings on this sort of ‘tourism’ being somewhat mixed. As mentioned in previous blogs, the voyeuristic and often intrusive nature of ‘township/favela/slum/village tours’ is generally not for me. As it turned out however, the company that Lisa found (KDR – www.soweto.co.za ) was probably the best that she could have, as it is the only tour company that operates in Soweto which has an ongoing relationship with the communities which it visits, and donates a portion of its profits to the many initiatives that it has helped to develop and support.

The day began with our very knowledgeable and Sowetan born and raised-guide Bongani taking us through downtown Joburg and its CBD. Former colonial presence is evident in the architecture of the buildings we passed – from the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC)’s head office and that of various banks, to the SA headquarters of Australia’s BHP Billiton – the largest mineral mining company in the world. In the middle of the last century Britain’s Barclays bank was one of the biggest in SA, but when Apartheid-related tensions grew hectic in the 1980’s the bank fled, abandoning all the buildings that they owned. Some still stand empty today, crumbling and decrepit skeletons of their former glory. Years later Barclays’ presence in South Africa has returned, in the form of one of its subsidiaries, ABSA – the Amalgamated Banks of South Africa.

As we drove around the city core Bongani asked us to keep the windows closed. Car jackings and theft – even in broad daylight in the middle of a busy street – are rife. Crime rates in the city have improved slightly in recent years (despite the international media and word of mouth continuing to propel the widely-held belief of Jozi as one of the most dangerous cities in the world), though it is definitely still a major problem and it is always better to be safe than sorry.

Past Nelson Mandela’s Peace Bridge and a long-defunct train station built by the Dutch using materials brought over from Holland, and we were soon on our way to Soweto. Driving through the sprawling metropolis and along the freeways towards the turnoff, Bongani gave us bits and pieces of information about the city and how it came to be.

Johannesburg (located in the province of Gauteng, known as Egoli (City of Gold) in isiZulu and isiXhosa, and more colloquially as Joburg and Jozi) was established as a mining town when gold was discovered by an Australian prospector in the late 1800s. This discovery soon brought people from all over the country and world, prompting the Witwatersrand Gold Rush (
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Witwatersrand_Gold_Rush). Gold fever soon lead to the Boer Wars (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boer_Wars) between the Boer (Dutch word for ‘farmer’, came to be commonly used to denote ‘Afrikaner’) Government and the new British presence in the country. The Boers lost.

The most commonly (but not absolutely) accepted story of how Joburg got its name has to do with two men named Johann[es] who along with Paul Kruger (for whom Kruger Park is named) were involved in the inception and development of the city.

Currently the population of Johannesburg is estimated to be somewhere around 4 million, with about ¼ living in Soweto.

Soweto (SOuth WEstern TOwnship) began as a township that the apartheid government established to accommodate the massive influx of migrant workers that came to the area to work on the mines. With a population of around a million (2003), today it is the largest township in South Africa. The racial demographic is predominately black, a small coloured population and even a handful of white families as well.

As we drove into Soweto one of the first things I noticed was the lack of bars on the windows of the homes. There were no bars anywhere. What is commonplace in all areas of Cape Town and certainly of what I had seen of Johannesburg was nowhere to be found here.

As with Guguletu, there was a wide variety in the types of homes we saw – from the standard corrugated-metal shacks and informal settlements, to incredibly beautiful homes and manicured lawns. We stopped in front of one house that belonged to a famous architect. Wide glass plane windows on both the front and rear of the house allowed us a view into a sparkling swimming pool. And still no bars.

Bongani told us that the sense of community in Soweto is so strong that there is no need for bars. For those that do venture to commit crime or theft, the police are rarely called. As Bongani somewhat morbidly put it, a criminal would be lucky if the police were to arrive before members of the community found him. Nuff said.

Down a hill and into a clearly less affluent area – with row houses that looked similar to the barracks one might see in a movie about holocaust-era Germany, reminders of the living conditions the apartheid Government saw fit for miners. We got out of the van and walked around, both Bongani and ourselves being warmly greeted everywhere we went. His connection to the communities is clearly real, which only further helped to cement our comfort with our visit.

We stopped at a shipping container-cum-primary school which has been established and supported by KDR. Here Saf and I were pretty much in heaven. About 20-odd amazingly energetic children, ranging in age from about 3 to 10. They were equally happy to see us, wrapping themselves around our legs, holding out their arms to be picked up. We played and chatted with them, and they sang us songs. Our stay was perhaps slightly longer than Bongani had anticipated but that’s what you get when you put teachers with kids.

Reluctantly we unwrapped the little ones from our limbs and headed off to visit a local market. We tried some local (1% alcohol content) beer that was served in milk containers and extremely bitter.

Moving on from the market we next stopped in Kliptown, an informal settlement that is one of the largest and oldest areas of Soweto. We then stopped for a visit at the Kliptown Youth Program (www.kliptownyouthprogram.org), another initiative that is financially supported by KDR. This organization works with youth in the community, engaging them through the use of sport, educational support and skills development. There was also a youth-maintained vegetable garden on site. One of the guys in charge took us on a walking tour of the area, where we were again greeted by smiling faces and adorable children. We passed the local telephone booth – a rotary dial telephone sitting on a cardboard box and attended by a young man. Locals could pay for three minutes of phone call use at a rate far less than what any mobile phone provider or Telkom would charge.

Our new friend then took us into his house – a small one room shack that housed him and his 7 siblings. As we took in our surroundings, I couldn’t help but wonder how many of my students live in similar settings. Outside the sun shone a beautiful and sunny 24 degrees. Inside the home was sweltering hot. One can only imagine what it must be like in the 35+ degree days of summer…or the cold, damp and rainy nights of winter.

Next stop was lunch – delicious Sowetan buffet style. Bongani’s eyes widened at the amount of food on our plates, and then again when we went for round two, obv.

Sufficiently stuffed, we headed off to the afternoon portion of our tour – a visit to the Hector Pieterson museum.

For many, the word Soweto is inextricably linked to the events that transpired there on June 16th, 1976.

Fed up of being forced to learn with Afrikaans as the official language of instruction, on this day students from Soweto-area high schools engaged in a non-violent march to demonstrate their opposition. They numbered in the thousands and marched peacefully, singing songs and carrying homemade signs. This well-planned exercise in civil disobedience soon turned ugly as students found that police had barricaded their planned route. Undeterred, they changed course, ending up near Orlando High School. The police had other plans. Although the students continued peacefully and non-confrontationally, police released dogs and tear gas in an attempt to disperse the crowd. Students threw rocks at the police, and eventually one of the dogs was caught and killed by the crowd. Things then escalated quickly as police fired shots into the crowd. Then all hell broke loose. Terrified, students began screaming and running in all directions. Police fired more shots, killing two students.

One of the first students killed was 12-year old Hector Pieterson.

For 2 days following the initial clash, the violence continued at a hectic pace. Riots broke out all over Soweto, and police were brutal in their retaliation. Shots were fired at random, killing many and wounding countless others, mostly children. The anger that had been a longtime brewing had erupted. Trickle-down effects of the Soweto uprising were felt all over the country in various forms and capacities and things continued to worsen for months to follow. Final estimates put the number of dead somewhere around 600, although no one can really know for sure. In the aftermath of these tragic events, June 16th - the first day of clashes between youth and police - has come to be known as the Soweto Uprising, commemorated in South Africa on a yearly basis with a statutory holiday, Youth Day.

Today, the Hector Pieterson museum (http://www.soweto.co.za/html/p_hector.htm)
stands as a monument, educational centre and reminder of one of the darkest days in this country’s struggle for equality. A devastating but extremely interesting stop on our tour, I would definitely call it is a must-see for anyone going to Johannesburg and Soweto.

In the somber wake of this visit, we were all in need of a drink. On the way to our last stop at a local pub, we drove by Vilakazi street – a small non-descript road that holds the distinctive honor of being the only street in the world to have housed two Nobel Peace Prize winners – Dr. Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela and Archibishop Desmond Tutu. We saw the house that Dr. Mandela had lived in and took a minute to appreciate the greatness that had once walked our very steps.

At our final stop we enjoyed some local beer (this time out of bottles), watched the opening ceremonies of the Olympics and talked about all we had seen and done that day. Outside I met a man who had been born and raised in Soweto and like Bongani worked as a tour guide for KDR. His English was impeccable and when I complemented him on this, he said that he had spent many years living in Boston. When the Apartheid regime became too much for him and his small family to bear he had moved there in the early 1980s. His children were born and raised in the US. He returned in 1994 and today the whole family lives in South Africa. ‘It is home.’ he told me at the end of his sentence. ‘It gets under your skin. It’s in our blood.’

As we finished our drinks in silence and watched the sun set over the quiet cul de sac street the bar was on, I reflected on what he had said and what I had seen that day. I thought to myself about my own attachment to my home country, and wondered whether I, given a similar reality and my country a similar history would have done the same thing in his place. One never knows for sure, although I certainly couldn’t argue with his comment about South Africa getting under your skin.
This country may not be my home, and indeed has and continues to have its fair share of ills and misfortunes, but seldom has a day gone by where I am not reminded of its warmth, beauty, and above all the strength, resilience and hope of its people.


NB: In regards to the Soweto Uprising, I have written but a small overview of this historic and infamous event. For a day-by-day breakdown of what happened, please go here: http://www.sahistory.org.za/pages/governence-projects/june16/june16.htm
For a broader overview, there is always good old wiki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soweto_uprising

1 comment:

JN said...


As an ex South African, I've grown used to reading accounts of South Africa that tend to be superficial, inaccurate, etc. - and understandably so in such a multi-layered country. To spare you an excess of appreciation, I'll just say that in this report of your visit to Soweto, I think you aced it.

It's been 15 years since I was last in SA, and my only visit to Soweto was in the early late 80s (as I recall) when we visited Wilton Mkwayi - a fellow Robben Island prisoner with Mandela - who was than living in Mandela's home (I presume the same one you drove by.

Thanks for the work you're doing at Fezeka and beyond. I look forward to reading more.

(I manage the EwB web site)

- Jeffrey