Visit to a South African township: Soweto

Soweto is a township outside of Johannesburg. It is a must see for visitors to South Africa as it is ground zero for the anti-apartheid movement. I was adamant about having a “local” guide and was pleased to find that Big Ben (or BB as Frank called him!) had lived there all his life. Our day with BB was a day we won’t soon forget.

First, let me explain the concept of a township. In South Africa, it refers to the living areas, usually on the periphery of cities, where Blacks, Coloreds and Indians were relocated to from the late 19th century until the end of apartheid.

Soweto is an acronym for southwestern township. The area currently houses almost two million people. The new government has spearheaded plans to plant trees, develop parks, and provide electricity and running water to those that don’t have it. There was a mix of poor (mainly) and some very nice housing but we also saw settlements of corrugated steel shacks. Although many of the very poor live there, BB explained that it is also houses people who are in the area temporarily, as the homes are cheap and, when necessary, “moveable.” The government is trying to eliminate this type of housing but it has become a way of life for many.

Soweto continues to grow. We saw many restaurants, small businesses and plans for a big shopping center. Being Saturday, the community was bustling and there were lots of kids around. When BB would stop to tell us about an area, curious kids would often surround us. Many of the younger ones didn’t understand English but they sure lit up when we gave them candy! At one point we ran out of treats. While Frank stood in line at the outdoor candy vendor, a parade of kids soon gathered behind him. That day, he made lots of friends!

After some historically significant landmarks and lots of interesting conversation, BB asked us if we would like to go “off schedule” and visit his aunt’s nearby home. We spent an hour in their dining area, chatting with her, his cousin (BB’s best friend), his cousin’s wife and their three children. The home was one of the nicer dwellings, simply decorated and very tidy. We had a delightful visit ending in hugs and promises by us to email pictures. After hearing about their passion for soccer, Frank treated BB and his cousin to tickets for that evening’s nearby match!

The “social” part of the tour ended with lunch at a popular Sowetan eatery and then it was time to take in some local history.

Our first stop was just up the street to one of Nelson Mandela’s homes. At one point, he had lived there with his second wife Winnie and their two young children. There were bullet holes in the outside walls from when police (!) would do drive by shootings. The couple built a brick wall in their living room to protect their family from the bullets.

Nelson Mandela’s given name was Rolihlahla. Like many blacks, his first teacher gave him a random white name. For a long time, it was routine in South Africa for blacks to have their names changed when they entered white run institutions (schools, churches) or went to work in homes, offices or factories because the English and South Afrikaans found it hard to pronounce their names. They also thought the names were un-Christian, un-Western. The practice seems to remain as our guide’s original name wasn’t really Ben but he said it was much easier for tourists to pronounce.

Interestingly enough, just down the same street, was the home of another Nobel Peace Prize winner, Desmond Tutu, making it the only street to house two such prestigious residents!

When we arrived at our next stop, the Morris Isaacson School, we were asked to wait as a meeting was taking place. Meanwhile, BB gave us a little background on the school. In 1976, high school (!) students from numerous Sowetan schools protested in response to the white government proclaiming Afrikaans as the new medium of instruction. The students felt it was the language of the “oppressor” and were angry at having to learn all their subjects in a language other than English. They planned a peaceful demonstration, walking out of their respective schools to meet up and march to the local soccer stadium. Police fired on the students, killing several of them. Further protests ensued with an estimated 20,000 students participating. The number of people (mostly young students between ages 13 and 20) killed by police ranged from 176 to 700. The killings resulted in the anti-apartheid movement gaining international attention.

The Morris Isaacson School was one of the high schools that marched and its students were among the first who were fired upon. Coincidentally, the meeting at the school was for a group of alumni, some of whom were actually involved in the protests. Many stayed after the meeting to talk with us and we had a fascinating discussion about their experiences during the protests — they are in the process of writing a book. One of them was holding the hand of her friend who was shot!

The group also shared their concern for the decline of their once prestigious school. Having been involved in our schools, it was an eye opener, and I promised to connect them with a stateside school so they could perhaps do a cultural exchange via technology.

The final stop of the day was the Hector Pieterson museum. Just 13 years old, Hector Pieterson was one of the first students to be killed during the uprising. He has since become a symbol of youth resistance to apartheid. The museum opened in 2002 and houses photographic and audio-visual displays. It was very informative and seeing those young faces, made it all very moving.

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