Soweto's walk to freedom
The South African township continues to fight its battle against poverty and illiteracy even as it marches ahead into the 21st century.
"Does anyone have Red Bull wings?" questioned my guide Mfundo. The entire group burst out laughing. I was in Soweto, an acronym for South Western Townships, about 20km southwest of Johannesburg in South Africa and had joined a motley crowd on a bicycle tour. Mfundo, called Pikachu by his friends, was pointing towards the two colourful cooling towers used for generating electricity for Johannesburg from 1942 till 1998. Today, these iconic defunct cooling towers serve as a launchpad for bungee-jumping and hence the joke about Red Bull wings.
But bunjee-jumping wasn't in my scheme of things. I was there to see Soweto, the hotspot of South Africa's resistance against apartheid and the fight for South African liberation movement up, close and personal. The year 1886 saw the discovery of gold in Joburg by the Australian miner George Harrison and this attracted people from across the globe to seek their fortune. Very soon, the city saw multi-racial shanty towns and labour camps being set up. By 1904, the city was reeling with the outbreak of the bubonic plague and the residents of the multi-racial Coolietown and Brickfields were forcibly segregated and relocated for the sake of sanitation - but that was a cover for apartheid. The blacks were moved to Klipspruit, a tented settlement, southwest to the city which was next to the city council sewage (so much for sanitation), thus laying the foundation for the setup of Orlando (named after the mayor) that eventually led to the formation of Soweto.
Today, Soweto is a contrast of sorts. A settlement of around 200sqkm with 1.5 million people, it has at one end slums with corrugated roofs, little sanitation and no water supply, as its residents continue to wait for the allotment of a house through government's free housing scheme. Closeby are the famed matchbox houses (four-roomed dwellings for the labourers) followed by the posh area with luxurious mansions costing up to four million rands. Soweto is also home to the ill-famed hostels, the labour dormitories of the apartheid government, which later became a hotspot for violent conflict after Nelson Mandela's release from prison.
As we pedalled ahead through the lanes dotted by the matchbox houses, I got a glimpse into the daily life of the Sowetans. Ladies walked down the streets with their children tied to their back. Shops selling meat for a traditional braai (social custom of grilled meat in South Africa), fruits and vegetables, had thrown open their doors in the blazing afternoon heat. Friendly locals called out sawubona, the African Zulu greeting meaning 'I see you'. All 11 official languages of the country are spoken in Soweto. Kids were seen on the streets playing football - the only form of sport that could be played by the natives during the apartheid rule. "We have two major football teams in Soweto, Kaizer Chiefs from Orlando West, and the best team in the world - Orlando Pirates from Orlando East," joked Mfundo.
We cycled towards Khumalo Road in Orlando West for a brief stop. Mfundo pointed towards the picture of the limp body of 12-year-old Hector Pieterson being carried by 18-year-old Mbuyisa Makhubo and his sister Antoinette Sithole running beside them. This world-famous picture by Sam Nzima taken on June 16, 1976 showcased the atrocities committed by the apartheid government to the world. The siblings had joined fellow black students in a peaceful protest march in Soweto against the government for enforcing Afrikaans - the language of the Europeans of Dutch descent - as the medium of teaching. The police opened fire on the students and the casualties were enormous in the days that followed.
The Hector Pietersen museum located not far away from where Pietersen was shot dead during the Soweto uprising, commemorates the role of the students in their fight against apartheid. Today, the country celebrates Youth Day on June 16, which is a public holiday. Sowetans haven't forgotten their past. It continues to breathe in their streets. A pitstop in the township which echoes the dark days of apartheid is Nelson Mandela's house No. 8115 in Vilakazi Street in Orlando West. Bullet-riddled walls of the red brick house with tiny rooms are testimony to the attempts on Mandela's wife Winnie while he was in prison for 27 years. "That night I returned with Winnie to No 8115 in Orlando West. It was only then that I knew in my heart I had left prison. For me No 8115 was the centre point of my world, the place marked with an X in my mental geography," are Mandela's words from his book - Long Walk to Freedom after his release. One can find large pictures of family members reminiscent of the old times, some original fixtures, awards and Mandela's boxing gloves in his house.
Outside Mandela's house, I found men in overalls and gumboots embellished with bells dancing by, stamping their boots. This gumboot dance evolved as a form of communication between the black miners in the late 19th century as they were not allowed to talk in the mine, a grim reminder of their past. Down the street, I eyed a bunch of African teachers enjoying their lunch in a restaurant after school. I met 38-year-old Sindi Swa who grew up with her grandparents in Soweto in a matchbox house. Her grandmother would run a shebeen, an illicit bar, at home and her father worked at the gold mine in Joburg. Today, she is a double graduate and owns a house in a posh area in Joburg.
Soweto continues to fight its battle against poverty, illiteracy and crime. But it also marches ahead slowly and steadily into the 21st century with the advent of malls selling Western brands, transformed streets and a growing middle class. The people of Soweto are walking towards a future of progress, but without having forgotten their tumultuous past.