During my second day in Johannesburg we spent most of the day in Soweto, which is the most populated black urban residential area in South Africa. Soweto stands for “South Western Townships” and is home to more than 1 million people that live in 34 different suburbs (the term “suburb” is used very loosely here, because it is a much different place than the connotations the word has in the United States). The township was created in the late 19th century to house black labourers who moved to Johannesburg to work in the mines or other industries. The government reserved the city centre for white populations only, so blacks were forced to live in separate communities farther outside the city’s bounds.
Even though we were in Soweto on a Saturday, the roads seemed to be unusually congested. Alina, our tour guide and native Soweto resident, explained Saturdays are the most popular day for funerals because people don’t have to work. There are usually between 30-60 funerals a day on the weekends and are most often for young people who died of complications from HIV/AIDS. It is tradition to kill a goat in honor of the deceased and share the meat with family and friends. We saw several processions of cars going to and from the cemetery.
Our first stop in Soweto brought us to Walter Sisulu Square in Kliptown. On 26 June 1955, the Freedom Charter was adopted by the African National Congress (ANC), with more than 3,000 delegates in attendance in the square. The Freedom Charter was created by and for the South African people in order to achieve a democratic government with a “one man, one vote” policy for all. There are 10 main pillars to the charter, which were represented by 10 large pillars in the square and enshrined in a memorial at the center. They declare:
- The People Shall Govern!
- All National Groups Shall have Equal Rights!
- The People Shall Share in the Country’s Wealth!
- The Land Shall be Shared Among Those Who Work It!
- All Shall be Equal Before the Law!
- All Shall Enjoy Equal Human Rights!
- There Shall be Work and Security!
- The Doors of Learning and Culture Shall be Opened!
- There Shall be Houses, Security and Comfort!
- There Shall be Peace and Friendship!
These tenants may seem like common sense to us now, but at the time in South Africa they were very radical ideas. (You can read the entire Freedom Charter here.) All throughout the square the motif of an ‘x’ was repeated in order to represent the first free election in South Africa in 1994.
While standing inside the memorial of the charter two young boys came in and started playing. They were tracing the letters of the charter and chasing each other happily and smiling at us. I couldn’t help but be struck by the power of the situation. Where would those boys be without the Freedom Charter, its leaders, and the anti-apartheid movement? Where could those boys be if apartheid was struck down earlier?
We then walked from the square to the city of Kliptown itself. Kliptown is home to more than 48,000 people, but only has 70 water taps. We walked with a guy about my age named Thabo (which means “happiness”) on the streets of Kliptown and he explained to us the history of the city and the places in it. I felt uncomfortable walking in a group of 23 white Americans taking a tour of an obviously poor black community. People were talking about us in their native languages and I can only imagine what they were saying about us. It makes you wonder, why do people come to Africa and tour townships… but nobody comes to America and tours Anacostia or the Bronx. It is simply not done. I tried to turn my outlook on the tour to one of deepening my understanding of the country and my future work in development instead of focusing on the differences between the people of Kliptown and my group. I believe that pity is only another form of oppression. I do not look down on the people who live in the townships. Instead, it makes me think critically about the government systems and institutions that have allowed these instances to occur. It is not how people live that way that it is curious, it is why they have become forced to and the cycle that continues even after the end of apartheid 17 years ago.
We spent the remainder of our time in Soweto visiting famous historical sites. We briefly drove by the house of Winnie Mandela, Nelson Mandela’s second wife and an activist in her own right, and actually saw her in her car! We then walked through Vilakazi Street in Orlando West, the only street in the world home to two Nobel Prize winners: Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela. Mandela moved to 8115 Vilakazi Street in 1946 with his first wife Evelyn. After their divorce he was joined by Winnie, who continued living in the home after his arrest in 1962. He returned to the home after his release from prison in 1990, but only stayed for 10 days due to the thousands of well-wishers who surrounded his house on a constant basis.
Alina took us to her restaurant, which is located at her house, for lunch. It was absolutely delicious! Lots and lots of meat, potatoes, corn, vegetables, dessert, everything! After we ate some of the local kids in the neighborhood came and danced for us. In most neighborhoods I have visited the community raves about how the kids are such amazing dancers. They are usually pretty decent, but dang… these kids were really good! My favorite part was when other little kids heard the music and ran over to see what was going on. By the end there were probably 15-20 kids flocked outside bobbing to the music. It was the cutest thing.
Here is one of the songs we danced to! It is by far my favorite South African song and is performed by a resident of Soweto:
Our final stop of our trip was the site of the 16 June 1976 Student Uprising in Soweto. The Bantu Education Act was implemented by the Apartheid Government in 1953. The policy created a separate department for the education of blacks based only on the fundamental things deemed sufficient for them to learn. They were not encouraged to seek higher education because the white government believed they should not aspire to perform jobs they would never be able to hold; they were only capable of replenishing the black workforce. Black schools usually had ratios of more than 50 students to a teacher, who was generally not qualified. No new schools were built despite the increasing rates of enrollment. In 1976, the Department of Education declared that all classes be taught in Afrikaans. This was typically a “white” language and was rarely spoken by black populations. Alina demonstrated the gravity of this act by asking us to repeat a sentence in Xhosa heavily ridden with clicks. We had no idea what she was saying, much less any ability to replicate the sounds. She then said: “How would you like to learn maths, history, science, in a language you don’t know? That’s what happened to the children here.” The implementation of Afrikaans was the last straw. On 16 June, 1976, more than 15,000 students in school uniform marched in protest against the Bantustan education policies. They planned on marching peacefully, making their resistance heard, and then heading back home. However, the police, who were caught off guard, began shooting into the crowds. No one is sure of the death toll that day. Some reports are as high as 200 children, with many others wounded. The shooting caused a riot in Soweto. The site now serves as a reminder of the bravery of South Africa’s youth as well as a memorial to those who lost their lives.
Overall, it was a very emotional day in Soweto. It caused me to reflect on how lucky and privileged I have been in my short (nearly) 21 years… but more importantly, how have I stood up against injustice in my life? Would I have been as brave as the freedom fighters and youth in South Africa during the oppressive years of apartheid? When I see things I know are not right, do I always have the courage to fight for justice? I sincerely hope I do.