On the path of the "Struggle" In Soweto

Trip Start Aug 15, 2011
Trip End Sep 02, 2011

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Flag of South Africa  ,
Saturday, August 27, 2011

To describe a tour of Soweto as an eye-opener is an understatement, but to leave it out of a visit to Johannesburg is ignoring what life is truly like for a massive proportion of black South Africans.

Soweto, standing for SOuth WEstern TOwnship, is one of the many townships in which black South Africans were housed in the period of apartheid, and where millions of people still live in abject poverty. Soweto is entrenched in South Africa's history like no other.  20 miles from Johannesburg, an estimated 4 million people live in Soweto, while the official figure is 1.3 million.

It really is a symbol for all South Africa has been through and for what it is becoming, but visiting there is a very sobering experience as you see first hand how people are still living in corrugated tin shacks (sometimes as many as 6-8 people in a space no bigger than a pop up camper) and when you visit many of the sights on the "Struggle" tour which takes you past the places that are iconic symbols of the struggles of the South African people.

One of the most famous examples of this is Soweto's Vilakazi Street which is the only street in the world which has the homes of two Nobel Peace Prize winners. Here sits Nelson Mandela's former home, which is now a museum, and Desmond Tutu's house. Seeing the area now and thinking about how it must have been when they both lived there really made me understand how these two men were inspired to change things for those in their community and what a tremendous effort it was for them to succeed in doing so.

Close by, there is the site where 13 year-old Hector Pieterson was shot dead when police open fired into the street on 16 June 1976. This occurred during the student uprising, where school children had begun protesting about their lack of educational facilities and the fact they were being forced to learn Afrikaaner, the language of the whites, rather than English.When I thought about this poor young boy and his senseless death wandering the memorial and museum dedicated in his name, I felt goosebumps as I thought about what it must be like to have to face death just to fight for something as basic as being able to learn in a language you can easily understand. Soweto has a way of moving you like this.

Contrary to what you may think though, there is a substantial amount of affluent housing in the township, where many high-profile residents live, including Winnie Mandela. However, when you see the squatter camps, your poverty-gripes back at home will soon be put into perspective. Nothing I have ever seen in the US compares to the miles and miles of barely inhabitable housing which still exists in Soweto.The shanty town is grossly overcrowded; people share block toilets and families of eight may live with no amenities under one tin or plastic-sheeted shack the size of a garden shed. Barbed wire and chicken wire fence off rusting, leaking homes, while ‘roofs’ are held up on rotting wooden posts. A common sight is to see many people washing their clothes at the community faucet or getting a haircut on the corner by the one local barber while sitting on a "chair" made of boxes.

But for all the deprivation and violent history Soweto has, there is a real welcoming buzz and vibrancy to the area. I went wandering after our visit to the Pieterson Museum and ended up talking to a number of local people who were either selling crafts or standing around nearby. All of them were anxious to hear my impressions of Soweto and really stressed the hope they feel now as compared to the past when it seemed as though they had no future or prospects.

It is still a very foreboding place as evidenced by my trip to purchase water at the corner store where I had to retrieve it from a woman behind iron bars who handed it to me through the grill and then I walked to a grill and iron covered cash register area to pass my money through a bullet proofed drawer to the cashier. Yes, it is crime-ridden, dirty and at the grossly extreme end of poor, but when it was time to leave, I wished I’d had longer to get to know the township.
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MA O'Brien on

I have to be glad you are safely out of there, wow bars to buy and pay makes 7 eleven pick ups a minor thing.

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