Walk About in Soweto, South Africa
South West Township (SOWETO). Johannesburg, South Africa.
I have been fortunate for one reason or another to have traveled quite a bit. Current count is around 40 countries… and counting.
Like most frequent travelers I have a bucket list of sorts with respect to destinations that I want to get to before I myself kick the bucket. Today I get to tick another one off that list.
As a child I grew up in rural Australia with not much to do but chase rabbits and play rock golf with a stick. I can’t remember how I came to get them, but I read Wilbur Smith novels about Africa (all of them), and in particular the stories that followed the histories of the Courtney and Ballantyne families respectively.
As a young boy these books were fantastic adventure stories, that inevitably were replayed over and over as I went on my own safaris near our house, albeit I was chasing rabbits and lizards, and not Rhino and Buffalo, and it was the family dog chasing me, and not Zulu warriors.
Ever since that time, going to Africa has been one thing that I knew that I would do, and now that I have been, I know that I will go back again to see more of this fantastic country.
This current trip was brief, and I couldn’t bring any of my real camera gear, so had to make do with my trusty Canon PowerShot S-100 point & shoot which I normally have in my pocket on trips. It is a decent holiday camera, but nothing like my real toys.
I had less than a day to have a look around. I was staying in Johannesburg so it was a toss up between The Lion Park and Soweto. No disrespect to the cats, but I wanted to see Soweto. I knew I would be back… and would be going to one of the big game reserves, so the Lions could wait.
I wasn’t really sure what to expect. My knowledge of Soweto was based on what you see on TV, newspapers, general urban myth, and my South African friends, most of whom don’t live there anymore.
The first thing that struck me was how many people lived in Soweto. I was expecting it to be a suburb of greater Johannesburg, which in essence it is… but it is a large city unto itself. Depending on what data source you look at, the population seems to be somewhere around 1.6 to over 2 million, which accounts for approximately 40% of the population of Johannesburg.
I was expecting less than ideal living conditions, but I was a little surprised as to the diversity from quite well to do, to not well off at all.
An important note to most of the photos included here: These do not illustrate all of Soweto, in fact far from it. I elected to include these ones simply as I found them interesting. Anyone can live and survive in a fancy neighbourhood…. these guys were doing it in not so prime conditions, but for the most part had a big smile on their face as I walked by.
A Note to the Soweto Text: My apologies to the original creators of this text. I obtained it from several websites and was unable to locate a reference to the respective authors. So my thanks to them, and from my side, while I may have changed it around a bit, most of the original text and/or context is not mine, but I wanted to include it to simply add some background to the photos and their location.
The name Soweto is an acronym, made up – in apartheid days – from the first letters of the words ‘South West Township’.
Soweto is a sprawling mass on the south west flank of Johannesburg. It is a hodgepodge of makeshift houses, all the way through to very upscale residences. It is fourth world and first world living next door to each other.
Soweto was created in the 1930s, with Orlando the first township established. In the 1950s, more black people were relocated there from ‘black spots’ in the inner city – black neighbourhoods which the apartheid government had reserved for whites.
Soweto is home to the largest hospital on the African Continent (and according to their website, the largest in the World), the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, and was also the site of the 2010 Soccer World Cup final.
2010 Soccer World Cup Stadium
I did the standard tourist sites, including Nelson Mandela’s house where he stayed before he was imprisoned in 1961. Also Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s house, and the Hector Pieterson museum.
The Hector Pieterson Museum is worth a visit, and I would suggest that you go here first (either that or the Apartheid Museum… which I unfortunately didn’t get to).
It is named after a 12 year-old boy (Hector Pieterson) who was shot on the 16th June 1976 during the Soweto uprising that today is a symbol of resistance to the brutality of the apartheid government. Some say that this event was the beginning of the end of Apartheid.
Soweto came to the world’s attention on 16th June 1976 with the Soweto Uprising when mass protests erupted over the government’s policy to enforce education in Afrikaans rather than English. Police opened fire in Orlando West on 10,000 students marching from Naledi High School to Orlando Stadium. The rioting continued and 200 people, including two white people, died on the first day in Soweto.
The first to be killed was Hector Pieterson. Another among the killed was Dr. Melville Edelstein, who had devoted his life to social welfare among blacks. He was stoned to death by the mob and left with a sign around his neck proclaiming “Beware Afrikaaners”.
The impact of the Soweto protests reverberated throughout the country and across the world. In their aftermath, economic and cultural sanctions were introduced from abroad. Political activists left the country to train for guerrilla resistance. Soweto and other townships became the stage for violent state repression.
Since 1991 this date and the schoolchildren have been commemorated by the International Day of the African Child.
I also went to Constitution Hill before going to Soweto (home of Constitution Court). On this site, once the Old Fort Prison Complex, commonly known as Number Four, political prisoners and common criminals awaited trial and sat out their jail sentences. At the height of apartheid rule, up to 2,000 black South Africans were processed through its entrance daily. Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Luthuli, Robert Sobukwe and Nelson Mandela were guests in the cells reserved for black males at Number Four.
My guide (who was from Soweto) took me into some of the back streets (I am not so good at staying on the well beaten path). As I have said before, you can’t really see a place from the window of car, and where the local tourism board wants you to go. Sure, go and see the sites. But also go and see where real people live and work.
People going about their daily chores, or just hanging out on the street.
Now don’t get me wrong, this wasn’t 5th. Avenue, and nor we’re these people living an easy life, but like most people in this type of situation, they went about their day with a smile on their face, and a friendly wave.
I leave you with this final image that made me laugh.
In the background you can see the McDonald’s advertisement, while in the foreground a guy is selling a bull’s head in his open air market of sorts.
That’s It… See You There!