Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Soweto Township

We began our tour of Soweto, Johannesburg's largest township, at the top: what our guide called the richest part of the enclave that home to four million souls. The homes were made of brick, had tidy and attractive landscaping, and new model cars parked out front.

Eric, our guide, himself a resident of Alexandra township, pointed out an interesting difference between this upscale section of Soweto and other neighborhoods around the city - and around South Africa. The homes were surrounded by walls, but lacked the barbed wire, electric fences and barred windows found in nearly every other place we visited.

The reason, Eric said, is that the area is considered much safer than other residential areas of Joburg, or Jozi. Neighbors in this area band together and respond to any type of crime en masse, sending the criminal packing or maybe giving him a beating.

We had expected to see abject poverty on our tour, and we saw plenty of it, but we had not anticipated the upper-class area, which Eric said is populated with retired sports stars and business executives.

Across a small ravine from this pleasant neighborhood - where streets are blocked off most weekends for weddings, funerals and parties - were the bleak row homes called hostels, where whole families cram into single rooms that don't have running water or electricity.

We learned about Soweto's role in South Africa's democratic transformation. It was there that in 1976, students protesting the government's education policies prompted harsh retaliation from the police, and a 13-year-old boy was shot to death by an officer. That incident sparked a popular uprising that spread across the country.

Later on our tour, we drove past Soweto's middle-class area, which included small four-room brick houses. We also saw the former home of Nelson Mandela, and the current home of his ex-wife, Winnie Mandela, and the home of Nobel laureate Bishop Desmond Tutu.

So much history in such a small geographic location.

Perhaps the most moving part of our tour came when we visited a shanty town of tiny, tin-roofed shacks. Residents working for tips show visitors like us around, and we were also brought inside one of the shacks to talk with the woman who lived there.

The woman was in her 50s, and lived in the shack, no more than 10-by-10 with two daughters and several grandchildren. The family cooked on a paraffin stove, and had a coal stove for warmth. A bed took about half the space.

The woman said the problem facing her country is a lack of jobs, and she spoke somberly, in a low voice. While the family doesn't have to pay any rent for its shack, they are barely able to scrape together enough money for food and cooking fuel.

The residents get their water from a central spigot, filling up plastic five-gallon buckets and hauling them back to their shacks.

When I asked the woman whether she is better off since Nelson Mandela was elected as the country's first black president in 1994, she said that although people are glad to be rid of the oppressive apartheid government, economically things haven't changed much.

Our last stop of the day was at the city's impressive Apartheid Museum, where the displays of photos and videos chronicled the rise and fall of what one British politician denounced as an "evil, repulsive" system.

To us, the museum conjured similar feelings as the Holocaust museums we have visited in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. - disbelief at the cruelty people are capable of inflicting on each other.

The Apartheid Museum is across the street from a mega-casino, and next to an amusement park. As a condition of approval for the casino and amusement park, the developers were required to pay for design and construction of the museum, and to cover operating costs for two years. They did a first-class job, and the museum is well worth a visit by anyone coming to Johannesburg.

Today is our last day in South Africa, and to kill time before our evening flight, we went to the movies. We saw Leon Schuster's "Survival Guide to South Africa," a candid-camera style flick on a World Cup theme. Very funny and highly recommended if it is available on Netflix.

That's all for now, as we head to Oliver Tambo Airport for our 15-hour flight to Atlanta!

1 comment:

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