January 5, 2009

Sign announcing your arrival in Soweto

Welcome to Soweto

This morning I went on a tour of the South Western Township, Soweto. My guide, Eric, took me and guy from Canada on the tour. There’s so much to share, I know that I can never write it all here. Also, it was much easier to import pictures into facebook, than here or flicker, so this is the link:

Officially the population in the township is said to be 3.5 million. Unofficial estimates say that there are more than 4.5 million living there. It is known as the city within a city. Soweto is comprised of many smaller neighborhoods. Despite what many believe, Soweto is not necessarily a poor community. There is no doubt that many poor people live in the township, but there is a large middle-class and a growing rich, upper-class. 

The upper-class neighborhood is affectionately known as “Beverly Hills”. The homes found in this part of Soweto are new as most were build post the 1994 election. Following the election and institution of a democratic government, black South Africans began making more money and had greater opportunities, thus leading to the growing upper-class. The families that live here could have chosen to live in any other neighborhood in Johannesburg, but decided to remain in Soweto. It is interesting to note, and this goes hand in hand with the stigma that Soweto is dangerous, is that the homes in the “Beverly Hills” have actual front yards that touch the curbs. The homes are not built behind a wall with security gates and metal bars on the windows. The homes here create a greater sense of community, than those in other parts of Johannesburg.

Just across from “Beverly Hills”, is a hostel. By hostel I mean, the nasty facilities built by the government to house black Africans who were working in the city. Once work was finished for the day, the black South Africans had to leave the city. They could not stay in the city because they were not allowed to live within the city limits. There are 11 hostels in Soweto, 10 for men and one for women. Today, the hostels remain without proper sanitary facilities, running water, and kitchens. Most are single rooms housing a family. If you look closely at the picture, you can see the blue porta-potties in the “yard” area. As of late, the hostels were upgraded with a community water faucet. Before, was was trucked in daily. 

Life in Soweto seemed very pleasant. The people were friendly and carried on about their daily lives. It’s important to note that there is a high unemployment rate in Soweto, about 50 percent. Not all areas are safe and friendly. The hostels are known for their drugs and where gun-men for hire can be found. 

The middle-class area mainly consists of 4 room homes. Two bedrooms, a kitchen and a lodge. When these homes were built in the 1920’s/30’s (i think) they had electricity, but no indoor plumbing. Today, toilets can still be found out back or if the home has been upgraded, it is now attached. There are still many prominent black South Africans who still live in the middle-class area, including Winnie Mandella and Desmond Tutu. 

On June 16, 1976, the students of Soweto organized a protest against the educational policy forcing them to learn in Afrikans. To begin with, the education for the black students was horrible with massive over crowding of the schools and the charge for text books (free to white students), which many parents couldn’t afford. For most they had some verbal knowledge of Afrikans, so being forced to learn in a second language was difficult. As such, they planned a peaceful rally. When confronted by the police, it turned deadly. It appears that a white police officer through a rock into the protest march to spark chaos, which then led to the violence as the police shot into the crowd. Near where the massacre occurred, there is a museum honoring the uprising and Hector Pieterson one of the first to be killed. Captured in this amazing photo

Following the uprising, the police forbade the students from gathering. The Catholic Church allowed the students to meet in their church, The Regina Mundi (Queen of the World).  In order to meet the students had to come alone or at most in groups of two or threes. Still spies alerted the police who came and forced the students out. The Church still bears the scars from the shooting that took place inside. There was also a neat stained glass window donated by the president of Poland’s wife in the 1990s. There are two angels that appear to be white from inside the Church. When you look at it from the outside, the angels are black. 

Through out Soweto there were these mini-busses beeping their horn at every corner. There is a bus depot where people can go to catch the mini-bus, but they also can catch the on the street. There is an elaborate handle scheme used by riders and drives to indicate where the bus is going, if it local, etc. A single raised finger means to Johannesburg. 

The next stop on our tour was one of the slums. After spending the past couple of years studying development with a focus on urban areas, it was really great in a sort ironic way to finally see what I have read and discussed so much first hand. Even more ironic, this slum was across the street from a new KFC (the first in Soweto) and not to far from the largest mall in Soweto, also new. The slums are informal settlements where people have built their small homes out of aluminum siding, tarps, scrap wood and may some cement. There is no electricity, gas, or running water. Recently, permanent chemical outhouses serving five families each were installed, along with a water tap that served the entire street. People who live here use paraffin gas for cooking, candles for lighting and batteries to electrify their TVs. Housing groups had beautiful gardens growing their own maize (corn), tomatoes and others. 

Our local guide Mombecke (?), lived in the slum and took us inside the neighborhood. We went inside one home of a truly humble and kind woman. I wish I could remember her name. She has live in the 12 by 8 room for 12 years with her two daughters. She said she was currently unemployed as her employer moved to Australia and left her without work. I believe she was a domestic assistant previously. Outside I met a nice kid named John. He said he was in school and wanted to be a pilot. He was super polite, wanted to know where I was from, what I did, where else I was traveling too. Then he asked if I wanted to take his picture, aka take my picture and give me some money. I gave him 50 rand, the equivalent of $5. The dozen people I met in the slum were super friendly.

Ironically, South Africa constitutionally guarantees housing to all citizens. The problem is that they cannot build enough to meet the needs right now. The people living in the slums are most likely on a list, waiting for their house. There is no doubt though that some people are living in the slums because they like it there, it’s closer to their work, or something like that. Just because a house is built does not mean it is in area that will be conducive to the inhabitants livelihood.

Soweto was a really amazing experience. It’s a completely eye opening experience into how “the other half live”. I don’t write that lightly, as I am constantly reminded by my studies that a great portion of this world’s population live like those in the slums do.


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