A Soweto Experience

Soweto is short for South Western Townships. It is a place so rich in history. The place where blacks were ousted to live after a bubonic plague in 1905. It is where blacks lived during apartheid and would have to have permits in order to enter and work in the city of Johannesburg. Today, there are many facets to this thriving and growing conglomeration of townships. We booked our tour through the company Tour2.0.  They offer bike, walking and tuk-tuk tours anywhere from 2, 4 or 8 hours long. David and I decided on a four hour tuk-tuk tour.    You can get more information on this tour company at:  https://www.tour2-0.com IMG_0552We were picked up at our home and driven to the starting point at the Lebo Soweto Backpackers Hostel. It is located in Soweto on a side street near a park. Walking into the hostel brought back memories of the days that I backpacked throughout Europe. What great memories I have from staying in hostels – the people who you meet, the stories that were shared. It was fun to be back in that environment. Lungi was our tour guide. He is 54 years old so he lived 34 of his years under apartheid rule and his last 20 years in freedom. It was wonderful to listen to his thoughts and stories that he shared from his actual experience of growing up in Soweto.IMG_0598 Our first stop was not far from the hostel. It was at the top of a hill overlooking some of the 41 Soweto townships (or suburbs). In this picture you can see the Orlando Stadium that was built in 1959. Along with soccer matches, this stadium has also hosted other major events. It was where thousands of black students marched on June 16, 1976 to protest having to learn the Afrikaans language. What was supposed to be a peaceful protest turned into a sad day of killings…but more on this later in my blog. In 2003, the funeral for Walter Sisulu was held in this stadium. Sisulu was a long time friend of Nelson Mandela and also was an important member in the anti-apartheid movement. Sisulu and Mandela were in Robben prison together where Sisulu served more than 25 years for his political beliefs.IMG_0555 More recently, in 2010, Orlando Stadium was used as a practice venue for the teams attending the World Cup Soccer Championship and a Kick-off concert was held for the World Cup Soccer event as well. Along with the stadium, the coolant towers, also known as Orlando Towers, in the background are another well-known landmark for Soweto. They were built in 1951 for the coal-fired power plant and decommissioned in 1998. Today one is used as a billboard for advertising and the other showcases the largest mural in South Africa. For the more daring, you can also base jump or bungee from them! I know that you are wondering if we jumped…no, it wasn’t part of the tour….fortunately, although I keep thinking that I would love to try bungee jumping one of these days! Both of these landmarks are in the Orlando West township and to the east of them, is the Orlando East township.


Overlooking part of Soweto. Over 2 million people live in this area.

It was overlooking this view that Lungi gave us the history of Soweto. In 1886, George Harrison, an Australian discovered gold in what is now known as Johannesburg. People from around the world and throughout South Africa migrated to the area in search of fortune or jobs. In the early 1900s there were as many as 202 gold mines in the area. Many of the mines built shanties to house the black laborers. In 1904, there was an outbreak of the bubonic plague and this gave the white authorities the excuse to relocate the South Africans and Indians outside of the Johannesburg border to a newly developed township of Klipspruit which was later called Pimsville. According to Lungi, this was the beginning of segregation for South Africa. In 1913, the Natives Land Act was passed. It was the first major legislation to enforce segregation. This Natives Land Act only allowed native South Africans to own land in designated areas, which was only about 10% in the entire country. This act deprived blacks to own their houses or the land that they were living on and more importantly, it forbid black tenant farming on white-owned land. This was law until it was revoked in 1991. With the passage of this act, more native South Africans flooded into Johannesburg to seek employment. During the 1920s, with a variety of acts passed more and more effort was made to turn Johannesburg into a “white” only municipality. Blacks continued to be relocated but the government did not have to provide housing. Initially, it was the law that housing needed to be provided but it was later challenged and an amendment was added saying that it was no longer necessary to provide housing. In 1931, black people were relocated to Orlando. Some blacks, who moved voluntarily to Orlando, were able to afford the cost of relocating, as well as the extra cost of transportation to travel to work and paying rent. To my amazement, this “slum clearing” policy of removing blacks from white neighborhoods continued until 1972! In 1950, the Population Registration Act was passed. This called for the population to be categorized by their race. There were four categories – White, Black, Colored and Indian. These races were then required to reside in separate townships. This was a particular hardship for many families. Often, the regulations to determine the race of a person were not clear and many times, family members would be separated because it was determined that they were of a different race. Interestingly, blacks needed proof that they were allowed to live in Soweto. Actually, they needed paperwork, it seems for just about everything. The Dompass was required by all blacks over the age of 16 and was often referred to as the Book of Life. It was required that they have it on them at all times. In order to work in Johannesburg, a permit as well as the Dompass was required. Just as interesting, a white person needed a permit to enter Soweto. Police raids were a constant factor in Soweto and if unable to produce the proper paperwork, you were thrown in jail. Laws continued to be made, it became more and more apparent that the government viewed people living in Soweto as “temporary workers” since they could not own property or vote…..and women….forget it, they had absolutely no legal rights. They could not share their “servant quarters” with other Africans, which ended any family living together. Even if a woman had a position as a “domestic worker” new laws made it necessary for her to reside with her family in a black township or find lodging at a registered household.


Gates to the women’s hostel area

During the 1950s, separate hostels for men and women were constructed. These small rooms would house anywhere from eight to sixteen men or women. They were enclosed by a fence and at 6:00 PM, the gates would be closed. If you were discovered outside of the gates, after curfew, you would be arrested.


These buildings were previously the men’s hostel


Former men’s hostels now family homes

There are a variety of neighborhoods in Soweto. Those of extreme poverty, which is where the previous hostels used to be. Today, the buildings that once house men or women, now house families. The rooms are only 9 ft by 9 ft and the bathroom facilities are in a common area.


Communal bathrooms

As you can see by the photos that the infrastructure is close to non-existing. In this neighborhood, the roads are not paved, there was much garbage strewn around. We passed a large pile of garbage on the side of the road and David asked about it. Lungi said that trash is picked up twice a week. I just can’t imagine what kind of rodents that pile of trash attracts. Another thing about walking around this neighborhood was the smells. I was careful of where I was stepping, especially when it was a damp area…what was actually causing that dampness? Was it water from the rains of the previous day before or was it possibly something else? I really didn’t want to know. We stopped at a shebeen. Shebeens originally started as illegal backyard drinking spots. In 1962, blacks could not buy regular bottled beer or liquor. The “powers that be” believed that blacks couldn’t tolerate strong alcohol. Blacks could, however, drink traditional beer. Only the municipalities had complete control over the brewing and selling of the traditional beer. Much like the prohibition period in the states, many people started home brewing their beer, which lead to continued raids by authorities. Today, the shebeen is much like the neighborhood pub.IMG_0566 IMG_0570I really enjoyed this experience. We sat in the back, closest to the only window…it was a sunny day and the corrugated metal really made inside the room hot. We were given a beer….Black Label, which we found interesting…is that the same company as in the states? According to the label, it was brewed in Johannesburg. I googled it when I got back and the Carling Black Label is indeed the same company. It is a Canadian company and is distributed in Canada, United Kingdom, South Africa and was previously in the United States. An interesting side-note, since 1985, Carlings has been the best selling beer in Britain.  In the UK, the name “Black Label” was dropped and the logo was updated in 1997. David, Lungi and I passed the large bottle of Black Label among us as we waited for our meal at the shebeen to be prepared. While waiting, a man popped his head into the window and asked where we were from. When we said that states, he started asking questions about Mike Tyson, Mohammed Ali, etc. Come to find out, he was the National Lightweight Boxer Champion in 1970. Unfortunately, I don’t really keep up on the boxing world. I could only tell him that Mike Tyson had retired and occasionally had a cameo appearance in a movie or two. I did share with him that I once saw Mohammed Ali in person in 1997. He was at the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City, with Senator Orrin Hatch, the same day I was.IMG_0569The meal arrived. The cow jowls were served on a wood platter and the pap, which is a thick porridge of corn meal, was served on a tin plate. We were instructed to take the pap in our hand and roll it, dip it in the salt and or chili spice that was on the corner of the platter and then grab a piece of meat and pop it into our mouth. IMG_0568 Since I do not eat meat, I just tried the pap which I found to be very bland. To me, it had no flavor at all. Of course, David loved it. When I asked him what he liked about it, he said the texture. We were also treated to traditional beer. It was served in a round, clay pot that was painted black and decorated with small flowers. Today, traditional beer is always served at any event…marriage, birthday parties, funerals, etc.IMG_0567 When drinking the traditional brew, you must kneel or squat. I didn’t really care for the taste of this either. It was warm and had a horrible smell. Thankfully, I don’t think I will be invited to many events where this might be served!IMG_0571 After dinner, we drove about 5 minutes to a different neighborhood. I was amazed at the difference between such a few roads. This neighborhood had paved roads, street lights and no garbage piled up and no running water. The houses were small ranch style that had more space than what the previous families were living. Slowly, improvements are being made to Soweto by the government and over time, I believe that the goal is for everyone to be in proper housing and not the poor structures that we saw in the previous neighborhood.IMG_0577 This is an example of how families earn extra income to help with their living expenses.  They rent out their yards and allow people to build small corrugated huts to live in.  In many cases, it might be a family member, like a daughter who is now a single parent and desperately needs a place to live.  This can have a huge strain on parents who are living on a retirement income.   Other situations are renters needed an affordable place to live.  Again, this has a strain on the infrastructure of the area.  There has been attempts to regulate such practice but at this point, it isn’t very successful.  In the case of the building in this photo, it was actually a barber shop but we saw many corrugated huts like this in people’s yards with curtains in the windows. IMG_0561 Lungi took us pass some buildings that were constructed about 4 years ago. These were built by the government and was designated to be housing for families in Soweto. Initially, the families were told that they would be able to move in at no charge. Once the buildings were built, however, the government said that the rent would be approximately $75 a month. The average salary for someone in Soweto, if they are fortunate to have a job, is $250. $75 is a considerable chunk from $250. As protest, no one has moved into the buildings and they remain empty….which in my opinion is so sad. There are several families that could so benefit from better housing in Soweto. Why not just let them move in and continue to give them tools to improve their lives? IMG_0576 There were children everywhere and they were so cute! They loved to give us “high fives.” In the first neighborhood, Lungi took us by a small shop, if that is what you could call it. It was corrugated metal walls on two sides and a roof of corrugated metal. Along one of the walls, was a board that was about as high as my shin. On the board were small baggies of popcorn and cheese puffs. Next to the baggies, was a pile of lollipops and hard candy, similar to Jolly Rancher. I bought 50 pieces for 50 cents and as we passed the children, we handed them out.IMG_0573 I really wasn’t thinking before this tour of all the children we would see. I really do not like giving candy to small children. It doesn’t help their teeth and I wonder what dental care is like in this country. In the past, when I knew that I would encounter children, I have been better prepared by taking pencils and stickers to hand out. Next tour, I will be better prepared! Today, there are 239 schools in Soweto that are free for all young people to attend. Schools are through grade 12. Uniforms are required but Lungi explained that if a family cannot afford to buy a uniform, they can apply for a government voucher. There is one university in Soweto but to attend, you must pay a tuition. In 1994, after the African National Congress party was voted into power and Nelson Mandela became the first black president of South Africa. It was through his Land Restitution Act that enabled people to own their home. As we were driving through the streets, examples of houses were pointed out to us. Plain houses with a chain link fence around it was an example of a government-owned home that was rented to a black. With the passage of the Land Restitution Act, the family could buy the house and with ownership, they were inspired to improve on their investment. Today, owners have applied for loans to make home improvements. Many of the houses have new facades of bricks or stucco, the chain link fences are replaced with fancier brick enclosures and some have even added a second floor. Another stop that we made was to see this house. It is an example of the Rent Boycott that took place in 1984. One of the strategies, used to protest against rising rent and service rates, was to painted over the numbers of their homes and put a different number on the house. This was meant to confuse the collectors.IMG_0587 We visited the Hector Pietersen Memorial. I wrote about Hector Pietersen in a blog I wrote last June. Hector was killed on June 16, 1976 during a peaceful protest of students now referred to as the Soweto Uprising. They were protesting the new law which said that all students had to have classes in Afrikaans and English. Afrikaans is the Dutch dialect used by most whites in South Africa. The blacks had no interest in learning the language of their oppressors and planned a protest.  There were 15,000 school children gathered on June 16, 1976.  The peaceful protest turned violent when police showed up. The police in an effort to disperse the crowd fired tear gas. No one quite knows when or who gave the order to shoot but shots were fired. Children started running for their lives. Several were hit but Hector Pieterson at age 13, was the first to die. In total, 23 people died on that day, both blacks and whites.  Our guide, Lungi, was there on that day.  He said that he was running for his life. IMG_0590IMG_0589Our last stop was on the most famous street in South Africa, Vilakazi Street. It is famous because it is the only street in the world to have not one but two Nobel Peace Prize winners live on it.IMG_0594 We stopped at Nelson Mandela’s house that has been turned into a museum. We didn’t have time on our tour to visit it but I hope to before I leave Johannesburg.IMG_0595 Then a short distance down the street, we saw this plaque noting where Desmond Tutu lived. It is still a private resident and a large wall for privacy surrounds the house.IMG_0597 This is indeed a thriving area of Soweto…there are vendors selling souvenirs along the sidewalk. Restaurants were full of multi-racial patrons and music was spilling out onto the street. Such a contrast from the neighborhood where we had visited the shebeen only a few hours earlier.IMG_0596 The tour ended with a tasty lunch back at the Soweto Backpackers Hostel. Lungi called it a “quarter pounder” because it is made with a quarter of a loaf of bread. The top is cut out and the center is filled with a tasty filling. For Lungi, it was meat and vegetables flavored with curry. For David and me, it was curried vegetables. It was very, very good!IMG_0600 It has taken me a few days to finish this blog. I wanted to make certain that I had the facts correct. I haven’t even begun to make a dent into all of the history that has been born in the area. That would take volumes of books to do so. I do hope that I have given you an overview of life in Soweto. It continues to evolve and over time, it is hopeful that soon the standard of living will compare to that of the average middle and upper class communities found elsewhere in Johannesburg.

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