We left Johannesburg on Saturday night but before we departed in the evening, we had some time to do a morning tour of Soweto.
Soweto (made up from the initials of the English name, South West Territories) is the black township established by the Apartheid regime in South Africa. In 1948, South Africa’s National Party was elected and their social policy was based on apartheid, the Afrikaans word meaning separateness. Their plan was to separate the various racial groups in South Africa. Blacks and coloured people were then forced to live in Soweto, away from the white population in Johannesburg. The township borders Johannesburg’s mining belt in the south and was originally the place where mine workers lived
It is now far more than a township. I’m not sure of the exact population, but estimates are around 4 million people. It is a huge city in its own right with train stations, car dealerships, shopping malls and residential areas. Some parts are very poor and consist of shanty towns like those that we have seen in other parts of South Africa. Other suburbs consist of big areas of government supplied housing and others have middle class homes. One other area is very wealthy. People now live in the township because of affordability as well as it being the centre of their network of friends and culture.
It took us about 30 minutes to reach Soweto from our hotel near the airport. We drove down a a road, similar to any four lane city highway and passed the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, listed by the Guinness World Records in 1997 as the largest hospital in the world. Across the way were the Orlando Towers – two old cooling towers from a previous power station that are now used as a bungee jump. It was a busy time as funerals are held on Saturdays. These are huge events, attended by family and large circles of friends and other members of the community.
We stopped at the Regina Mundi Catholic Church – the largest Roman Catholic church in South Africa. Its ‘A’ shaped exterior looks quite ordinary, but its vast interior can accommodate as many as 5000 people. About 2000 people attend church here on Sundays. The stained-glass windows are decorated with scenes of Mary’s life and were donated by thew wife of the President of Poland. This church played a pivotal role in the struggle against apartheid. Since political meetings in most public places were banned, the church became the main place where Soweto people could meet and discuss issues. Even funerals often ended up as political meetings. During the Soweto uprising of June 16, 1976, when students were shot by the police in Orlando West, many demonstrators fled to Regina Mundi. The police entered the church, firing live ammunition. No one was killed, although many were injured and the church itself, as well as its furniture, decorations, and symbols were damaged. Both the interior and the external walls of the church still bear the signs of the shootings with bullet holes clearly visible in the ceiling.
Our second stop was at the Hector Peterson Museum. This museum commemorates the struggle for black people to be educated their own language, not in Afrikaans as was forced on them by the apartheid government. Hector Peterson was one of the first children to die in the Soweto Uprising. On 16 June 1976, school children like him protested the implementation of Afrikaans and English as dual medium of instruction in secondary schools in a 50:50 basis. This was implemented throughout South Africa regardless of the locally-spoken language and some exams were also written in Afrikaans. Many children failed because they could not read, or answer, the questions.
Students gathered to peacefully demonstrate, but the crowd soon became very aggressive when the police arrived, they then started to throw stones. A crowd of approximately 13,000 started rioting, killing two West Rand Administrative Board members, and burning a number of vehicles and buildings associated with the police and the Transvaal Education Department. When the police arrived the crowd became violent, throwing rocks at the police. The police in turn fired tear gas into the crowd in order to disperse them. There are conflicting accounts of who gave the first command to shoot, but soon children were turning and running in all directions, leaving some children lying wounded on the road. The photo of Hector’s body being carried by another man accompanied by his sister is one of the iconic photos of black struggle.
Our final stop was at the famous Vilakazi Street, perhaps the only street in the world where two Nobel Peace Prize winners have lived – former president Nelson Mandela and Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu. There was a big crowd at Mandela’s house. It is clearly important to black people in South Africa. He lived here before he was imprisoned and for just eleven days after his release (before he was moved to a safe house somewhere else in Johannesburg for security).