Soweto Story

On our way home from the Botswana tour we extended our Johannesburg transfer by a couple of days in order to see something of a city that neither of us had visited before. The booking had been made through an agent and we were a little surprised to find ourselves in an upmarket hotel slap in the middle of the business district. Here, the multi-racial staff tried to discourage us from going out to have a look around: “it’s not really safe, we can supply a car and driver”. Oh, please!

When our pre-arranged guide arrived next morning to pick us up for our tour of Soweto he confirmed that few white people ventured out on foot here. It can’t be too dangerous though because apparently members of the flourishing Jewish community all walk home after work on Friday evenings to begin their celebration of the Sabbath. Even in our brief visit to the Rainbow nation we could see that all is not as sunny as the brochures would have you believe.

This city is home to almost twice the entire population of Botswana and its various townships are spread out over a muddle of surrounding hills and the spoil tips of its mining history. Soweto is a district outside of central Jo’burg, built during the darkest days of Apartheid to house black people who were expected to live completely separate lives while servicing the industrial and domestic needs of the white minority. I wonder if the day will ever come when the meaning of the word “apartheid” will have to be explained to a younger generation; it may have been abolished in South Africa in 1994 but it’s legacy still dictates the destiny of so many of the country’s citizens.

I found the Apartheid Museum interesting because a surprising number of the names cited in the stories human rights abuses and struggle for black freedom were familiar to me from the reports that had reached the UK in the 1970’s and 80’s. It certainly begs the question: if the rest of the world knew so much about it then why did they we let it go on for so long? Visitors to the museum were almost all from overseas and some may have shared my surprise that the history of racial inequality in South Africa had been deemed to have ended sometime in the 1990’s.

Soweto itself, however, is a changed district; vibrant with trees, shops, and churches, great strides have been made in supplying utilities and brightening up the place. It’s just a shame that there are so few jobs. Visitors can mill around the Mandela family home in Vilakazi Street, self-styled guides are available to relate the violent incursions by riot police and you can buy souvenirs and eat at local restaurants. Some of the latter are even run by Mr M’s grandchildren but his ex-wife Winnie has retreated to another street behind some high perimeter walls. I asked about the Truth and Reconciliation hearings but was unsurprised to hear that they yielded little of either for the majority of modern South Africans; beset by fearful levels of corruption, unemployment and AIDS.

Perhaps a visit to the anthropological collection at the Origins Museum at the Witwatersrand University might help with a change of focus, so we decided to make our way there on the following day. It was quite an adventure to get out of the hotel and make it all by ourselves to the metro station and downtown to the university district. The solicitous staff had been so sure that something untoward would happen to us that it was very surprising to get out and find that everything looked so normal in the busy but spotlessly clean urban transport system. Another surprise was that most of the students milling around at our destination were black; affluent black it must be admitted but black nonetheless. Not so surprising, however, was the fact that everything was closed because of a dispute over student fees and no amount of special pleading would get us into the museums.

Disappointed but fortified with an iced cappuccino we headed back to the Protea Hotel to find it surrounded by security barriers and riot police. We had only been staying directly opposite the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, focus of that afternoons protest by the EFF (Economic Freedom Fighters). I must admit that my first thought was for our scheduled airport pick-up: would our driver be able to get to us in time? Once reassured, there was nothing for it but to go outside to the barriers, chat with the demonstrators, photograph their placards (Capitalism Sucks!), watch the TV vans arrive, and spot the plainclothes police officers (the boots are a giveaway). The roadblocks were sufficiently porous for a few vehicles to get in and out and somehow one be-suited idiot drove down past a line of protest singing black grandmothers* in a Porsche. He escaped unscathed but his behaviour illustrated the arrogance of bankers today the whole world over. Society is divided by money nowadays at least as much as it ever was by race.

Tens of Thousands of people turned out for the EFF march through central Johannesburg on the 27th October. It was essentially peaceful and we got to O.R. Tambo airport with time to spare.

* I’m not exaggerating. This particular group of mature ladies had decided that the whole march was likely to be too much for them and assembled outside our hotel to await its conclusion. I noticed that the members of the press took the trouble to go over and interview them and that the riot police on standby gave them no trouble at all.

Categories: Africa

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