South Africa intrigues me on many levels; what follows will add another layer to that. Today reinforced my feelings of guilt for being white and also shook my core as the brutality of the system that had ruled this country for so long rose up and punched me square in the gut; the type of impact that lands just slightly below the rib cage leaving you winded and at a loss for both breath and words. The reality of the apartheid experience came into focus, vivid and penetrating; as much as it could to an outsider who had not lived through it.
The first shock upon entering the “SOuth WEstern TOwnships” was the disparity of wealth. It was never more apparent than in the section just outside the city limits of Johannesburg. An area known throughout the world for its stand against the educational policies of apartheid in June of 1976; it’s here that a conglomeration of townships became known as Soweto.
At the time of my visit, Soweto had a population of approximately one million. It bordered the city of Johannesburg which at that time languished under the moniker of the worlds most dangerous city. It was said that the rate of murders in Johannesburg was sixty-five times higher than the city ranked number two.
This is not a fact I can substantiate but whether true or not, the city was in turmoil.
Soweto streets offered a mixed bag when it came to condition; some tar-seal, some gravel, and some, dusty tracks with mud filled potholes. I was with a local man and we were en route to his family house. On one side of the road were the corrugated shanty’s of the masses; dwellings pieced together with whatever materials were on hand or readily available. Row after row and side by side; accessed by narrow dirt lanes crisscrossing this city of poor. In almost any other country this area would be called a slum but here in South Africa it was a Township; created by a governing system to house, control, and oppress.
On the other side of the same road, casting a second shadow of inequality over the twisted and flimsy shacks, were heavily guarded and fenced mansions; two or three stories tall and painted in gleaming white. In the driveways sat BMW’s and the occasional Mercedes-Benz; status symbols of locals made good…maybe.
Soweto had clearly come a long way since the days of the 1976 uprising but just as clearly it had a long way to go.
It was not so out of sync with the rest of the country.
The uprising happened on June 16th 1976 when protests erupted over the government’s policy to enforce education in the Afrikaans language rather than English. Police opened fire on 10,000 high school students marching to overturn this policy.
The march recoiled into a riot as people fled from panic; 23 people died on the first day, 21 were black. One was a 13-year-old child, Hector Pieterson, destined to be one of the major symbols for peace and equality as the march towards a post-apartheid era began.
The impact of the Soweto protests reverberated through the country and across the world. In their aftermath, economic and cultural sanctions were introduced on South Africa from countries across the globe.
In response, the apartheid state started providing electricity to more Soweto homes, yet phased out financial support for building any new ones.
Soweto, shortly afterwards, became an independent municipality with elected black councilors however they were accused of being puppet collaborators who personally benefited financially from the oppressive regime.
Who to trust.
As I looked up toward the mansions I could not help but think that the money was made off the backs of the poor by whatever means necessary. The disparity was incredibly blatant and took on the aura of greed and excess so often akin to ill-gotten gains.
After exiting the car I entered the Soweto Museum; an uninspiring trio of rusty blue shipping containers. In here was housed the photographic legacy of the 1976 riots. Uninspiring upon first glance; absolutely appropriate to showcase the desperate situation of the time. No frills, nothing fancy; a people’s history on display in rusted steel; weather-beaten and raw.
The framed black and white photos hung in single file along the white walls; a brief descriptive note tagging each one. With every step the story of June 16th unfolded in all its heartbreak; with each new image came a deeper twist in the pit of my stomach, a familiar pang associated with the realization of just how cruel man can be.
Bloodied and beaten people running scared takes on a timelessness when in black and white and it is this which further emphasized the drama. Silent screams could be heard along with echoes of violence and desperation; an even softer sound of hope was present but barely audible. These three containers overflowed with the drama of that day in South African history.
I met with the family I had come to see and through laughter and friendship they told me stories of then and now. They fed me. We talked, beer in hand, sun on our faces, smiles and hope had risen in this once down trodden neighborhood. The pastel colors of green and blue adorning houses; we sat outside. Almost everyone who passed by stared; I can only imagine what they were wondering.
I stared back…also wondering.
The two wonderings could not have been more different I’m sure. Everywhere I looked there were signs of a city on the move and with purpose. Truth and Reconciliation may not have appeased all but they had seemed to go a long way in helping heal wounds.
Soweto was alive; proud of the part it had played in forging its country’s future.
Lead photo provided by Brixton Buzz