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Up the Bucs: Visiting South Africa's Soweto -- the southwest townships, then & now

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This morning I got picked up by a mini-van full of people and we were off to tour one of the most famous places in South Africa -- the Soweto township. Our guide spoke Setswana so I tried out my language abilities on him. "Dumela, Rra," I said. And then immediately reverted to English. My Setswana sucks eggs. "Do the people in Soweto speak Setswana?" I asked.

"Some people there do but most people in the township also speak what we call a 'thief' language because various words are stolen from all the many different languages spoken there -- Setswana, Zulu, English, Afrikaans, Sepedi and even Portuguese and Spanish." We hit the road to Johannesburg first, to stop at that city's Apartheid museum. And as we drove out of Pretoria, I was surprised at how large and spread-out this city was. Lots of industrial parks. As big as Los Angeles. With lots of freeways. And suburban homes. Except that we just passed a house with a live ostrich in its front yard! You just don't get that type of thing in L.A. And then, suddenly, we arrived in Jo'burg.

"4.5 million people live in Soweto," said our guide as we drove though an upper-class section of Jo'burg. "And two million people live in Johannesburg." Don't you just love to know facts? "And here we have Nelson Mandela's daughter's house." It was really nice and really big. Then we drove by the Mandela Foundation offices. "46664 is the name of Mandela's AIDS research foundation, named after his prison number back on Robben Island." Then we drove by Mandela's actual house! Wow! It also was huge. "But he is in England right now." Then my water bottle started leaking and I got distracted. Now it looks like I've just wet my pants.

There were a lot of high-rise buildings in downtown Jo'burg. It was a vast city. "But many businesses have moved to Sandton City, at the edge of Johannesburg, due to the high crime rates in the downtown, so you will see that many buildings have been abandoned and vandalized here. And to your right is the Standard Bank, which started out in a tent in 1867, when gold was discovered here. And the city has never been the same." The downtown street we drove on reminded me of downtown New York or downtown San Francisco. We drove past the 60-story DeBeers building. Or was it 80 stories? I didn't have time to count.

Then we passed the building where Mahatma Gandhi had his law offices. And there is a traditional healer's shop. "This part of the city has quite a mixture of the old and the new. There is a store with the sign still up from the Apartheid days, saying 'non-white shop'. All of the shops used to be required to have signs like that -- saying whether it was a white shop or a non-white shop. And over there is where Mandela and Oliver Tambo opened their first law office -- across the street from the magistrate's court. And there is the building where Steve Biko, the black-consciousness activist, was killed in 1977. He was found hanging in his cell but no one could explain why he had bruises all over his body if he had killed himself. Also two teachers who had refused to teach in Afrikaans were taken to the top of that building and thrown to their death." Then we drove past some government-sponsored low-income housing and a flea market.

"And here is Gold Reef City, a replica of what Johannesburg was like during its early gold-mining days. And next to it is an amusement park, sort of the Disneyland of South Africa." And next to that was a casino. Very Las Vegas. "And here is the Apartheid Museum." Lots of school children were waiting in line in front of it. We all piled out of the mini-van and stood in line too.

You would be totally awed by this museum. Its design is really nice. And when you walk in, you are given a pass reading "White" or "Black". Then there are enlarged copies of the "dumpasses" that Black and Colored South Africans were required to carry back in the day. Then, in the foyer, there was a short history of the San people, the Bushmen who were the original inhabitants of South Africa. All too many of them were driven out during the last few hundred years or else died of diseases or died in the mines. There were some of their famous rock wall paintings on show.

In the museum itself, the first exhibit really hit me in the face. It was all about the White Rose Society. "In Hitler's Germany, there was a heroic underground of Germans who rebelled against state oppression. Many of them were executed by the Nazis." Wow. I didn't know that! I had thought that Nazi Germany had been mostly composed of "Good Germans" who had blindly followed Der Fuhrer. And linking these German heroes to the heroes of the resistance to Apartheid was genius.

"What is this section about?" asked one woman who was shepherding a bunch of Black African children through the exhibit. I told her.

"Are you a teacher?" I asked her in return. "Are these your students? And what part of South Africa are you coming from?" Maybe she spoke Setswana too and I could practice saying, "Dumela, Mma"?

"These children are AIDS orphans from an orphanage in Soweto," the woman replied. "We brought them here because we want them to know something about their history." I greeted the children and they greeted me back. Nice kids. I shook some hands -- I love to shake hands! -- and then I went off to use the most high-tech restroom I've ever seen. I wish some of the people in my home village were here. I bet they would appreciate it as much as I did.

The next exhibit described the effects of the discovery of diamonds on everyone here. "This led ultimately to the destruction of the independent African chiefdoms. The discoveries accentuated conflicts between the British and the Boer republics and between the White settlers and the African peoples of South Africa." This happened around 1867, at the same times as the gold mines were being developed. So. The sparkling diamond and gold engagement rings on the fingers of Victorian ladies came at a very high price, paid in South African blood.

On to the next exhibit -- the 30th anniversary of the famous Soweto uprising. In early 1976, a local White Soweto administrator wrote, "The broad masses of Soweto are perfectly content, perfectly happy. Black-White relationships at present are as healthy as can be. There is no danger whatsoever of a blow-up in Soweto." Ha!

On June 16, 1976, all that changed when a group of school children marched to protest a new law requiring them to be taught in Afrikaans -- and all hell broke loose.

"When you go to Soweto," said one of my Black South African friends, "remember what happened there. It was inexcusable and inhuman. My best friend, a young girl, was abducted and repeatedly gang-raped by the police."

"My father served in the South African defense force during the Soweto uprising," said a South African Afrikaner friend of mine, "but he never talks about that time. Never." From my friend's description of his father, I would imagine that Afrikaner veterans who tried to suppress the Seweto uprising probably now suffer the same type of post-traumatic stress disorder that America's Vietnam and Iraq vets suffer from -- silence, withdrawal, alcoholism and teeth-clenching nightmares. Whenever there is brutal suppression -- be it in Soweto, Mai Lai or Abu Ghraib -- a high price is also paid by the oppressors for having sold their consciences down the river. But I digress.

"One weekend after June 16, we went to the government mortuary," read an exhibit sign, "to try and find some people and when we got there, there were bodies scattered all over the place like packed potato sacks." And while I was reading about all this horror, a tape of a gospel choir singing dirges played in the background. I'm about to cry.

After the June 16 massacre, the uprising spread. "The Soweto uprising, yes, but it didn't just happen in Soweto." The focal point, however, was Orlando, the current home of my favorite soccer team, the Orlando Pirates. I have their hat. Up the Bucs!

"When you go to Soweto," said another one of my Black South African friends, "you must go to the Regina Mundi church. That is my church." That church took charge of burying all the victims of the Soweto uprising from June 16 to its end in 1978.

"How long must we be bullied, kicked, choked, bitten, raped and killed," read one banner in an enlarged photograph that had been taken during a burial ceremony at the grave site of one of the protesters. How sad. And even sadder yet is that burials in Black townships are still going on -- only now the deaths are caused by AIDS.

And, as usual for me, I managed to go through this section of the exhibit backwards by mistake -- so that the last photo I saw here was of young school girls in their school uniforms, running. Running. At first they were joyfully running toward freedom. And then they were running away. And dying. And dead.

Then there was a photo of the mass funeral for the 69 victims of the Sharpeville massacre in 1960. Most of the dead had been shot in the back while protesting against the dumpasses. Those were dangerous days. They remind me of Martin Luther King Jr's 1965 march on Montgomery, Alabama. I was there, seven months pregnant with my daughter Lorraine. We had a feeling back then that we could change the world! But did we? No. The world is still stuck with dummkopfs such as Cheney and Bush. Oh well. But it was worth it anyway. I'd go on that march again anytime -- but maybe leaving out the pregnancy bit.

Then there were more enlarged photos on exhibit -- of Bantu education, life in the mines, domestic workers, overcrowded hospitals, starvation, the homelands Then there was a display of solitary confinement cells, nooses and armored personnel carriers that reminded me of what I had seen on the West Bank in Palestine. And the photos of the checkpoints outside the townships reminded me of the checkpoints I had seen outside of Bethlehem. "Punishment always leads to resistance." It was true in America in 1776, it was true in Apartheid South Africa in 1976 and it's still true all over the world right now.

Next there was a wall covered with original posters and graphics put out by the resistance movement and then some amazing videos of the resistance itself.

"When we demonstrated," said another one of my South African Black friends, "the reason that we ran in 'toyi-toyi' formation was because when you finished doing the toyi-toyi for two or three hours, you dissipated a lot of your anger. Otherwise we would have burned the place down!" The toyi-toyi is a quasi-military dance step characterized by high-stepping movements and done with linked arms.

The last stop was the museum's gift shop where they sold T-shirts that read, "Race: If someone wins, everyone loses." Which reminds me of some White south Africans today who complain that the Black South Africans are causing problems because they are so uneducated. Duh. If they had been supplied with equal educational opportunities all along for the past 200 years, Black Africans might all be freaking PhDs right now and this country would be an even greater First World global leader than it already is. "Jane," whispered my conscience, "please shut up. Next thing you know, you are gonna start whining again about how the high cost of education is dumbing down America as well."

On to Soweto.

"Soweto first came into existence around 1902, when there was an outbreak of plague in Johannesburg," said our guide. "Because of this, Black people were moved away from the city -- just dropped off in the middle of nowhere with no houses, no furniture, no nothing. But the people kept sneaking back into the city so the government finally built tin shacks for them to live in out there." We passed some corrugated huts at the entrance to Soweto but they were mostly just tacked onto the sides and backs of brick suburban-looking houses. So far, Soweto was looking kind of good.

"These tin hut add-ons are rented out to tenants and used to generate income. There are also tuckshops here and people sell various goods out of their houses. They do whatever they need to do in order to survive. And, by the way, Soweto isn't an actual place. It is simply a generic name for the 30 or 40 townships in this area. It is shorthand for 'Southwest Townships'. And a large percentage of the people here are unemployed. Mandela lived in this part of Soweto -- the Orlando township." OMG! I'm actually in Orlando! That's my team! Once a Pirate, always a Pirate! Up the Bucs!

"And there is the Orlando police station, the place where the children were marching to in 1976 in order to hand in their petitions." Wow! We're now in Orlando. And I wore my Pirates truckers cap too.

"They introduced the Bantu education system here in the 1950s, wherein Blacks were not allowed to learn mathematics or science and were taught only a very limited range of subjects -- only enough to make them employable at menial jobs and to get them used to following orders. Mandela hated the Bantu education system and tried to get anyone with any higher learning at all to run schools from inside their homes. One of the first things that Mandela did upon coming to office was to get rid of the Bantu education system and replace it with critical thinking and outcome-based education instead of just blind obedience, corporal punishment and rote learning. Even now, President Mbeki stresses the importance of education."

Then we drove past Winnie Mandela's house. "And she still lives there today. Perhaps she will invite us in for tea." We all looked hopeful but that didn't happen. "At one point while Nelson was still in jail, there was a scandal about Winnie being involved in the death of a teenager during the Apartheid period," continued our guide, "but apparently the young man was a government spy, spying on the ANC. The way that they figured this out was that he lived with his impoverished grandmother yet always had a bicycle, fancy clothes and toys." Oops.

"Ubuntu is present in the townships. People here help each other out. There aren't the high walls and electronic fences here that you see in the cities. That spirit of 'I exist because of you...' is still here in the townships. One of the nice things about Ubuntu is that whenever you meet someone, you greet them, to acknowledge that you SEE them -- not only as someone who is in front of you but that they are also human and worthy of your respect. That is why Black Africans always greet each other. It goes way beyond just saying 'hello.'" I've noticed that here and I always acknowledge Black Africans I pass on the road because of Ubuntu. Maybe I should start saying hello to White Africans too? So that they too will feel all acknowledged and not all left out? And speaking of Ubuntu, what about religion here in Soweto? "It's a mixture of Christianity and respect for the ancestors, sort of incorporated together. "

Then we drove down the street where the children had marched in 1976 and stopped at the place where young Hector Pieterson had been shot. "Nobody can understand why the police started shooting. The children had no weapons. All they wanted to do was present the memorandum at the police station saying that it was hard for them to learn in Afrikaans because even their teachers didn't speak it well."

Then we drove down the street where Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu lived. "This is the only street in the world that has produced two Nobel prize winners." Ngakane Street.

And up the street from Mandela's house was an excellent restaurant. The best French fries I've ever tasted. Really good chicken salad. But one American woman on the tour really complained because the service was slow. Get a clue. This is Soweto, not Fifth Avenue! Plus people eat at a more leisurely pace here -- like in Paris. Geez Louise.

Next we went to the Hector Pieterson museum. He was the boy whose photo was in every newspaper in the world as he died in the arms of his friend during the 1976 Soweto march. In the museum, I read an interesting statement that explained the forced change in language from the Afrikaner perspective. "Most right-thinking Afrikaans speakers today address the Bantu in Afrikaans whenever they meet. As the national economy requires Bantu to be in contact with White employers and co-workers, instruction in one of two official languages must take place...." Good grief! They wanted Black South Africans to learn to speak Afrikaans so that the bored Afrikaner housewives could speak to their maids!

That reminds me of a 1991 issue of "Your Family" magazine I found in a dentist's waiting room recently, wherein the YF Cooking and Crafts School offered "Christmas cooking and baking classes for domestics. [A teacher] will demonstrate traditional Christmas cooking and baking, as well as some new ideas. Participants will be shown how to organize a Christmas menu." They also listed classes for said bored Afrikaner housewives -- who had nothing to do all day because the maids did everything for them -- in paint marbling techniques, dried flower arranging, candle making, picture framing, pottery decorating, photo album making, creative stenciling and wall-hangings. Sorry. No basket-weaving.

I'm sort of joking here, but I am willing to bet that many of the Afrikaner housewives of that time were climbing the walls with boredom and were probably actually glad to see Apartheid go because its disappearance freed them in a way as well. And, BTW, several Afrikaners I have met here have talked about the guilt they feel now after being a part of that racist society. "But we were totally immersed in the propaganda of it all -- in our churches, in our schools, everywhere; told again and again by friendly, folksy politicians that we were merely protecting future generations from losing their rightful place in the sun." And in fact, some Afrikaners did speak up against Apartheid and some of them did get out there and march. But I can't promise you that they were doing the toyi-toyi!

Like with the White Rose Society in Germany and like in America today, there were were Afrikaners during Apartheid who did fight for justice. And never underestimate the Ubuntu miracle that is South Africa today -- where all the many races here are for the most part sincerely struggling to create a new country that is inclusive of all. And I'm here to tell you that it is a difficult, uphill battle but many people -- no matter what their race -- now live in hope. Or at least I'd like to think so, idealist that I am. But, hey, what they have here today is WAY better than Apartheid! Plus you don't have to learn dried flower arranging and the latest torture techniques on the one hand or live like a slave on the other. And you don't have to live in a police state atmosphere either. No more Green Zone wannabes for South Africa. Sure, there's a high crime rate but it's an individual thing. You just add "electrified fence" to your wish list, sign up for the Zulu bicycle patrol, stop the huge influx of hundreds of thousands of desperate impoverished refugees from the more war-torn parts of the African continent, never use your cell phone on the street and you're golden.

Meanwhile, back at the museum.... "No schools were built in Soweto between 1962 and 1971," said another sign. "Only 33% of matriculants passed in 1968. By 1975, for every 644 rands the government spent on a White student, 42 rands were spent on a Black one."

"To insure that the march was disciplined and that all the students were accounted for at all times, we had agreed to a march in rows, each row consisting of five students holding hands," read the sign under another photo of the children marching in orderly rows.

For me, this whole day has been a total submersion in man's inhumanity to man. You don't even wanna know the misery I've seen in these two museums today. In photos. In videos. In artifacts. Can you even imagine being there during the actual events?

Then we drove past the world's first ShopRite! Wow. ShopRite is one of the biggest supermarket chains in South Africa -- and the first one was actually started right here in Soweto. Up the Bucs! Also, there's a large middle class in Soweto. It's not all just abject poverty here. "Many people prefer to live here and commute to Jo'burg because of Ubuntu," said our guide. "Plus apparently they feel more at home."

We passed a school with a mural that read, "Spread love -- not AIDS."

"And here is the church that played a big role in the anti-apartheid movement. The Regina Mundi church. A Catholic church. Bishop Tutu held rallies here because of its capacity -- 2,000 people could sit down plus there was room for another 4,000 people to stand. And usually when the police drove by the church, they thought that the toyi-toyi chants they were hearing were hymns. But after that first march, the police realized that students were in the church and so they threw in tear gas canisters. The students panicked and many were killed in the ensuing stampede -- there were 7,000 in the church at the time. Then the police came in shooting. The bullet holes are still in the walls and roof. The police also cracked the alter and shot off the hands of a statue of the Christ. " What kind of barbarians would fire into a CHURCH filled with CHILDREN?

Then we drove past a shanty town. "And later on I'll show you the Beverly Hills of Soweto," said our guide. Then we passed a huge cemetery, a few square miles in size. "Dying first from Apartheid and now from AIDS, botched abortions, high blood pressure and diabetes." But considering it was a Saturday, the traditional day for such events, I haven't seen any funerals.

"And here are the two nuclear power plant cooling towers that are so famous because of the murals painted on them. The reactors are shut down now, but that has not effected Soweto's energy supply. All the electricity generated by them never went to the people of Soweto anyway." Only the toxins and the radiation?

"Next we will go to the squatter camps. And see those sheep in that pen over there? We could buy one, take it home with us and have a braai." A braai is the South African term for a barbecue. Yeah right. And where exactly in the mini-van would this sheep sit? In my lap? "28,000 people live in this camp. No running water -- only some standpipes. HIV is common here." And there were lots of friendly drunks.

We found a camp resident, paid him ten rands apiece and asked him to take us through the lanes. I loved it. Each little home was about the size of a large closet. It was like walking through rows of doll houses. And it had the feel of a rural village -- friendly.

"Would you like to go inside one of the homes?" Oh yes! It was totally tiny but completely organized and well-maintained, with a table, chairs, cupboards and one double bed.

"How many people live here?" I asked.

"Six," replied the mother of a baby which was sleeping in the middle of the bed.

"How old is your baby?"

"Eight months." A big, healthy boy, wearing disposable diapers. This sweet little house was the world's best photo op. And me without my camera. Rats.

"And here is the world's largest hospital," said our guide as we continued our tour. "3,000 beds. You don't believe me? It's in the Guinness Book of Records!" Then we passed a whole bunch of hostels where migrant workers lived, mostly men. "But this area has always been associated with crime." There were hundreds of dormitory-style hostels. "During Apartheid, Zulu workers lived here and the police supplied them with guns so they could shoot up the ANC areas. The ANC were well-trained with weapons but they had none available to them so they were like sitting ducks." Now the hostels are being demolished to be replaced with family housing. "But to live in this housing, you have to bring your wife -- which is causing problems because polygamy is practiced among Black Africans and the other wives don't want to get left behind back in the camps." I think our guide was joking.

Then we looked at all the rich houses in the "Beverly Hills" area. They were mostly McMansions, newly built. And then we got back on the freeway and drove back to Pretoria and everyone on the tour was happy with what we had learned but emotionally exhausted -- especially me. So I spent a quiet evening reading Jane Austin and eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and contemplating everything that I had learned.

"Up the Bucs!"

PS: I just talked with another South African resident and she said, "Sorry, Jane, but the squatters' camp you were shown in Soweto just aren't the real thing. The camps that you saw aren't all that bad -- just cute little shacks designed to appeal to 'poverty chic' tourists such as yourself. Plus it totally annoys me when the tour buses drive by and everyone just gapes at the Soweto camps like 'those people' were animals in a zoo. But if you really want to know what real poverty looks like, go up near the Zimbabwe and Mozambique borders where thousands of refugees pour into South Africa every day with only the shirts on their backs. There aren't any sweet little tin doll houses up there. No standpipes. And not even tables and beds."

What can I say? How many levels of poverty ARE there in this world? And what can we do about it, how can we help? Maybe I should give up reading Austin and start reading Dickens? Parts of Europe --and even parts of America -- used to be as bad as this merely a few generations ago. And look at Europe and America now. There IS hope. All we gotta do is start spending our money on quality education and get rid of all those dummkopfs who keep spending OUR money on war. Or am I getting to preachy? Sorry about that.
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Stillwater is a freelance writer who hates injustice and corruption in any form but especially injustice and corruption paid for by American taxpayers. She has recently published a book entitled, "Bring Your Own Flak Jacket: Helpful Tips For Touring (more...)
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