Soweto: City of contrasts

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 A city within a city, Johannesburg’s most well-known township, Soweto, has an estimated two million inhabitants, out of a total population of ten million. The two huge cooling towers of a former power station, now daubed with brightly-coloured murals and housing a ‘buy and braai’ restaurant, make for a highly visible marker of the sprawling settlement as you approach from the main road. Infamous for the student uprisings and killings of the 1970s, and for violence and politics ever since, it’s a place of surreal contrasts. We were shown around by the calm, patient Lawrence, a Soweto resident with a white sweatshirt and a whiter smile. Formerly a cashier at Standard Bank, he is now an extremely knowledgeable guide, clearly proud of his community and cautiously optimistic about its future.

After lunch at a local restaurant where we sampled traditional specialities such as pap (a sort of maize porridge) and boerewors (spicy beef sausage), Lawrence pointed out the grand houses of the township’s millionaires and took us to Motsoaledi, one of Soweto’s shanty towns, where an unknown number of people live in shacks with corrugated iron roofs and without running water or electricity. Hilda, who has been a resident of Motsoaledi since its formation 18 years ago, invited us inside her tiny one-room home, where she lived with her family of seven. The house, if you can call it that, contained little more than a raised bed and an old charcoal stove, which struggled to heat the draughty space and which she also uses to cook. In the unpaved streets outside, the local children clamoured for attention. A big-eyed, crusty-nosed young girl in a turquoise velour leisure suit told me she wanted to be a fashion designer when she grew up. I wondered what her chances were of achieving this ambition.

Many of the houses in the township date from the 1930s, when Soweto was established as a towns entitlement for black workers and while some have a derelict air to them, others display satellite dishes and modern extensions as evidence of a middle-class lifestyle. Poverty and affluence muddle along cheek-by-jowl. Down-at-heel shebeens (shacks selling cheap beer where residents drink and socialise) are flanked by a theatre, four shopping malls, a 3D cinema, a Virgin Active gym and BMW and VW car dealerships. Soweto is also home to the Soccer City football stadium, where the 2010 World Cup was held and where vuvuzuelas were made internationally famous.

A visit to the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum, named after the first child to be killed in the uprising of 1976, when police clamped down heavily on students protesting against being taught in the Afrikaans language, brutally killing 69 of them, hangs heavily in the memory. Informative and emotional in equal measure, the display is very sensitively put together and we left feeling hollowed and deeply moved. The township as a whole makes for a gripping but disturbing visit. It was hard to go back my Johannesburg friends’ luxurious and spacious home in a wealthy suburb and not be painfully conscious of the deep and uncomfortable divides between our lives and those of most Soweto residents. Yet as we warmed up with a hot drink in Roots bar before leaving Soweto, the locals seemed laidback and upbeat, and the bar staff were relaxed and friendly. The fact that we were there at all reflects how much things have changed over the last few decades and uncomfortable or not, it’s a trip I wouldn’t have missed.

 

 

 

 

 

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