Today was our third and final visit to a township. Soweto is the oldest of the three, and the most established. It has a long and rich history — many of the leaders of the resistance to apartheid grew up there, including Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu (we got to see both of their houses). Soweto is 41 square miles, and home to 4 million people — for comparison, Johannesburg itself is 8 million.
Soweto began as a camp for laborers in the gold mines throughout the area of Johannesburg, placed in (as usual) the most undesirable locations. The first camps were in the 1860’s, and grew after 1904 when the then-ruling British colonial government moved African workers out to a site near the municipal sewage farm. Various camps and townships were established, and then united into one in 1963: Soweto, from “South Western Townships.”
Soweto is comprised of very established neighborhoods and houses, some for professionals, some for middle-class workers, and some shanty towns for squatters. Our guide, who is from Soweto, said there is more development in Soweto than any other township in South Africa — roads paved, trash collection, etc.
As we’ve seen in every other township, enterprising residents find ways to establish shops and businesses wherever they are.
One things I found interesting is the established houses with a shanty — or two or three — in its yard. What we found out is that the homeowner rents the space to the shanty-owners for an extra 250 Rand (about $30) a month. (And, of course, if the shanty-owners wants electricity, it’s extra.)
I was also struck by the bustling community. We stopped at an intersection for a time while several of our colleagues ran into a grocery store to buy bottled water for our trip tomorrow to the Entabeni Safari Conservancy. We had the chance to observe the community life for a time, and it was beautiful.
Soweto was the home of some of the most significant happenings in the Struggle against apartheid. We learned today about a key one that happened in Soweto June 16, 1976. The apartheid government had passed a law that all school teaching should switch from English to Afrikaans, the language of the apartheid regime. Now, in the townships, Afrikaans had not been taught to the black students, so this was a huge problem and just one more way the regime tried to take away potential from the black Africans.
A group of student leaders organized a peaceful demonstration against the change in language, and so something like 15,000 student marched peacefully from their schools, planning to meet together to deliver a statement to the Durban Street Police Station. Along the way they met a line of police. Eye-witness accounts say one of the police reached down, picked up a rock, and threw it at the crowd. The crowd moved apart, then someone threw the stone back. The police opened fire with tear gas and live bullets.
One 13-year-old boy, Hector Pieterson, was in class when he heard the students walking by. Hector was too young for the march, as it was supposed to be high school only. But he was curious and so he cut out of class. Hector was shot by the police there at the front of the line, with his sister close by. Another boy scooped up his lifeless body and ran through the chaos for the hospital, his sister wailing alongside. A photographer caught this shot, which got picked up by newspapers around the world.
The shooting of students let loose a tirade of violent protests throughout Soweto and in towns and cities all across South Africa. The police responded with brutal force; one display at the museum we walked through showed a picture of a green Dodge car with sniper rifles sticking out of the windows; these cars drove around and shot people at random. Police used tear gas, batons, and shot indiscriminately.
In the morning we worshipped at Regina Mundi, a Catholic Church in Soweto. When the African National Congress and other resistance groups were banned, meaning they could not meet openly, or when the students fled after the Hector Pieterson shooting, Regina Mundi housed them in services that often became political rallies. In fact, there are still bullet holes in the ceiling, left there as a reminder of the role Regina Mundi played in the struggle.