Soweto

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As Soweto prepares to host the 2010 FIFA World Cup final, David Whitley discovers how hope and opportunity are changing South Africa’s most famous township.


The man behind the street stall calls out to Ted. “Hey Papa, howzit?” The story of how Ted Taylor, a humble tour guide, came to be known as Papa throughout Soweto is a fascinating one. He was one of the first guides to take tourists around Johannesburg’s most notorious township, and made a point of interacting with the residents. So much so that when one of the bead sellers outside the Hector Pieterson Memorial died in 2004, he was invited to the funeral. Ted was the only white man there, and was told by fellow mourners that he was now part of the family.


The Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum are the focal points of Soweto’s burgeoning tourism industry, and they commemorate all the children who died in the battle against South Africa’s apartheid system. Pieterson himself was a 13-year-old boy when he was shot dead on June 16th 1976. Police opened fire during a peaceful protest march by schoolchildren against the new Government policy of black schools being taught in Afrikaans; regarded as the language of the oppressors.


Hundreds more were to die in the following weeks, but Sam Nzima’s photograph of Pieterson’s body being carried away from the mayhem by 18-year-old Mbuyisa Makhubu went around the world. The story behind the photograph, the 1976 Soweto Uprising and the subsequent events in South Africa is explored superbly inside the museum. Videos, eye-witness accounts and lump-in-the-throat photography are used to explain what proved to be a pivotal point in Apartheid South Africa’s history. The Pieterson photo showed the world that the reports coming from the government-controlled South African media weren’t entirely trustworthy. International pressure and sanctions increased, leading eventually to the new, integrated South Africa in 1994.


As I emerge after a thoroughly absorbing hour of stories I was too young to take in when they originally happened, Ted returns to the story of the bead seller he befriended. “That was Mbuyisa Makhubu’s mother,” he says. “Mbuyisa had to leave the country after the photo was published. He went to Botswana, then Nigeria where he is thought to have died. “People asked his mother why she came to the memorial every day, even though her son was almost certainly dead. She replied that she is a mother, and she would keep coming until she saw her son’s body with her own eyes.”


Such sad stories are what many people come to Soweto to learn about. They come to see the bulletholes in the Regina Mundi catholic church, and they come to look at the often appalling living conditions. It’s no wonder that tours of Soweto have gained a bit of a distasteful reputation as being like a visit to a human zoo. Ted Taylor prefers to focus on the positives. We drive past desperate shacks in what are essentially shanty villages, but Ted points out that these are disappearing fast. “Look at the modern housing behind it,” he says. “These are the new homes that people in the informal settlements are being moved into.”


He also raves about the entrepreneurial spirit of the Sowetans. Unemployment is high, and there are no government unemployment handouts. But, Ted points out, many manage to create work for themselves. He points out shipping containers turned into takeaway food outlets, canvas shelters utilised as Sowetan-style hairdressing salons and a wooden hut between two schools selling stationary. “These people have a strong sense of pride,” says Ted. “Even the ugliest of shacks will be spotless inside, self-policing keeps crime levels surprisingly low and even though the black middle classes have the opportunity to move out, they want to stay.”


And some of those black middle classes have, via a series of extensions, built themselves rather swish houses. Those of Winnie Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu are pointed out on most tours, but Ted gets most pleasure in driving down roads where self-made taxi magnates, car dealers and electrical firm owners have well-to-do homes.


Other signs of the new Soweto are obvious to see. The two towers of the Orlando West power station – which used to supply white Johannesburg with power whilst the residents of Soweto had no electricity – are now brightly painted with murals, and a bungee jumping company operates from the top. Elsewhere are gleaming new churches, large shopping malls and international brand name stores. But the biggest symbol of hope and prosperity is one that will be seen by billions in June this year. The Soccer City stadium technically lies just outside Soweto, but in everyone’s eyes it belongs to Soweto rather than Johannesburg.


In June, the hugely impressive red and yellow behemoth will host the world’s biggest sporting event – the football World Cup final. The scenes that will shape the world’s view of Soweto in 2010 should be vastly different from those of 1976. And Papa’s family is looking forward to its turn in the spotlight.

 




By David Whitley