Our day began with a tour of Soweto given by a young entrepreneur who takes you through the township’s history and flashpoint areas. I wasn’t familiar with Soweto, other than thinking it was a shantytown – a ghetto – not safe to travel into. Dispelling pre-conceptions is very much a part of what Lesika Matlou’s new tour operating business is all about. Soweto is Johannesburg – certainly a side to it that people, probably like myself, largely misunderstand. What I learned is that Soweto is a community where people choose to be, regardless of the amount of money they have. They stay here because their friends and families are here, and because frankly, the cost of living is cheaper than if they went to the suburbs.
The main drag and primary tourist area of Soweto is a well-appointed street offering restaurants, shops painted with colorful murals, and generally serves as the hub of activity for locals and tourists who visit. Walking up the street from the restaurant where we lunched, Sakhumzi, you see homes of all description – brand new, modern duplexes act as the new face of Soweto, helping to balance out the extremely poor homes, bathed in disregard – a throwback to the history of Soweto as a township started in the gold mining days, were migrant workers came to live, working on the mines, and living in often appalling conditions. Soweto is still overcrowded. Even the latest census, identifying the population of Soweto of just over 2 million people, is commonly accepted to be about 1 million short.
It’s worth noting that walking through Soweto – certainly the parts we did – never felt intimidating or threatening. In contrast, the schoolkids, who had just gotten out for the day, were clearly accustomed to people walking around their neighborhood, they hardly even noticed us – just went on about their business of hanging out, chatting, listening to music and otherwise being teenagers. Conditions, we are told by our guide who grew up in Soweto, are changing in Johannesburg. These kids are too young to have witnessed the shooting of Hector Pieterson, a 12-year old boy by the police back in 1976 when the people in Soweto were protesting the requirement of learning Afrikaans – the language of the white African – in their schools. The flashpoint of the protest took place right where we were standing, and the exact location is marked with a stone wall, commemorating the point where the demonstration went badly out of control, and the Soweto Uprising began.
“I saw a child fall down. Under a shower of bullets I rushed forward and went for the picture. It had been a peaceful march, the children were told to disperse, they started singing Nkosi Sikelele. The police were ordered to shoot.”
These are the words of Sam Nzima, recalling the events of 16 June 1976, when over 500 people were killed as they protested over the imposition of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in township schools.
Nzima’s photograph of the dying Hector Pieterson being carried by a fellow student was published around the world, and came to represent the anger and tragedy of a day that changed the course of South African history, sparking months of clashes between police, schoolchildren and protesters.
Hector, 12, was one of the first casualties of what came to be known as the Soweto Uprising.
Ironically, this event took place across and up the street from Nelson Mandela’s home, which is open to the public, and which seems to serve as a guardian of the children of the community – a constant reminder that, in the words of Mandela, “they are the next great generation.”