Touristy, Financially Diverse and a Strong Community: General Impressions of Soweto

Soweto, a township outside of Johannesburg, is known world wide as a main location for Apartheid resistance. It is where Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela lived along with many other political activists and is the location of the student uprisings in 1976. Today, Soweto is a thriving township that spans 150 km2 and has a population of 6 million people. There are 54 locations or as we call them in the United States, suburbs.

 

Our visit to Soweto was our fourth township following our visits to Langa, Khayelitsha and Zwelihle.  Soweto is very different from the other townships that we have visited during our course because it is so large, is home to such a variety of people and is more industrialized and touristy than previously visited townships.

 

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Hector Peterson carried by another student

Our tour of Soweto began at Soccer City where we were able to see the incredible World Cup stadium where Spain defeated the Netherlands in the final game of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. After admiring the soccer stadium, we visited the Hector Peterson Museum. Soweto was the location of the 1976 student uprisings where students protested Afrikaans as the medium of education in schools and demanded English instead. During the protest on June 16, 1976, the police open fired on innocent students killing many. One boy, Hector Peterson, who is claimed to be the first student killed, has become the iconic image of that day.  The photograph of his lifeless body being carried by his friend while his sister walks beside them is on top of the memorial outside the museum. It reads, “To honour the youth who gave their lives in the struggle for freedom and democracy.” The museum was named in Hector Peterson’s honor.

 

After an incredibly moving experience at the Hector Peterson Museum we walked in the footsteps of the 1976 students to the corner where Hector Peterson was shot. Then we continued our walk to Nelson Mandela’s home. Mr. Mandela lived in Soweto from 1946 until his imprisonment in 1962. The house is now a family museum that is home to many awards, gifts and honor certificates presented to Mr. Mandela. It was an incredibly powerful to see that such an extraordinary leader lived in such a modest home.

 

We then enjoyed a delicious lunch next to Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s home before visiting Regina Mundi Church. Regina Mundi Church is a catholic church that holds significant history of the anti-apartheid student uprising. During the 1976 protests, the children fled to the church to pray. The police followed the students to the church and began to shoot the ceiling, forcing the students to disperse. You can still see the bullet holes in the ceiling and the broken alter from the butt of a policeman’s gun. The church is an illustration of how not even a religious sanctuary was safe from the violence of apartheid.

 

Our visit to Soweto was incredibly powerful because of the incredible leaders that lived in the area, the historic events that took place there along with the bloodshed on the streets. While it is amazing to be in such a historic place, it is clear that the history of Soweto has molded Soweto into the town that it is today.  Soweto was a lot more touristy and developed than other townships. That is most likely due to the two museums and other historic locations that are often visited by tourists who are equipped to spend money at the souvenir shop, the market outside and the restaurant down the street. Additionally, Soccer City is in Soweto, which draws soccer fans into the township. The influx of people visiting Soweto due to the museums and Soccer City help the economy of the entire township.

 

Additionally, if the other townships were Greensboro, Winston-Salem and Burlington, Soweto is the New York City of townships. It is enormous. With six million people and 54 suburbs there was a large display of a variety of people with a range of financial statuses. We did not see the informal structures that were very visible in Langa, Khayelitsha and Zwelhle, but that was mainly due to the magnitude of the township. There are still many Soweto citizens living in informal structures. There are also people living in a wealthy area of Soweto that we were able see during our driving tour. The homes in the wealth area are two story homes enclosed with a fence. While the homes are nice and extraordinarily luxurious compared to the informal structures, they would be considered nothing more than a middle class home in the United States. It was a clear example of perception of wealth. While some people consider two story homes luxurious, others consider it average. The definition of wealth is correlated to culture and society and it is obvious that wealth expectations in townships are much lower than many other parts of the world.

 

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The Madona and Child of Soweto

Finally, Soweto represented an indescribable community. Due to the unbelievable hardship the township has experienced, it seemed that the community is bound together through their historical ties. In the Regina Mundi Church there is a painting entitled “The Madonna and Child of Soweto.” It depicts a black Virgin Mary holding a black infant Jesus. Jesus has a peace sign in one hand and a cross in the other. At the bottom of the painting is the eye of Soweto. There is a cross in the  middle, with a map of buildings in the township surrounding the cross. The painting illustrates that Christ is the center of the township that works to promote the Christian values and peace. The painting illustrates a town that works as a community to further the same goals and values. The community feel of the township is a rarity in today’s world and it was very powerful to witness.

 

Soweto provided many significant impressions including development due to tourism and sports, a range of financial levels among citizens and a strong feel of community. The historical events that took place in Soweto during Apartheid aided in the development of to township after Apartheid. Therefore, Soweto is much larger and more developed than other townships we visited and provided an example of an industrialized township. The progressive development of the township since Apartheid is inspiring. Soweto Township is a clear example of how history can build a successful future through the commitment of a community and the strength of individuals.

Twitter: “Soweto illustrates how a community can use history to build a successful future”

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7 Responses to Touristy, Financially Diverse and a Strong Community: General Impressions of Soweto

  1. skilby2 says:

    Tricia, what a great summary and analysis of our visit to Soweto! I think the point you make about how the wealthy homes in the township would be considered a typical middle class home in the United States is a very interesting observation. Our concept of wealth is much more extravagant than it needs to be, and after observing the drastic socioeconomic disparities that exist in South Africa, it is even more obvious to me how superfluous our concept of wealth is. In reality an average 2 story middle class home in the United States is a clear demonstration of wealth, even if we do not realize it sometimes. For me, it took seeing the most impoverished people in some of the townships we visited in order to understand what is the definition of “wealthy.” The new definition of wealthy I have established after our visit to South Africa, is having a sustainable shelter that includes food, water, clothing and electricity. Unfortunately for me, I was not able to see this however, until I was immersed in some of the poorest townships in South Africa. Our visit to Soweto and South Africa in general has allowed us all to understand how skewed the concept of wealth can be in the United States. After being home for several days I am now able to understand just how privileged I am, not that I didn’t understand before, but this trip has caused me to truly reflect on all of the advantages I have.

  2. Alex Kessler says:

    What an interesting comparison of Soweto as the New York City of townships; it’s unbelievable that over 6 million people live there! It was remarkable to see the various types of housing situations in Soweto, from small shanties to more medium and large-scaled structures. The spectrum of wealth that can be observed in touring the township is widespread. The day trip to Soweto was by far one of the most memorable experiences in Johannesburg for me. I feel as though touring the Hector Pieterson Museum and being able to walk the streets of the town that incredibly impacted the anti-apartheid movement gave me a better understanding of the terrible events that occurred there. Soweto has such a powerful history and I agree that its development is inspiring to the community and its people.

  3. Allie Weller says:

    I really liked your inclusion of photos in your blog. The two you included really summed up the day for me, and brought me right back to the emotions I felt when we were there. Your inclusion of the picture of Hector Pieterson is especially important. It is one thing to read about Hector Pieterson and the events in Soweto, but an entirely different thing to see a photo of the massacre or to even walk the streets that the students walked. This was an excellent recap of all that we experienced and learned in Soweto, one of my favorite days in South Africa.

  4. jeontoupe says:

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  5. Trevor says:

    Your profound knowledge and incredible synopsis of Soweto is quite fascinating and informative. You express the history of Soweto as an expert and someone who is well acquainted with South Africa at large.

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