Our class had the opportunity to visit the largest black township in South Africa, the South Western Township, or Soweto. One of our guides, K.B. is actually a resident of Soweto and was proud to show us his community. The atmosphere and energy of Soweto was unexpected. We entered into a vibrant township with approximately seven million residents. Soweto has approximately 287 school and a university as well as one of the largest hospitals in the world. Soweto is home to the first black millionaire under apartheid but has a large disparity in socio-economic level due to the 40% unemployment rate. This is evident by the larger houses minutes away from a squatter settlement of Motsaweli.
While we had been exposed to the enormous disparity in wealth this squatter settlement was hard for many. There were dead rats in the dirt roads and a kresh full of children with flies constantly landing on them. This was the first time where children had asked us for sweets or money. The absolute poverty in this settlement was eye opening to the privilege that our class has experienced. Throughout this class we have examined our privilege that our race, gender, socio-economic status, etc. has on our world view and the way we are perceived. This short visit into the squatter settlement made me think about my privilege and how I can use this privilege to help those that do not have the same opportunity and lifestyle as I have.
One of the parts of our tour of Soweto that stood out to me was when our guide, K. B. told us that under apartheid, the government tried to keep the various ethnic groups divided into zones so that they would not unite. K.B. told us that while the Zulu should have lived in one area, the Xhosa in another and so on, that there was no way to keep people from staying in these zones. This showed one of the ways that the black population tried to resist the government under apartheid. While the government tried to keep the black population from uniting and divide them based on tribal and ethnic lines, the people found a common purpose through the spirit of Ubuntu and found ways to resist.
Soweto was the site of the first student uprisings in 1976. Reading about this uprising was one thing but to go to the site where tanks and a police force met children that were barely fourteen was incredible. Students stood up to fight the apartheid system of teaching in Afrikaans and sadly, many lost their lives for this resistance. The Hector Peterson Memorial was a powerful and profound museum that allowed our class to experience the atmosphere and confusion associated with the Bantu Education Acts and eventually the Soweto Uprisings. The most impactful part of the exhibit was a famous photo of Hector Peterson, the first child killed in the uprising, being carried by another teenager. The fact that children were losing their lives for educational opportunity and resistance to apartheid affected me. It made me question how far I was willing to go in order to ensure a quality education for myself.
The impact of black consciousness was highlighted in the exhibit. Steve Biko was a large influence on the children of Soweto as well as the continent of Africa. A quote that resonated with me from the exhibit was “black consciousness seeks to instill the idea of self-determination to restore feelings of pride and dignity to blacks after centuries of racist oppression. It is an attitude of mind and a way of life. It is the realization that the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed”. Being in the exhibit made me realize how Biko’s words would rally the children of Soweto to protest the introduction of Afrikaans as a teaching medium.
Another highlight of Soweto was seeing Nelson Mandela’s house at 8115 Orlando West. Our class got to hear more about the struggle for racial equality and Nelson and Winnie Mandela’s role in dismantling the apartheid system. It was incredible to see the bullet holes in the front of the Mandela home as well as learn that their house had been petrol bombed twice. The violence and hateful atmosphere that enveloped apartheid is hard to imagine but Nelson Mandela’s perseverance makes his eventual election to president even more inspiring.
Soweto was an amazing experience that our class was lucky to experience. The atmosphere and history of the township makes me wonder how privilege affects our view of a community. We see Soweto as a place of uprising in the early years of the apartheid struggle. However, the township has transformed to a place of hope for the Rainbow nation. Housing one of the largest hospitals in the Southern Hemisphere and a growing middle class, Soweto is poised to remain a vibrant community.