For our last day in in South Africa we arranged a tour of Soweto. Soweto is short for South Western Township and was the scene of the 1976 student uprising where the students were protesting the introduction of Afrikaans as the language medium of institutions. The number killed isn’t clear but between 176 to 700 people were slaughtered by the Apartheid police forces. The population of Soweto is approximately 5 million packed into and area of about 106 sq. kms although the last census put the population at 1.3 million. Johannesburg has a similar population and an area larger than 500 sq. kms. Soweto is home to two Nobel prize winners, Dr. Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu.
We visited the good, the bad and the ugly. Poverty is still endemic and the youth unemployment rate runs close to 70%. Shantytown areas still exist side by side with nice brick homes built in the 80’s.
Soweto was created in the 1930’s when the white government started separating Blacks from Whites. The original settlements were born out of the area in 1886 when gold was discovered. The history of this area is both fascinating and sad as the era of Apartheid took hold and families homes were destroyed and the Black population relocated to make way for Whites.
We visited Nelson Mandela’s home, Walter Sisula Square where in 1955 the Congress of the People met to draw up the Freedom Charter which was an alternative vision to the repressive policies of the apartheid state, and the site of the murder of 13 year old Hector Pieterson who became the icon of the Soweto uprising. In remembrance of these events, June 16th is now a public holiday in South Africa, named Youth Day.
This was a sad period in the history of SA but it was the start of the eventual dismantling of the horrible regime of apartheid, the release of Nelson Mandela and the eventual free and fair elections held April 24, 1994 which changed the history of South Africa.
There is so much more to write about on this subject so I urge anyone who is interested to dig into the details and discover the struggles the Black people have faced and to this day, 25 years later still face under the corruption of their government. Exclusionary financial and economic policies still persist and will continue under neo-liberal systems that were created to suit the needs of Europe but are implemented in Africa which is entirely different than Europe and do not work in the favour of the local communities and do not understand how local communities operate. The African agenda must be considered and policies need to change. Far too many are trapped in poverty and unemployment and the communities will continue to suffer at the hands of the system until a true economic transformation happens.
Soweto is the epicentre of the movement that changed the history of this incredible country. It was a moving experience that opened our eyes to the struggles of the past and the struggles that exist to this day.