Postcard from Soweto

Soweto Uplifting

"You went where?"

Such were the incredulous gasps I received from the white Jo'burg locals when I told them of my little excursion. Many had lived their entire lives in the city without ever having seen the sprawling suburban shanty town just twenty kilometres to the south.

To be truthful, I was more than a little apprehensive about venturing into a township with such a brutal and bloody history, but couldn't leave Johannesburg without at least having made an attempt.

Robert is a trusted taxi driver at my plush hotel in the relatively safe northern suburb of Parktown. A native of the northern provinces, he has been living and working in Jo'burg since 1973. He speaks nine languages, is a former policeman, stands about 200cm and carries a gun and walkie-talkie.

"Robert," I asked with obvious self-consciousness, "could you take me to Soweto?"

"Sure," came the matter-of-fact response, "350 Rand".

That was around one hundred Aussie dollars, but heck, these chances don't come up every day. And I wasn't about to thumb a ride.

Despite my interrogations, Robert assured me the journey would be safe. I got a second opinion from Johannes, the African porter, who nodded in agreement. Righto then!

The six-lane dual carriageway to Soweto is populated mainly by African commuters in vehicles of questionable roadworthiness. Seatbelts are clearly optional, with many travellers packing into the back of rattly utes and wobbly pick-ups. Speed limits are posted but rarely observed, and even more seldom policed.

Some of the 90,000 dwellings in Soweto. Photo: World BookDespite the lifting of apartheid, Soweto is still very much a black township, and we cruised the dusty streets getting plenty of curious looks. There are very few shops as such, merely hundreds of little snack booths. Street activity is constant, although there are very few cars for the population. Those cars that exist are often seen being repaired in roadside bays set up by entrepreneurial operators.

My driver/bodyguard wanted to visit his father-in-law who had requested he drop in to look at some plumbing problems and this impromptu family visit turned out to be an interesting insight into urban life in Soweto. While I stood awkwardly at the car door, curious little children peered out of doorways at the pale stranger. Mothers, cradling even smaller children, gave me a welcoming smile despite their obvious surprise.

Up close and personal with a Sowetan family.Robert introduced me as an Australian, which broke the ice somewhat, and I was soon engrossed in conversation with the considerably extended family - and their neighbours! Realising I wasn't about to be impaled or stoned, I broke out the camera and beckoned them all to pose for a picture, which they did with some enthusiasm.

Plumbing inspections and family portraits completed, Robert suggested a visit to the Hector Peterson Memorial Site, where for 5 Rand (AUS$1.25), you can wander through converted shipping containers housing an exhibition of photographs and news clippings from that turbulent era.

Not an uprising. Just happy kids behind a big fence.Hector Peterson was the first black student to be shot dead by police during the uprisings, and his memorial is one of the few locations visited by tourists in Soweto, although I am the only one here on this occasion. You can also buy a range of unique gifts from the several traders who ply the adjacent carpark. Haggling, by the way, is mandatory.

Produce and family laid out on the dusty sidewalkWe took a different route out of town, where some distinct contrasts were evident. Impoverished street traders with scant and pathetic arrays of produce laid out before them on the sandy footpath, slouch against their beaten and battered iron shacks. No more than one hundred metres further on, we are in a well-to-do street, lined with sturdy, razor-wire topped walls and fences. The houses are neat, albeit small, brick structures with healthy lawns, garages and flower beds.

As we make our exit from this "forbidden city", a sparkling air-conditioned tourist coach packed with middle-aged, rubber-necked, white European types cruises past. I chuckle with Robert as we watch their goggle-eyed expressions behind tinted, fixed windows. Not that long ago, the only whites to venture into Soweto were riding in armoured "hippos", dressed in fatigues, armed to the teeth and with nothing but nastiness on their minds.

Although much has changed in South Africa since the breakdown of apartheid, I'll wager most of Soweto is pretty much as it's always been - a hot, motley, dusty settlement for struggling black Africans .

Words and pictures by Roderick Eime

Related Pages and Further Info: Soweto : Township Guide

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Check out these books on Soweto
Fact File - 1999 World Book Encyclopedia:

Soweto is South Africa's largest urban black community.  It is situated in Gauteng province, about 20 kilometres southwest of Johannesburg, the provincial capital.  Soweto is formed of several townships and covers 100 square kilometres.  The area known as "Greater Soweto" consists of 25 townships and derives its name from the first two letters of the words South Western Townships.  The settlement was established as a black area in the early 1930s and had to be accessible to Johannesburg, where cheap labour was required.  Today, Soweto is a mainly residential area with most residents working in and around Greater Johannesburg.  There are no accurate figures on how many people live in Soweto, but the population is estimated at between 2 and 3 million.  Residents of Soweto are called Sowetans.