Johannesburg, South Africa
By Colleen Wileman
After 12 days in Cape Town we headed to Johannesburg and arrived on a rainy and cold afternoon. The sun came out the following day and we booked a tour of the city. Our tour guide was a young black man who is very proud of his city and his country. He spoke of the politics, the corruption and some of the other problems that face South Africa today. However, he is hopeful for a great future even though he knows this will take time. Apartheid has only been abolished for 20 years following hundreds of years of white rule. It will all take time, he says.
Our first stop was the Apartheid Museum. This would prove to be an emotional experience. It started right from the time we got our ticket. There were eight people on our tour. Four tickets were printed “Whites Only” and four tickets were printed “Non Whites” When we got to the entrance, there were indeed two seperate entrances. Richard had a “non-white” ticket and he found that going through that entrance caused him a range of emotions from sadness, anger, grief and finally shame. How can one human being treat another with so little respect?
The museum took us through the history of South Africa and how colonization, first with the Dutch and then the English, took place. There was a complete Nelson Mandela section which explored his humble beginnings right through to his years of incarceration, freedom, the presidency and a new Democracy. The final section of the museum had pictures and commentary from citizens that lived through the Apartheid era. There were news reels of politicians proclaiming how great Apartheid was for the country, the subsequent riots and beatings. It was to say the least, disturbing. How can a country recover from this type of racism and oppression? With young people like our tour guide Tsholo, I believe that they are headed in the right direction.
From the museum we travelled to the township of SOWETO. This is an acronym for South West Township. Townships are the areas that black people were forced to relocate to, or ended up squatting in, to be close to the city. This is the largest and most famous township of South Africa. It houses 4 million people in 9 subdivisions. We weren’t sure what to expect but there were some pleasant surprises.
Firstly, since the end of apartheid, education has become more accessible to marginalized children. More students are going to colleges and universities which is improving their economics. Many have chosen to stay in Soweto and are building homes within the community. We saw one area that was quite affluent with nice homes and cars in the driveway.
We took a walking tour through the heart of Soweto. We started at the Freedom Circle of 1955 where a number of South African leaders (white, black and colored) got together to form a list of 10 items that would determine a fair and just society for the future. These principles were later used to form the present day constitution.
From there we walked through the open air market where the people of Soweto are selling their wares – anything from bracelets made from recycled copper wire to fresh fruit and vegetables. This is one of the community initiatives that they are using to raise themselves out of poverty.
From there we walked along the dirt path past the homes of the poorest of the poor. These homes are tin shacks with no water, plumbing or electricity. Water is taken from a communal tap in the ground. Toilets are portapotties and electricity is stolen from businesses down the street with wires strung haphazardly along the houses. As in most poverty stricken neighborhoods that I have seen, garbage is everywhere. One of our tour participants suggested that the community should take matters into their own hands and clean their areas. Our guide responded that garbage is collected by residents on a regular basis but the garbage trucks never come to take it away. Dogs, rats, wind and rain redistribute the mess right back where it started. A definite breakdown in infrastructure.
From there we moved onto another community initiative which was an after school program for children. There, the makings of a playground, some balls, a garden project, books and games give the children something better to do than get into trouble with gangs. This is giving hope to the community that their future will be better than the past. We also noticed in this area that there was always clean laundry hanging on the line, people always looked neat and tidy and there were hair salons of every type. They are proud of their appearance and are all looking for a better life for themselves and their children.
We wrapped up our tour with a walk down Vilakazi Street where Nelson Madela and Desmond Tutu both lived. We then went to the memorial square where the 1976 Soweto Uprising took place. In short, this was a protest march by students against the education system of the time. Even though it was a peaceful march, police came out in force and killed 69 people including an elementary school child, Hector Pieterson who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. The memorial is a touching tribute to all that have fought for their freedom and was a perfect way to sum up the day and our visit to South Africa.
As we celebrated Thanksgiving and exercised our right to vote this month, we couldn’t help but reflect on those days in Cape Town and Johannesburg. We can only hope that they continue to move forward in their quest for all the things that we take for granted everyday.