Soweto has a good story to tell, argues the writer

Friday, April 25, 2014

From a dusty township to a 21st century bustling city, Bathandwa Mbola visits her home town of Soweto to observe how it has changed from the once segregated township she grew up in the 1980s.

It’s a typical Friday afternoon. The cars that slowly make their way back from the Joburg city centre into Soweto range from beat-up old taxis, the latest VW Polos to a handful of Mercedes-Benz C-Class and BMW models.

Large billboards pierce the skyline, advertising a certain top of the range whisky, while posters from different political parties battle for the right spot on the electricity gum poles ahead of the May 7 national elections.

On the side of the road, vendors sell anything from fresh vegetables, flame-grilled meat and pap to furniture. The taxis make a racket as they hoot, alerting passengers and schoolchildren walking back from school of their services. All this sums up a typical afternoon in Soweto these days.

Soweto is one of the most populous of the historically black urban residential areas in South Africa. It is an iconic site, infused with the history of the struggle against apartheid. It appears to have stepped into the democratic South Africa.

I remember even when I was a little girl in the 80s, I was amazed how vast Soweto was, stretching as far as the eye can see. Today, it has probably doubled in size, with some estimating there are between three and four million people calling it home.

Having grown up in this once dusty and dry “dormitory” for the city of gold, Soweto is staking its claim to Joburg’s riches and is becoming a vibrant, sustainable and economically active city in its own right.

At first glance, it appears to be an endless jumble of houses and shacks. But once inside, parts of it have a village feel - especially if you are exploring on foot - unlike anywhere else in Johannesburg.

The township, whose name is an abbreviation of South-Western Townships, has many faces: the one you hear about, the one you see and the one we, its residents, live.

Like any other place, if you want to see poverty and crime, you will probably see it. But Soweto is vibrant. It is colourful and it's one of the places which helped change the political course of South Africa.

One can choose to see it as famous or notorious, but one thing for sure, the township is known for setting trends, whether in politics, fashion, music, dance or language.

Sowetans have a real passion and optimism for their township. The principle of “it takes a village to raise a child” still applies here. Residents will often stop to welcome you or to make conversation, no matter what the colour of your skin may be.

As the country celebrates 20 years of democracy on 27 April, I decided to drive around this township of mine to explore, to learn, to appreciate and best of all, to see how far we have come in realising the ambitions of South Africa’s democracy.

My first stop was Kliptown, which is about 12 kilometres from my home. This is the place where on 26 June 1955, over 3 000 South Africans congregated alongside their anti-apartheid associates to proclaim a new vision for the South Africa they wanted.

The next day, police broke up the gathering when they stormed the meeting. But the dream had already been declared: “The people shall govern”.

South Africa would belong to all who live in it, irrespective of the colour of their skin. There would be work, education and security for all. Everyone would be equal before the law. It was an extraordinary affirmation, full of hope and the promise of a better future.

Today the square is named after Walter Sisulu, an African National Congress hero and mentor to the late Nelson Mandela, who became the country’s first black President.

The square boasts shops, offices, a conference hall and a hotel. As the birthplace of the new, inclusive South Africa, it has also become a stop for the so called “middle class” Sowetans and a trail for tourists who want a lesson in the country’s history.

Despite the poverty, which is still evident among the people who live in the shacks adjacent to the Square, the community of Kliptown has managed to build a strong sense of unity, where black and coloured live in harmony - side by side.

Driving out of Kliptown, I could not help but observe that the new government has brought resources closer to the people and life has changed for the people, despite the persistent challenge of unemployment.

Recent years have seen Soweto become a site of massive development projects and a major tourist attraction in the country.

Since the end of apartheid in 1994, the Soweto landscape has changed dramatically. Once consisting of mainly matchbox houses and dusty roads, today it has middle class and even upper class housing, which caters for the rich and famous. The township has also seen the development of mixed income houses.

I have seen hostels, monstrous, prison-like buildings, which were designed to shelter male migrant workers from the rural areas and neighbouring countries, being converted into family units.

Unlike when I was growing up, the streets are tarred and most households have access to running water and electricity. Parks have been created and treed.

I have also witnessed the construction of great shopping malls, such as the very popular Maponya and Jabulani Malls.

The township boasts its own arts theatre. It was launched in 2007 as a legacy project of the FIFA World Cup.

Some of the most recent infrastructure investments have been the multi-modal transit stations, such as the Baragwanath Taxi and Bus Facility as well as the introduction of Rea Vaya Rapid Bus Service, which provides transport to thousands of commuters.

Soweto is also home to one of the world’s biggest hospitals, Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Diepkloof and soon Jabulani Hospital will open its doors extending state healthcare services to its many residents. This is in addition to a number of city clinics and two private clinics.

Restaurants, nightclubs, shebeens, bed and breakfasts, hotels and car dealers have sprung up to cater for the growing tourist trade. The number of high-rise buildings contributes greatly to the changing look of the township and offers those looking for a night out in the ‘ghetto’ a jolly good time.

Though Soweto continues to make significant progress, I still have a problem with things like illegal dumping, decaying buildings and blocked sewage pipes.

But perhaps what’s important are the people here. Those who remember the history of this township and are optimistic about the direction it’s taking. The community knows it is going to take more than 20 years to reverse the centuries of our colonial past.

As South Africa evolves, people will continue to be confronted by the spatial legacy of the past. Government will continue to negotiate the socioeconomic and political challenges and opportunities of the present and steadily build a vision for the future.

Without giving away my age, today looking back on the Soweto I grew up in, I feel as though I have lived in two countries. –

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