Soweto

 

During Apartheid, South Africa's government had sectioned off certain areas for "non-Europeans" to live and at times even forcefully moved them there from cities. These areas were known as townships. One of the most well known townships was the South West Township, or now officially known by its abbreviated name, Soweto. It's about a half hour drive from Jo'burg. 

Apartheid is the legal system of segregation and oppression of non-whites. As part of the Bantu Educational System, even schools in Black areas like Soweto were required to teach some content in Afrikaans, the language of the Dutch settlers. For the native South Africans, this new policy was often difficult and oppressive.  Forced to learn in a language in which they were not fluent, from teachers and parents who also were not fluent, the students' learning was suffering. The school system continued to enforce this medium of instruction despite the increasing numbers of drop outs and students being held back. 

Both teachers and pupils suffered from this policy and as a result, Soweto students mobilized to peacefully protest the use of Afrikaans, their oppressor's language, in their schools. On the morning of 16 June 1976, high school students in Soweto gathered together and planned to protest in the Orlando soccer stadium. On the way to the stadium there was a group of police officers who were assigned to stop the protest. The officers started out by using tear gas and firing warning shots to disperse the students. However, when that failed, the police began to shoot within the crowd of students. Many students were injured, but of the thousand who had gathered, two had been fatally shot. One of those students was twelve year old Hector Pieterson.  The photograph above is of Hector's body being carried by a fellow student. This event in Soweto would be known as the Soweto Uprising, and in memory of the critical role of youth resistance in bringing the end of apartheid, the Hector Peterson Museum was created. In the courtyard of the museum is a line of grass that marks where the police shot Hector Pieterson. 

Soweto was also once home to Nelson Mandela.  For those who don't know, Mandela was a central and indispensable figure in overthrowing apartheid, negotiating the peaceful transition from apartheid to the current democracy, and in shaping the vision of a united and egalitarian South Africa.  He is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and a worldwide hero and symbol of peace and tolerance.  The home he and his family lived in for decades is now a museum.

With that historical context in mind, I can offer a few reflections on the experience of visiting Soweto.  The Hector Pieterson Museum was a beautiful yet painful display of a difficult piece of this township's history. It is definitely a must see when visiting Johannesburg. And while you're here, don't forget to grab a bite of a kota (sometimes called bunny chow), a South African street food that is made up of a hollowed out loaf of bread filled with everything (and I mean everything). Nelson Mandela's home is also a great place to visit. It's a small home made up of two bedrooms. It's humbling to see the simple life the Mandela family lived, yet they were able to do so much for a nation. Soweto is a beautiful place with rich history; painful yes, but there's so much to learn from it. I left Soweto feeling full with motivation to help, and with poverty and oppression still relevant around the world, I definitely felt the urgency to do something. Soweto is a scary reminder of the hate that can so easily ruin lives, but it is also an inspirational reminder that simple things done by simple people can change the world.