Part 8: Soweto and Other Jo’Burg Sites.

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Sunday, November 2, 2014: After an early breakfast we were on our way. It was cloudy with intermittent drizzle. Meshack was our guide for the day. Our destination was Soweto, and on the way we passed Jo’burg’s center with its tall buildings.
Johannesburg is the city of gold. Before gold was discovered, it was a backwater town. In 1886 George Harrison, a roaming carpenter, accidentally kicked a rock that had gold specks in it. This led to new discoveries, and the gold rush began drawing people from all over the world. By 1898 there were 100,000 in Jo’burg. By 1931 there were 400,000. The population doubled during WWII. In 1995, the United Nations estimated the population of Jo’burg’s metropolitan area to be 1.8 million. Now the metropolitan area’s population is about 3.8 million and rapidly growing. People from all over SA are moving to the city. It is projected that there will be a 66% population growth in the next 30 years. To accommodate this, the city is developing plans to provide more housing, improve access to clean water and energy, and better manage waste and sanitation.
When the gold mining began, Jo’burg was all bush country. Wood was needed for shafts to the mines, hence the manmade forests as previously mentioned. None of the trees we saw was indigenous to South Africa.
Gold mining in the city proper was discontinued in 1976. There are 2 remaining shafts which now are tourist attractions. People go down them to have the mining experience. These tours are physically strenuous and are highly “not” recommended for those under16, over 60, or at all claustrophobic.
The most common racial groups are: black (64%), coloured (14%), white (14%), Indian/Asian (7%). The SA flag of equal parts of red, yellow, green and black represent the multi-racial make-up of the country, and the ideal of freedom and equal treatment for all.
We passed a beautiful mosque built by a rich Turk. Religious freedom is guaranteed in SA’s constitution. As a secular state, it observes strict neutrality among religions which also extends to the right not to believe or observe any religion. Religious education is acceptable in public schools as long it’s about all the religions. No particular religion can be promoted.
The various religious groups are: Christian (53%), African Independent Churches (14%), Muslim (3%), Jewish (1%), Hindi (1%), with 24% unaffiliated. There is a Mormon population of about 49,000. And Jo’burg is the site of Africa’s first LDS Temple. The above statistics are from a World Population View report from October 2014.
The Golden City Amusement Park is located on an old gold mine closed in 1971. Even with the so-so weather it was crowded. The theme of the Park is the gold rush days of the late 1800’s.
The Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital is the largest hospital in the Southern Hemisphere covering 173 acres with more than 3,000 beds. Chris Hani was the second most important person in the African National Party, after Nelson Mandela. He was murdered by an assassin in 1993. The hospital accommodates about 2,000 people daily, half of which are HIV positive patients.
We passed 2 tall towers colorfully painted. A link between the towers is used for bungee jumping. Looked crazy and scary to me. The cooling towers were built in 1951 as part of the Orlando Power Station which provided electricity to Soweto. It was decommissioned in 1998. In 2006 the station was turned into an entertainment and business center. One tower is used as a billboard, and the other has the largest mural in SA depicting the famous sons and daughters of Soweto plus traditional township scenes.
Township was the word used for neighborhoods built solely for blacks and where they were forced to live during the apartheid years. The word dates back to those days and is still commonly used. There’s an attempt to phase out the use of the word, but it may take time.
In 1933, when the blacks were first forced to live in Soweto (the acronym for the South Western Township) and worked 11 miles away in the mines in Jo’burg, it would take 3 hours to get to work. There were no roads, shops, parks, electricity, or water. There was also a lack of proper, or enough housing to accommodate all the people forced to be there. In 1944, there was a mass occupation of open land in nearby Orlando, and within 2 years, the country’s first unofficial squatters’ camp housed 400,000 people. Soweto, the name for that whole area, has remained a magnet for millions searching for a better life. Even though Soweto was incorporated into Jo’burg in 2002, it is still like a place unto itself. It is home to soccer heroes, political leaders, record producers, multimillionaires, the unemployed, murderers, and Nobel Prize winners. The population in Soweto is estimated to be between ~ 2 million people. People are wary of the reason for compiling a national census, making it nearly impossible to get an accurate count.
Few South Africans visit Soweto for pleasure in spite of the fact that the whites who actually live there say they feel safer there than in the suburbs. The crime statistics are scary. The murder rate was very high and had come down considerably in the last few years, but recently has started to rise again. South Africa has the ignominious title of being the rape capital of the world. After having said all that, because we were in a group with a local guide, I didn’t feel scared walking around. In fact, we wish we could have walked around more.
The housing in Soweto is mostly comprised of “matchbox” houses, 4 room houses built by the government. There are some areas where people have luxurious houses that are comparable to those in the more affluent suburbs. Many of the people who still live in the matchbox houses have improved and expanded them. Parks and green spaces have been improved with the planting of more trees. The biggest problem is that more and more people come to Soweto though space and adequate housing is already limited. There is still a part of Soweto without water, but all homes now have electricity. We saw solar panels on the roofs of many houses. One of the tenets of the new democracy was the goal of better housing for all. It’s still a goal and may take a long time to accomplish.
Some of the roads were blocked making it difficult for our bus to get through to our destination, Mandela’s home/now museum. While riding around, we saw roadside mechanics working on cars. The mechanics sometimes make the cars worse to get more business. I remember long ago and just married with our first car, we were leery of car mechanics and so happy when we found one we could trust.
We saw outdoor stores only open in good weather. Taxi fighting has been reduced by regulations. There were still horse and wagons on the road. Community gardens growing vegetables, and marijuana too. The police periodically raid the gardens and confiscate the marijuana.
We finally were dropped off in the vicinity of Mandela’s house. Although it was drizzling it was fun walking around. On Vilkazi Street, we encountered runners participating in a half-marathon (one of the reasons for the streets being blocked and the traffic back-up). While walking down the street we were cheering them on. We walked by Bishop Tutu’s house which was enclosed by walls making it impossible to see it. I took a picture of the sign. Some people put their cameras above the wall and just snapped away. Bishop Tutu still owns the house and it is used by his family. Mandela’s house was about a block or so down the street. Vilakazi Street is the only street in the world to have 2 Nobel Prize winners as residents. The street has become a social hub for locals and foreigners. There were nice restaurants and shops lining the street. Because it was still morning, most of them were closed.
Outside of Mandela’s house, there were vendors waiting for us. Also there were 2 young men who put on a show for us dancing and moving like contortionists. Amazing.
This small matchbox type house has been turned into a museum filled with pictures, paintings and all kinds of memorabilia. Before we entered, a young college student gave us a talk about Mandela and the museum. I walked around the house immersing myself in the idea that this was where Mandela lived for a time. Not only at this house/museum, but almost everywhere we went in South Africa, Mandela (nickname Madiba) is revered and loved. It’s hard to go anywhere without feeling his greatness.
We went outside and again saw the dancers. We stopped a while and then walked back to the bus. Meshack told us how important tourism is for Soweto, as an exchange of money as well as culture. There are bed and breakfasts as well as a 4 star hotel called the Soweto Hotel.
Our next stop was the Hector Pieterson Memorial. This memorial museum is in honor of Hector Pieterson, a 13 year old boy who was killed on June 16, 1976 during the student uprising in Soweto. Hundreds of students were peacefully protesting against the use of Africaans as the language of instruction in their schools when the police opened fire on them. Inside the museum there are videos and many graphic and moving photographs taken during the event including the famous shot of the dying Hector Pieterson being carried by a young man with Hector’s sister running beside them. The children retaliated by destroying everything they could that belonged to the municipal authority as the police brutalized and killed them. The police reported 59 dead, but the actual count was more like 500. It was an interesting but very sad tour around the museum. I knew about the uprising and had seen the picture of the dying boy being carried away, but now I know how tragic it actually was and its importance as a catalyst in the growing resistance to the apartheid government. In 1994, June 16 was declared National Youth Day to commemorate the contribution and sacrifice of the African youth made in the struggle for freedom.
Waiting outside for our group, Tony and I watched and listened to a group playing music across the street. On the way back to the bus, a young boy approached us begging for money. Meshack took him aside and gave him a “lecture” to the effect that this is not something a South Aftrican boy does.
Next stop, the Apartheid Museum. The museum opened in 2001 and illustrates the rise and fall of apartheid. It was designed to duplicate and remember the difficult conditions and mindset that South Africans lived with during that era. From 1948 until 1990 apartheid was enforced by the South African government. The policy of apartheid was introduced in 1948 as a form of domination and control of black people through racial segregation. The majority of people were dispossessed of land, economic opportunity, and their right to choose their own leaders just because they were black. Their freedom of movement was limited by curfews and passbooks.
To illustrate the experience of segregation, the museum has 2 entrances, one for white and one for nonwhites. We were each given a card with our racial identity on it. I received a nonwhite card. Tony had a white one. I went through a narrow passageway looking at exhibits of pass cards and other forms of humiliation. We all met in a courtyard before actually entering the museum. Inside there were 22 exhibits taking you on a journey through all the horrors of apartheid, the rise of black consciousness, the passive resistance, the armed struggle, and finally in 1990 the release of Mandela after 27 years of imprisonment which led to negotiations for peace. And in 1994 Mandela was inaugurated as SA’s first democratically elected president. The museum was both horrifying and inspiring. Upon exiting the museum we followed the “custom” and took a pebble which we threw on a large pile of pebbles showing our solidarity with the victims of apartheid. I liked the saying on the museum brochure, “Apartheid is exactly where it belongs- in a museum.” The tour was emotionally exhausting. It reminded me so much of going through the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. and visiting Auschwitz.
We walked outside into a green area where there was a gift shop and also a cafeteria. We joined some of the others in the group and had a late lunch. We sat and talked with Bill from Canada who is an amusing guy. We needed a buffer between the experience in the museum and the rest of our day.
After getting back to the hotel, Tony and I took a walk (with our useless map). I wanted to buy some postcards. I already had stamps. I always send postcards to our grandchildren when we’re traveling to interesting places. It was Sunday and not many stores were open. We went to a mall and couldn’t find any. We left the mall and looked in a couple of other places. No postcards anywhere so we bought snacks instead and went back to the hotel.
That night we had our Farewell Dinner at the hotel. The first part of our tour was ending, and some of the group were leaving the next day. Wendy passed a sheet around collecting everyone’s e-mail address. She said she’d make copies and e-mail them to us. We said our good-byes to those we wouldn’t be seeing the next day.
Tony and I and 22 others in our reduced group were continuing on to Zimbabwe (I love saying that word) in the morning.

 

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