Soweto centenary: From tin shacks to tourist destination

After decades of struggle against apartheid, the residents of South Africa's most famous township now look forward to a more secure future. But the past has not been forgotten, as <i>Daniel Howden</i> and <i>Basildon Peta </i>report
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The Independent Online

An outbreak of bubonic plague a century ago gave the colonial authorities in South Africa the opportunity they needed to burn down the teeming migrant slum known as the "Coolie location" in what today is the Braamfontein business district of Johannesburg.

An outbreak of bubonic plague a century ago gave the colonial authorities in South Africa the opportunity they needed to burn down the teeming migrant slum known as the "Coolie location" in what today is the Braamfontein business district of Johannesburg.

The blacks who were put to work in the burgeoning mines and goldfields to provide the wealth of the city were herded out of their slum homes and forced south, far outside Johannesburg, to the edge of a sewage farm on the Klipspruit river. It was the first step in a segregation policy that would place the township that came to be known as Soweto at the centre of the rise and fall of the apartheid system.

The first stinking settlement of huts and tin shacks far from its residents' workplaces - the name Klipspruit comes from the Afrikaans for "rocky spring" - would go on to become the most famous township in the world. By the outbreak of the Second World War, it was home to 400,000 blacks. A mass migration in search of work in the newly built, white-owned factories drove the expansion of Klipspruit through a flu epidemic and the mushrooming of the townships.

It was not until 1964 that Soweto was officially born. The rough conglomerate of slums and townships with their Sesotho names such as "morning star", "hyena" and "lightning" were corralled into a simple acronym for South Western Townships.

The name Soweto was nothing to do with the people that lived there. Instead, it was the brainchild of a Pretoria housewife who won 20 rands in a competition for her idea.

But it was 12 years later that Soweto exploded into the consciousness of people all over the world. A government decree that the language of the ruling whites, Afrikaans, be imposed as the medium for instruction sparked an angry protest by school- children. When the clashes with police finally ended, 600 were dead and the township was in flames.

It was the fate of one teenage boy, 12 year old Hector Pieterson, who was among the first victims of an afternoon in which police opened fire on protestors, that caught the imagination of the watching world.

"I saw a child fall down. Under a shower of bullets I rushed forward and went for the picture. It had been a peaceful march, the children were told to disperse, they started singing Nkosi Sikelele [now the South African national anthem]. The police were ordered to shoot," Sam Nzima would later recall.

The South African photographer's snapshot of the 16 June 1976 Soweto uprising, reproduced above, became an icon of the protest that would prove to be the turning point in the country's history. Newspapers all over the globe showed the black-and-white image of Hector's lifeless body being carried in the arms of fellow student Mbuyisha Makhubo, with his sister Antoinette Sithole running alongside and it helped launch the broader anti-apartheid movement. Hector's death sparked outrage in the wider world and fuelled the protest movement in Soweto itself where schoolchildren and protestors would continue to battle the apartheid security forces.

Today, Antoinette is to be found inside the imposing red-brick museum to her brother built just two blocks away from the site where he was shot. She gives guided tours to the ever increasing number of tourists who flow into the township that has become South Africa's prime destination for "heritage safaris". The coachloads of Americans and Europeans are a welcome sign to locals that the days of being a no-go area are finally coming to a close. "I think a lot of people are a bit scared," said IT worker Reinier Dupreez, one of the relatively few white South Africans to visit during the centenary.

Those who come expecting to see only shacks, street hawkers and beggars are taken aback by paved roads, brick houses and even a golf course. It contains Africa's largest hospital, Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, named after a Welshman, John Baragwanath, who started a refreshment post and hostel for wagon drivers en route to Kimberley soon after the discovery of gold in the Witwatersrand. Soweto College of Education churns out graduates where once the schools were closed by order. And there are reported to be 23 millionaires living in now-gentrified parts of the once dirt-poor township.

But the history is never far away. Inside the Pieterson museum, Mr Nzima's words are inscribed on a plaque under the photograph of the dying boy. The museum is a landmark reminder of why Soweto remains synonymous with the anti-aparthied struggle. It captures all the sad memories among impoverished blacks about the history of the liberation of their country.

And as Soweto marks its centenary celebrations this week, residents of the largely slum township hope to continue building Soweto into a destination for tourists. "The day when Hector was killed in 1976 marked the beginning of the demise of apartheid," said 56-year-old Patrick Khumalo. "We never looked back and never flinched in our resolve until we defeated the enemy. In fact freedom for South Africa was won because of us right here in Soweto."

Many Sowetans share Mr Khumalo's sentiments as they look back on the history of their township with a mixture of both sadness and hope. "Even if you offer me a permanent home in Disneyland, I will prefer to remain here in Soweto. I have many memories of this place that have defined my life and that will define my future," says Lerato Monono, a retired teacher.

The pride is not hard to understand. The township has been home to two Novel Peace Prize winners, Nelson Mandela and Archibishop Desmond Tutu. There is nothing left of the cultural hotbed of Soweto that was once Sophiatown where Mr Mandela grew up with the likes of Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu and Aggrey Klaaste. The so-called South African Harlem produced a golden age of black jazz musicians, writers and political leaders before it was classified as a slum and bulldozed by the Nationalist government in 1954.

After years at the centre of the liberation struggle, the township is still a microcosm of the wider African society but a more gentle one, whose history fascinates the visitors who now follow the Soweto Struggle tour. Archbishop Tutu and former president Mandela's homes are among the landmark stops.

In places, the new Soweto would be unrecognisable to those Klipspruit residents. Now there are affluent areas where palatial houses sit amid the lines of bungalows and schoolchildren skateboard in the street. They look like affluent American teenagers, but nearby tens of thousands of others still live in little more than corrugated iron shacks and wooden lean-tos.

The decade since the end of apartheid has brought improvements, say Sowetans but the townships are still plagued by high unemployment - currently running at 40 per cent - and lack of hope. The result is spiralling violent crime and a new enemy: now Aids and drug abuse stalk the streets, rather than white policemen.

The Johannesburg city council is wooing the private sector to invest in the township to convert it into a major economic hub. But for now, the main land use is housing with little commercial or industrial activity. "At least rentals are affordable here and with the new developments being planned by the council, we can only hope to one day look like any other decent area," says Mr Khumalo.

As Soweto marks its 100th birthday, many residents hope that, another century from now, the townships will rival plush north Johannesburg suburbs such as Sandton. Pam Ndadba, coordinating the celebrations, looks forward to a more sedate future. "I see it as a place where people will want to live and those who have moved out will want to move back to. I see it as becoming just another suburb."

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