Travelling tittle-tattle, tall tales and shameless name-dropping by Jon ‘Don’t Call Me’ Norman

About Me

Friday, 25 June 2010

Soweto

Politically, socially and historically June 16th is the most symbolic day in the South African calendar. It is a public holiday is now known as National Youth Day and it is also the day in 1976 when a 12-year old boy by the name of Hector Pieterson was murdered in the street in front of his sister by South African police. An event now seen as the catalyst which led to international pressure finally finding its voice to demand an end to apartheid.

The Tuesday morning after I arrived I set off from our lodge shamefully ignorant about all of this and completely unprepared for what was to follow. I sat in a smart 7-seater with some very wealthy radio broadcasters and a former Premier League footballer and dreamily stared out the window as we travelled into the most famous township in the world. A place synonymous for its part in forcing an end to apartheid, for being the home place of Nelson Mandela and being the location of the deaths of thousands like Hector Pieterson. I was travelling into Soweto and I'm going to tell its story for the rest of my life.

As part of a regular tour we were led by 24-year, Jo and our driver Andrew who grew up in a township near Pretoria. She, I found slightly annoying in the way she kept relating stories of apartheid back to her own almost non-existent personal experiences, but Andrew was fascinating.

As we slowly made our way through the city rush hour traffic he described getting tear gassed on the way back from picking up tomatoes for his mother. Of running away from armoured police vans that locals call hippos. And how he and his friends grew up having to learn nine languages such is the varied ethnic mix in and around Johannesburg. I would be reminded of this tale later in the day.

As we continued on our way the significance of our destination started to become clearer. We were told about how Soweto originated from inauspicious beginnings as the Afrikaan government sought to force black and coloured people away from Johannesburg’s city centre, about how part of the township was built on swampland and sewage, and how after years of sporadic violence and protests on June 16th, 1976 the people finally started to gather a voice.

Our first stop however was Orlando Stadium, home to the Kaiser Chiefs and Orlando Pirates. We were all by now keen to see and learn more. But our driver was a keen football fan and knowing we were in town for the World Cup wanted to show us the stadium. The shacks that had started to build up on wasteland near this proud football ground were typical of the area.

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We were then driven through a typical Soweto market, which reminded me of Bridgetown in Barbados or St John's in Antigua. I wanted to take a photo of the shopkeepers, the stallholders, those selling fruit on cardboard boxes by the road or the brightly clothes hanging on rusty rails. But it just didn't feel right.

Then we were finally allowed out of the minibus as we stopped off at the Regina Mundi church, another icon of the township. Here we were told why thousands of students decided to take to the streets in protest on June 16th. It came after the government had imposed a law that every kid be forced to learn Afrikaan in school.

Considering the restrictions on black people at the time this may not seem so bad. But for many it was the final straw. It was bad enough that they had to learn one language (English) that they never had any use for at home, while with friends or at work, now they had to learn another. Thousands took to the streets and the South African police clamped down on them quickly, decisively and brutally.

Later that day, in the aftermath, Regina Mundi Church, where we now stood, was where hundreds of frightened children, women and students would later flee after the police opened fire. They must have thought that by hiding in a church they would be safe. They were wrong. We were shown the bullet holes inside the building where South African police gunned several of them down.

I'm embarrassed to say that even after hearing and seeing this the enormity of what took place that day still hadn't properly registered. And as we drove off my attention was taken by children playing football on a field and of families eating picnics on the grass near to the church. Although we hadn't been taken into the shantytowns or squatter camps where the poorest of the poor reside the areas we'd been through almost carried an air of tranquillity and familiarity.

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But this was to change as first we stopped outside an unremarkable house where Winnie Mandela still lives. Despite the negative press she has received outside of South Africa she is still held in high esteem in Soweto as she has remained loyal to her roots and still lives in the township. And then we were then taken to the Hector Pieterson Museum. A museum dedicated to the events of July 16th.

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As we entered there were scores of young schoolchildren being taken around. They huddled together, arms slung over each other’s shoulders with one eye on where their teachers were. They peered up at giant photographs taken on the day of the protests featuring kids not much older than they were. In the photos the students held handmade signs saying 'No more Afrikaans' and one of the actual banners remained, locked in a glass case. Suddenly reality jarred.

Maybe it was the fact that for the first time that day I was on my own but as I continued looking at the photos, watched short videos of the ensuing violence and read some of the personal stories something clicked.

The children in the photos looked familiar to me. They reminded me of the friends I grew up with. But unlike us lucky lot these guys were living under a state of fear, as an underclass, with no hope of a future. But for one fateful day they'd gathered enough support to feel safe enough to make a public show of their feelings. They were defiant, they had right on their side and when I looked at their faces and in their eyes it wasn’t anger that I saw but joy.

I turned the corner and started walking down a short narrow corridor with a blank wall on one side and glass on the other. My attention was immediately drawn to an image at the end of the corridor. It was another black and white photograph hanging on the wall. Underneath a group of 10-15 children gathered staring up at the canvass. As I walked closer I was stung by the image on show. It depicted three children. Two were running towards the camera crying their hearts out and the other was dead.

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I've never seen a photo like it. And I couldn't understand why it had taken 35 years for me to see it. It affected me like no other picture I've ever seen. The overwhelming grief and irrefutable agony on the girls face was too much. The thought of finding out my brother was dead and that I had to go home and tell my own parents what had happened. That in the blink of an eye we'd gone from laughing and joking around whilst skipping school, to the shock & fear of being shot at, and then the horrific realisation of what had happened. I felt an overwhelming sadness. What a fucking waste. It was too much. I had to walk away. And as I walked past the schoolkids who turned and looked up at me as I passed them I felt guilt.

There is no doubt that if I hadn't been with work colleagues and had instead been standing alongside Fe, my bro or someone equally close I'd have cried my eyes out. It was that upsetting. I had to snap myself back into action and force myself to stare out the window that looked out over Soweto to sort my head out. And speaking to the others afterwards I know I wasn't the only one.

The walk back to the car was subdued. We were all visibly shocked by what we had seen and I hearing what the others had to say proved I wasn't alone in the sadness I felt. Trying to stop myself from dwelling on what I'd just seen as our car pulled away I finally understood what I was on this tour.

It was a quiet trip to our last destination of the day. One that would provide us a chance to end the day with a more positive mindset. But nothing could dim the shocking effects of my trip to the Hector Pieterson Museum. And nor should it have. But a chance to visit the house where Nelson Mandela lived before and after his imprisonment on Robben Island offered us some kind of closure.

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Nelson Mandela's house is, on the face of it, an unremarkable house on an unremarkable street in a quiet neighbourhood in Soweto. The only reason it sticks out is the presence of a few street traders outside and the high iron railing wall that surrounds it.

Apart from finding out about the work Nelson Mandela did for the ANC whilst in living in the building and a bit more about his family I learned three surprising things whilst here.

Firstly that this is the only street in the world where two nobel peace prize winners have lived. As not only did Mandela reside on this street but Desmond Tutu still lives down the road! Not bad for a small road in a Jo'Burg township.

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Secondly that the Mandela's had to build a brick wall inside the pantry to hide behind as the police used to fire bullets and throw bottles through the windows at night. This was during the rise in popularity & strength of the ANC shortly before Mandela was imprisoned.

Thirdly, when considering that the house itself is a small one (with only three rooms) it was also surprising to find out that Mandela actually moved back to this house after being released from prison. He stayed for eleven days until he was forced to move out because of the disruption well wishers were causing his neighbours. Incredible.

As the house was only small, and thankfully devoid of a tacky gift shop, it wasn't long before our trip to Soweto came to an end. We boarded our car for the last time, drove past Desmond Tutu's house and made the hour journey back to our lodge. It was an emotional day for all concerned. And one none of us will ever forget in a hurry.

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