In contemporary times, our society takes a free press, android cell phones and democracy as given; this, however, was not business as usual for several decades during which South Africa was embroiled in Apartheid. In 1948, racial segregation became a political tool in South Africa when Daniel Malan made it a policy of the Afrikaner Nationalist platform. It was not just about black versus white but non-whites which included Asians, Malayan, mixed Black, and Black versus whites.
Soweto which is short for South Western Township became the place where apartheid struggle was most emphasized. The events leading up to the creation of Soweto is riddled with stories of repossessed houses, forced removals, dispossession, violence and flagrant disregards of human rights. It is close to the gold mines and this is where the non-whites found employment under unreasonable and cheap labour terms.
The Soweto Uprising that happened in June of 1976 was the time when the world stood up and paid attention to the discrimination problems in South Africa. There were mass protests that led violence in the streets where 10,000 students were fired on by police while marching from their school to the stadium. The protest was about the students’ anger regarding a new policy to conduct classes in Afrikaans instead of English. Over 200 people died that day and the first hero was Hector Pieterson who was only 12 years old at the time. His death stunned the world and his legacy now lives on with a monument dedicated to his memory.
Sadly another man who was killed was Dr Melville Edelstein who was stoned to death by the rioters because of his skin colour. It didn’t matter at the time that Dr Edelstein was pro-students – the emotions were running high and all logic was gone.
Soweto is trying hard to shake off the events of 1976 and it isn’t easy because there are those who write or make movies about discrimination and use Soweto as its location. One example is the film District 9 which went to Soweto to film a movie about aliens. It portrayed Soweto as a barren, desolate land, a place where it’d be impossible to grow either vegetable seeds or communities. It earned US$90 million but drew mixed reactions from the locals who felt either exploited or excited about showcasing the worst of Soweto.
The fact is even the director of the film admitted that when they were in Soweto, the flowers were blooming! They had to be very selective and destroy some of the wonderful foliage to create the scenery needed for the film. The people, he said, were amazing and an inspiration, not because of poverty or their way of life but more because of their hospitality and openness.
Soweto today is dramatically different having transitioned into a thriving group of communities. There are still some areas that have shanties and people struggling but it is no longer a bleak place to live in and the people are generally happy.
A new photo book has been published by Jodi Bieber, a Johannesburg photographer, which depicts life in Soweto where music, business, and culture are progressing well. Bieber lived in Soweto for 3 months and got to know the people there. According to her, the diversity is incredible with so many different kinds of races and individuals and a wonderful mix of cultures.
Her book isn’t a travel guide but a personal walking documentary of the public pools, painted houses and towers, small restaurants and stalls, and even the haberdasheries. There are areas that could be straight out of the upper scale shops in Cape Town or Johannesburg with one obvious difference – most of the shoppers are non-whites.