We are in Johannesburg. It is early morning when Linda, our tour guide, arrives at our hotel in a minibus. We are going to head for the South Western Townships, better known as Soweto.
"To be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others."
– Nelson Mandela
“Only blacks live there,” Linda says, “white people are not interested in buying property in Soweto.” However, for Soweto residents, buying property is not something taken for granted. Before 1980, only white people had the right to own houses in South Africa. “People of Soweto do not sell their homes, they do not want to leave” Linda continues, “we are a closely knit community. Millionaires and people who have nothing at all live here. People from all walks of life. I live here. I know.”
We drive on a decent paved road through Diepkloof, reportedly “the best” part of Soweto. Then, we come to a poorer section of town, just outside a residential area in which there are no streets to drive upon. The bus stops and Linda explains that Soweto has many “pockets of informal settlements,” what we would call slum areas – shantytowns with small, poorly constructed shelters made primarily of cheap tin. We exit the bus. Do we want to take a closer look? A young boy, Vusumuzi, offers to take us into the settlement, and thus we continue our tour on foot.
We cross a railroad bridge. On the other side there are gravel paths separating row upon row of what look like makeshift shelters. But this is “permanent housing”. Small tin sheds, each housing an entire family. No water. No electricity. It is absolutely surreal. And to think, hundreds of millions of people in the world live in conditions like these.
We enter one of the sheds – about the size of a walk-in closet. I see a neatly made bed and a small dresser. That’s it. “A father and his three daughters live here,” Vusumuzi says.
On our way back, my heart is touched by the welcoming glances and smiling faces of the small children we pass on the narrow path. They seem happy and carefree. Two pubs are playing loud music as we walk by. “Unemployment,” says Vusumuzi, nodding towards the people squatting outside, “Big problem. The government tells us to get an education, but no use taking an education. No jobs. No work.” His voice has a tone of resignation.
We hear a train coming and passing as we make our way back to the bus on the paved road – our world. Vusumuzi tells us his name means, “Building a house, ” and then he disappears back into the shantytown.
We return to the bus and travel to Mandela House where Nelson Mandela once lived; then to Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s property. Two Nobel Prize winners lived on this same street. This is also Soweto. Here there is water and electricity. There are houses, not sheds; streets and avenues, not gravel paths. That’s when I realize that Soweto is comprised of two different worlds.
We arrive at Regina Mundi (the church that played a pivotal role in the resistance to apartheid). Our tour there is cancelled due to a funeral, but the doors are open and we watch the service from outside as we listen to Linda. “It was illegal for blacks to be gathered more than two at a time. The Church was an exception,” Linda explains, “That’s why the church was so important in the illegal political activities-”
Linda proudly continues his little speech on South Africa’s “journey to freedom.” He tells us how school children in Soweto protested when the government required secondary schools to teach Afrikaans instead of English. Afrikaans was the language of the Apartheid government. The students felt they must protest. And protest they did, with demonstrations. On June 16, 1976, thirteen year-old Hector Pieterson was killed when police officers opened fire on the student demonstrators. Hector became a symbol of the struggle against apartheid. Do you remember the picture? Mbuyisa Makhubu carries a dying Hector Pieterson while Hector’s sister runs alongside them. Sam Nzima has captured this moment in history. It has become an iconic image and is displayed at the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum.
A visit to The Apartheid Museum marks the end of the tour. We spend three hours meandering through the maze of documented history. There are pictures, articles and documentaries. We were not prepared for this; apartheid in all its horror; its oppression, its violence, its evil.
Returning to our hotel we are silent, reflecting on the experiences of the day. We know the stories will stay with us. We are moved. We are changed.
Tasks and Activities
- What is a township?
- What happened in Soweto on 16 June 1976?
- What is Apartheid?
- Why is the text called "The Road to Freedom"?
Angle and Bias
- When writing a text you are the one deciding on the angle. What do you focus on? What information do you include or omit? Which words do you use?
Watch the animation to learn more about angle and bias.
- Having learned about angle and bias, how would you describe the text and the choice of pictures in "Soweto – Journey to Freedom"? Would you have chosen other pictures? If so, which pictures would you have liked to see here? Explain why?
- Write a summary of the text.
- Write an essay called "The Road to Freedom."
- Mandela is quoted saying, "To be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others." Write an essay using this quote as a starting point.
- Write a newspaper article about the "informal settlements" outside Johannesburg.
Choose one of the topics below and make a presentation.
- Nelson Mandela
- Living Standards
Goodbye Bafana (2007)