The Soweto of 2008

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I walked through Soweto at night earlier this week, the township most whites feared and dared go near when I lived here in 1984 and again almost ten years later – before the first free elections.

We stayed in Kliptown, again off limits a dozen or so years ago. Once only full of delapitated buildings and shacks, some R375-million has been put aside for Kliptown’s revival, R293-million from Blue IQ (a very interesting woman is their CEO who I’m trying to get a meeting with) and R30-million from the City of Johannesburg. Project areas include the upgrade of the Kliptown railway station, a market, the relocation of people in informal settlements, new houses, and a new 250-bay taxi rank, which is already complete.

In the early mid-eighties, I managed to go to Soweto, a very difference experience than what we witnessed this week. In the early nineties, my ex-husband and I stayed with his brother in a wealthy white Johannesburg suburb.

Like all white families in Joburg at the time, they were surrounded by locked gates, bobbed wired fences and walls. The whole city seemed to be surrounded by walls, except for of course the neighboring townships which were largely tin-roofed shacks with poor sanitary conditions and no electricity.

We were staying with them because we were young, had little money, and couldn’t afford to rent or buy on our own. My brother-in-law’s wife ran a successful catering business and he had a corporate job, and while both were successful, they were feeling the effects from sanctions as we were we since we had to contribute to the expense pool. Expenses were high across the board, landline phone charges through the roof and it was tough to get a lot of well known western brands. We shared baths and limited our laundry visits.

Everyone talked about the impact of sanctions at the time and also added, “the outside world doesn’t realize that sanctions really hurt the blacks more than it does the whites.” They’d complain, some touting that others don’t understand “our situation at home.” We hung out with English South Africans, Afrikaners and everyone in between.

There were those who really wanted change, some because they were embarrassed by their government, some for ethical and humanitarian reasons, and some because it was trendy to “integrate,” which was starting to happen in 1992 and 1993.

Even though there were some South African whites who were ready for change and pushing for integration, many didn’t know where to start since “equal exchange” with black South Africans was so foreign for them. Where does one begin? How does it work? What will happen to us along the way? There was still a lot of fear despite positive reinforcement from people who wouldn’t have budged on their political views five years earlier. Yet, I also felt a lot of hope.

We’d sit in big and small gardens in a variety of white suburbs and drink champagne, eat strawberries with cream and gorge on cheese from around the world. We’d have braais, play games and jump in large swimming pools which were surrounded by neatly groomed gardens, all tended to by their black gardeners.

While we sipped our champagne, our wine and downed our Castle beers, we’d often see smoke clouds coming from Soweto — likely Kliptown, only a kilometer away. You would hear gunshots at times and yet, people ignored what was happening around them, at least in public. It’s not as if they didn’t care, but some were afraid, so simply didn’t want to focus on a fear they knew wasn’t going away, and some were tired of discussing it.

In more diverse jazz clubs in some of the growing funky mixed parts of Joburg, whites in their twenties and thirties would often talk about change. They weren’t prepared to leave the country but they weren’t prepared to march, speak out, or write articles.

Among these white South Africans, some might venture into Soweto or another township, knew people there, either because they started to develop a friendship or because their maid or gardener lived there and they might have helped them out from time to time, whatever help meant at the time. Quilt? Duty? A genuine lending hand? It could be a lift somewhere, money for school books or uniforms, a letter of some kind or another.

Even for progressives, Soweto wasn’t a regular place to hang out however, with the exception of a radical few who needed to learn more, see more, understand more……

Today, Soweto has paved roads and looks more like a run down part of New York City than the township it was. While there are modern urban remnants, poverty and crime is still prevalent as it is in other parts of Joburg, including a central downtown area called Hillbrow, which we used to go to as teenagers on a Friday night to go ‘clubbing.’ Not safe today, but Soweto seems to be, at least according to many.

Below is a video clip of a market closing in Soweto around six in the evening the day after we arrived.

As for the countless faces of Soweto, look for an upcoming blog post with nothing but amazing faces from various parts of this sprawling suburb…..

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