I recall as a 14 year old child the news reports of trouble in South Africa and graphic images on the TV showing white policemen with dogs, bursting out of armoured cars and shooting at terrified black people running for their lives. I recall it being referred to as the Soweto Uprising but this was as far as my memory of these things went. At the age of 14, I was more concerned with what was going on in my trousers than in South Africa and the “black’s” fight against apartheid.
Once my hormones had diminished to more manageable levels, I began to take notice of events in Sub Saharan Africa. I learned about townships, Mandela and the struggle of the black majority for political power. The older I got, the more I learned. The British media railed against the actions of the white minority, we all went on “free Mandela” marches and some of us even bought the record. Meeting and working with (white) South Africans added a different view of the situation where the name Soweto became a byword for violence, crime and an absolute no go area for anyone whiter than Michael Jackson.
What Soweto is, is the Southwestern Township of Johannesburg and was named as such by the white government in 1963. For me, it was also the unlikely destination for the first two days of my latest African adventure. Accompanying SWMBO in my role as driver, camera bitch and general factotum, I have to admit to being more than a little sceptical of her idea to visit the place to write about it as a potential holiday destination. However, I am now used to her eccentricities so decided to give it a whirl.
To say that my preconceptions of the place were shattered would be to do an injustice to a U-turn that would make Nick Clegg’s head spin. Soweto is a hopeful place, parts of it truly prosperous and it’s residents (of whom there are 4.5 million) imbued with an aspirational spirit that shames us in the west.
In July 1976, black students and school kids started the uprising that resulted in thousands of deaths over its course, the first of which was 12 year old Hector Pietersen, whose dead body was carried from the fight by his crying brother and screaming sister, a scene captured in an iconic photograph seen the world over. At the site of the memorial that now stands in Hector’s honour, I was privileged to meet that same sister, Antoinette, and to photograph her by that now famous picture which stands on the site. In the discussion that followed, a quiet and gently lady with more reasons than most to hate, spoke of forgiveness and a very real hope for the future and in doing so summed up, more eloquently that I could ever hope to, what Soweto is all about.
Yes, there is still poverty but it is financial poverty, not a poverty of ambition. At every turn you see people working hard to make a living, not waiting for handouts. As a visitor, the welcome you receive is as warm as it is genuine, from the no electricity shacks of Kliptown to the smart new homes of Diepkloof.
A visit to Soweto is highly recommended and very good for the soul.