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Soweto: Young Lives Lost in Battle

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South Africa

Soweto's a name I've heard many times before in my life, but I couldn't remember why. I knew it was a place in South Africa and I figured that it underwent difficult times during the struggle to end apartheid. But every town underwent difficult times during that long struggle...why was Soweto any different? What was it about Soweto that earned it the saying, "When Soweto sneezes, all of South Africa catches a cold." I decided to visit this township outside of Johannesburg to find out what made Soweto so different. I am so glad I did...visiting Soweto was like a crash course in to the history of South Africa and a first hand glimpse of the current dilemma that faces this country.

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With his sister crying next to him, 13-year-old Hector was carried away from the police shooting by a friend
Soweto, or the South-Western-Township, was built in 1954 when the government of South Africa bulldozed every last home in the multi-racial community of Sophiatown, which was built and run by its inhabitants, a mixture of black, colored, Indian, and even some white people. The people were empowering themselves through such means as printing their own newspapers and starting their own businesses. The government saw Sophiatown as a threat to their sovereignty, and so decided to destroy the community. After Sophiatown's destruction, the government moved all the black people to Soweto, one of the many townships that the South African government built in order to locate all the blacks in one condensed area outside of the cities.

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How does this kid's home compare to yours?
People lived in small, dirty, overcrowded conditions, and were not given any opportunities to move. Some people were given rudimentary housing, but the majority of the people were put in government-built hostels. The hostels were gender based and were mostly built for men who came in from the countryside to find jobs in one of the many gold mines. Conditions in the hostels were terrible, usually eight men shared one small room with concrete bunks. In 1974 though, the gold industry in South Africa hit a low and many men found themselves unemployed again. Women came in from the countryside to see what was happening to their husbands, brothers, and sons. Since the hostels were only single-sex units, the families had to find a new place to live. That was when the squatter camps started to build up all over the townships.

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An overview of a squatter camp with the middle class suburban neighborhood in the background.
The majority of the inhabitants of Soweto still live in squatter camps. We met a local named Eric who lived in one of the newer squatter camps in Soweto, Mandela Village, and he took us in to see what life was like in his home. It's amazing that so many people live like this. The homes are one room shacks built out of whatever spare parts that could be found--primarily strips of corrugated iron and metal scraps fit together to make four walls and a roof. Tiny alleyways separate the rows and rows of houses. When a new family moves to the camp, they merely build their shack attached to the end of a row.

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Photo of the thousands of students who gathered peacefully to protest Afrikaans in schools.
Mandela Village first started as recently as 1990, yet it already is home to over 7000 people...people of different tribes from all over South Africa and neighboring countries who came to Johannesburg hoping to find much needed employment and a better way of life. Unfortunately, the shocking reality is that the poor condition of the squatter camps is actually a better way of life than the ones left behind by some of the immigrants. Eric estimates that, at most, 15% of the people of Mandela Village are employed; the rest do whatever they can, but mostly live without assured access to money. The government built 90 public toilets and five running water faucets in an effort to improve living conditions. Just 90 toilets and five water taps for over 7000 people?! You can imagine the difficulty and the unsanitary conditions. There is no electricity in Mandela Village. Those that are fortunate enough to own a television or a radio must use a car battery to run them. Cooking is done by gas stoves or charcoal. Mandela village is just one of the hundreds of squatter camps that people have been living in since the 70's in Soweto.

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In memory of the youth of Soweto who died in 1976.
Besides the terrible living conditions for most of the residents in the townships, the apartheid government of South Africa put other obstacles in the way to ensure the subordinate status of black people in the country. By the 1970's, black people found themselves forced to carry identification with them at all times (see Monica's article from a week ago for more on pass laws), unable to interact freely with people of other races, and subjected to an inadequate, inferior education system. In Soweto, people were angered by these laws, and although there was much discussion and resentment to them, the laws were generally obeyed. In 1976, the government declared their intentions of making Afrikaans the official language in the schools. Afrikaans was the Boer language that most people associated with apartheid. It was completely foreign to the black population who viewed it as the tongue of the oppressors. Forcing Afrikaans to be the only language in the schools was out of the question. It was the final straw. Watch out South Africa, Soweto was about to sneeze...

Students from all reaches of Soweto organized and planned a peaceful march through the streets past the police station and culminating at a large stadium where they would present their grievances to the government. The students were to meet on Vilagazi Street in Soweto on the morning of June 16...and as you may have guessed, the police were there waiting for them. The police barricaded off Vilagazi Street, prepared to deter any students who gathered. When they saw over 9000 students organized and marching towards them they panicked and opened fire. Five students were killed that morning, the first was Hector Peterson, a 13-year old boy who was shot in the back. When word got out about Hector and the others, students starting uprising all over Soweto and by the end of the day about 500 people had been killed. This was a significant turning point in South African history. The student killings in Soweto caught the world's attention, finally waking foreign governments up to the human rights abuses of apartheid. More than international attention, the riots in Soweto awoke many of South Africa's own black people. People realized that they needed to play an active role if they wanted to see apartheid abolished.

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Me and my friend Trinity with some cute kids from the Mandela Village squatter camp.
Many people in South Africa now feel that they have freedom today because of the students that lost their lives in Soweto in 1976. That's why Nelson Mandela made June 16 National Youth Day on the 20th anniversary of the uprising in 1996. Before attending the inauguration of his successor, President Thabo Mbeki, Mandela was joined by other student leaders on June 16th to lay wreaths at the Hector Peterson Memorial in Soweto.

Living in this legacy, Soweto still continues to be on the cutting edge in reform for South Africa. Yes, problems still exist: life in the squatter camps and hostels is still very difficult, and unemployment is still a huge problem, but at least now there is a sense of hope and a sense of worth. Still a primarily black township, the squatter camps are contrasted by large middle class neighborhoods and nice upper class neighborhoods as well, where Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Winnie Mandela all have homes. Unlike in Johannesburg, I felt very safe walking around Soweto. The people I met were all very kind and proud to show us their homes and share the history of their beloved Soweto with us.


Abeja - Immersion in Zulu Culture
Abeja - Abeja Meets the Great King Shaka Zulu
Abeja - Get Off My Turf
Kevin - Harare: a Capital City that feels like a Village
Monica - A Typical Day in the Life of a Trekker
Kevin - Somebody Stole my House!

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