Soweto: A City Divided?

Published by Rachel Wingrat

In 1955, the South Africa Freedom Charter was officially created and adopted. The Charter stated the core values and beliefs of the African National Congress (ANC) and several other political parties. A copy of the Freedom Charter can be found in Soweto, the largest township in South Africa. When we entered the tower where the Freedom Charter was written on a round stone tablet, we went around in a circle reading each freedom out loud. I read out the words “The people shall share in the country’s wealth,” the third freedom. As the rest of my classmates read out the remaining seven freedoms, I reflected on what I had just said and what I had seen while driving through Soweto. The exact population of Soweto is unknown because some residents live in shanties in others’ backyards, but according to worldpopulationreview.com, roughly 1.7 million people live in the township. It’s name is a contraction of the words “southwestern township,” as it is situated to the southwest of South Africa’s capital city, Johannesburg. So far we had visited two other townships, Langa and Khayelitdha, both in Cape Town. In all three, the division of wealth within the townships was surprising to me. My western-influenced mental image of townships was simply informal houses, or shanties, and I was not expecting to see formal houses nor wealthy individuals living in the townships.

Driving into Soweto, the stark wealth difference was more prevalent than in the townships we had visited before. It was a true visual of South Africa’s number one spot on the Gini index, meaning it is the country with the largest wealth distribution in the world. We passed big beautiful houses situated behind walls, but most moments later drove past hostels that were previously home to 100 people and contained just five bathrooms. We saw a collection of shanties in the shadow of a huge stadium, the home of the Soweto Pirates. The vast, sprawling landscape allowed me to see rows of big, formal houses just behind the countless informal houses in the foreground. This picture begs the question, how is this township, the home of the Freedom Charter, allowing its people to ‘share in the country’s wealth’ when there is not only a clear division of wealth, but also two ends of the wealth spectrum living in such close proximity?

According to an article from the International Monetary Fund called “Bridging South Africa’s Economic Divide,” one third of the labor force was unemployed in 2016. The article states that the large unemployment rate is due to the fact that people, especially those in townships, do not have sufficient education or opportunities for job advancement. The article continues that “there are township youth who not only cannot find work, but who grow up without knowing anyone in their circle of family and friends without a job either.” Our tour guide explained that some popular jobs in Soweto include reselling stolen tires and selling fruit on the side of the road. These are just some of the factors that contribute to the economic inequality in Soweto, and the country as a whole.

Soweto made it clear that the goal of shared monetary wealth in South Africa has not yet been met, but there is another kind of wealth that I have found to be especially prevalent; wealth of community. Before we entered the township, our guide advised us that everyone in Soweto waves and says hello to each other. He even had us stop to take a picture in front of the “welcome to Soweto” sign, just one example of him showing pride for his city. As we were returning to the bus at the end of the tour he shared a snack with another man. He told us of a common custom in Soweto called “Ubuntu,” which means “I am because we are,” but he translated to, “share everything.” This translation reminded me of the third freedom of sharing in the country’s wealth. But in this case wealth was not money, it was the people. After all, one street in Soweto was home to two Nobel Prize winners, Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

But Soweto was not always a peaceful place. Perhaps what the city is most known for is the Soweto uprising in 1976. The uprising began after the government mandated that Afrikaans was to be the standard language used in schools. Afrikaans was considered to be the language of oppression, and thousands of black students in Soweto took to the streets to show their opposition towards the new mandate. Hundreds of children were killed, and the uprising garnered international media attention. Many attribute international condemnation of the Apartheid government the Soweto uprising. The Hector Pieterson museum in Soweto depicted brutal images of schoolchildren who had been murdered or badly injured during the uprising and described the planning and execution of the uprising. The museum’s namesake is a boy who was shot to death during the uprising. He became famous when a photo of him being carried by another boy was seen around the world. One part that particularly stood out to me was that the children marched holding hands in rows of five, each boy or girl responsible for keeping tabs on the person standing next to them. Parts of the museum were incredibly difficult to look at, but it demonstrated that even the children of Soweto were able to come together to fight against injustice, and their resistance created a community around the world. It also served as a reminder to myself to stand up to the injustice in my life, and inspired me to never stop fighting for what I think is right.

As discussed earlier, the community and pride in Soweto can still be felt today. The backdrop of Soweto contains the Orlando Power Station, two decommissioned power towers. The structures are now a tourist attraction, used for bungee jumping, an experience that many Sowetans cannot afford themselves. Painted on the outside of one of the towers are the words “we are in Soweto and Soweto is in us.” To me, this demonstrated the pride of the people who were born in or currently live in Soweto. In class discussions, people have repeatedly asked why South Africans who have the ability to leave the township where they were born decide to stay. There are many reasons why people may choose to remain in a township, from family and friends to a connection to the city, but in Soweto the pride people felt for the township shined. The Freedom Charter certainly referred to literal wealth, but in the reality of Soweto, and South Africa as a whole, is the greatest wealth of the country the people themselves?

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