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Township residents reinvent their image

Published on 30th June 2014

By Sanne Wass, 16th June 2014. 

Despite 20 years of democracy, the legacy of apartheid still exists. The South African townships are often associated with poverty and danger. But for many of the township residents their home represents pride, community and development.

The anniversary of the 16 June student uprisings is commemorated and marked all over Soweto, the biggest township in South Africa.

Soweto – an acronym for South Western Townships – is located 15 km from Johannesburg and officially home to 1.5 million people, according to the South Africa Census 2011. Informal figures from local tour agencies suggest that Soweto houses as many as 5-6 million today.

The term “township” has a special meaning in South Africa, originating from the apartheid era – a legal system of racial segregation enforced in the country from 1948 to 1994. During this period cities were designated white-only by law; black and coloured residents were evicted from their homes and moved into segregated areas, known as townships.

The transition to democracy and the right to move freely did not put an end to the townships. On the contrary, their populations are steadily growing, and they continue to be associated with poverty, high crime rates, poor infrastructure, gangs, HIV and lack of education.

But today, Sowetans celebrate the image they know their township for: the unique history, their ability to produce great political leaders such as Nelson Mandela, and their persistent resistance to the oppression of apartheid. 

Mlungisi Madi is one of them. He is sitting by his colourful brick house in Orlando West, only
a few kilometres from the house of Nelson Mandela, which has now been transformed into a museum. Born here in 1960, Mlungisi grew up with his father, siblings and grandmother. In a country where political liberation movements were banned, his mother was an underground activist for 20 years.

“Life was primitive here, and we didn’t have electricity before 1980. But growing up in Soweto was fun,” Mlungisi says. 

Though it’s winter in South Africa, the sun is warm, and people in the area have sought out the many celebration events around Soweto.

“It was about the same weather as today. We were having the mid examinations that day,” Mlungisi recalls, referring to the 16 June 1976, a day that proved to be the defining moment of his and many black people’s lives. Exactly 38 years ago a student uprising turned into a historical moment in the black struggle against the yoke of apartheid. 

Mlungisi was 16 years old. He was writing his exams in the language Afrikaans, an offshoot of Dutch, spoken originally by Dutch settlers in South Africa. Alongside English, it was the language spoken by the whites. For many black South Africans, it was associated with apartheid.

It was also the root of the 16 June uprisings. With the Afrikaans Medium Decree of 1974, students were required to adjust to Afrikaans as a medium of instruction. It was the final straw for the youth in Soweto.

“Suddenly a group of students, about a thousand or more, came into our classes. They kicked the doors, and had us come out. We left the examinations and joined the protests, then went to the other schools and did the same,” Mlungisi says.

Thousands of students in school uniforms chanted slogans in their local Zulu language and carried protest signs proclaiming “To hell with Afrikaans” as they marched towards Orlando Stadium. They had little idea what a bloodshed they were going to witness.

The protests led to violent clashes with the police. Mlungisi recalls:

“I was both excited and scared. The police were shooting. There was smoke everywhere, and I was choking from the teargas. We threw stones at the police, and we attacked government-owned stores. A white doctor passed in his car. The car was stoned, and he was stoned to death. We were aware that we were now fighting the system.” 

The official death toll was 23, though unofficial numbers say at least 176 students died that day, and more than 600 the next few weeks.The state reaction to the uprisings was brutal, forcing many students into exile, including Mlungisi, who left South Africa for Swaziland where he undertook military training with the PAC – the Pan Africanist Congress – a political party banned under apartheid.

As a result of the protests, Soweto later became a historical emblem. But at the time of 1976, students were looked upon as hooligans, Mlungisi explains. Soweto was not seen as safe, it was considered a war zone.

“We as black people are not that kind of people you saw during the uprising. The hooliganism was caused by the system. We had to resist the laws.“

Mlungisi has no doubt what his township represents: “I am proud to be living in Soweto. It’s my trademark. Soweto is the township that revived the struggle. We were the trendsetters.”

Being white in Soweto 

The year 1994 saw the end of apartheid, and many who could afford it moved out of the townships. Although segregation has now been formally abolished for 20 years, the separation between black, coloured and white people remains. 

Maria Westlund Malepa, 29, is one of the very few white people living in Soweto. Originally from Sweden, she moved to the township in 2007, and is today married to a Sowetan, with whom she has two children. Together they run the only hostel in Soweto, Lebo’s Backpackers. 

Moving to a township as a white person is quite unusual. But for Maria, the area offers a better and more inspiring life than the one she knew in Sweden. 

“Coming to Soweto, I felt this specific vibe. It’s not difficult to feel at home, as people are very friendly and welcoming, and there’s more interaction with each other. The kids are out in the streets playing, and there’s a sense of the community taking care of them,” she says. 

It only takes a short walk through the streets of Soweto to understand what Maria is talking about. Everyone greets one another and kids play unattended. “Hi Umlungu,” they often say. Umlungu means “white person” in Zulu. 

“Being white, you draw a certain amount of attention. I learned to get used to it. It hasn’t been negative, but it can be exhausting,” Maria smiles. 

It is estimated that about 0.1 per cent of Soweto’s population is white. Maria has never experienced any major problems from being of a different origin, though she is aware of underlying racial tensions. 

“If I receive a bad service in a bank or restaurant, and I want to complain, I then have to be very careful because I am white, and the other person is black. Because the racial tensions are still there in South Africa,” she says. 

Maria is not surprised that white people don’t move to the townships. After all, they are historically less developed than the rest of South Africa. But Soweto is, according to her, not what most people imagine. 

“The place has grown and developed. I love being here. Soweto is unique because of its history and the stories you find. This is the real South Africa,” she says. She explains how the majority of tourists in South Africa never dare to go to a township. 

“Some people just come in busses, as if it was a zoo. Others might never come here,” Maria says. She often encounters many prejudices against townships, and she blames the media coverage for this. 

“What makes headlines in the media? It’s when something negative happens. Yes, it’s important to raise these issues. But what really bothers me is that people visiting, both journalist and tourists, only snap their cameras at places with poor infrastructure and people living in squalid conditions. Some visitors even get disappointed because not everyone is living in shacks,” Maria says, and continues: 

“The truth is that Soweto has very well developed areas, and the majority of the township looks very much like you could find it in countries like England or America. In the past ten years we have got a state theatre, big shopping malls, and bars. It’s important to show the whole picture,” and adds that she feels just as safe in Soweto as in Sweden. 

In an attempt to break the stereotypes of the township, Lebo’s Backpackers organises cycling tours around Soweto. In the 15 years the hostel has been running, they have never known of any tourists being the victims of crime. Things are changing, and people are starting to understand they can visit. 

“Of course you have to be considerate. Put yourself in a dingy area at night, alone, a place you don’t know; yes that would be risky. It would be as well in New York or in London,” Maria concludes. 

A synonym for danger 

Soweto is a good example of how townships can suffer from the negative associations attached to the term. According to expert Vivian Bickford-Smith, Professor of Historical Studies at the University of Cape Town, the term “township” was originally just a referral to location.  

Due to history, it gradually came to be identified with areas segregated for blacks only. But, Prof Bickford-Smith argues, the townships are often overgeneralized, when in fact the reality is more nuanced. 

“The word township, in informal speak, has almost become a synonym for poverty and danger. But they are much more varied and complex places. There’s quite a lot of change in the townships,” Prof Bickford-Smith says, and adds that many townships are home to areas that are wealthier than people think. 

“There are even millionaires in Soweto. Is that a township? In reality many of the places today, which people are referring to as townships, are just working class suburbs,” he says. 

These districts improve as the middle class grows, and people stay in the townships despite having the means to move out. 

This is the case for Mlungisi, who has lived in Soweto his whole life. He has a well-paid job, and could afford to leave the township. 

“I was proud of Soweto in 1976, and I am proud now,” he says. “I have never thought of buying a house outside the township. It doesn’t pass into my mind.”