January 5: The History of Soweto

This morning we flew from Cape Town to Johannesburg and then spent the day (and night) in Soweto. Soweto has a huge historical significance in the Anti-apartheid struggle.

While in Soweto, we attended a museum regarding the history of the Town. Soweto certainly has not been exclusive to Apartheid. Back during the Apartheid era, the black schools in Soweto were directed to switch language of instruction from English to Afrikaans. Afrikaans is one of the 11 official languages of South Africa; and it was a language that was created by the Dutch settlers of the country. The problem with this policy was that Afrikaans is a language only used in South Africa, and would not allow South African blacks to be marketable anywhere outside of South Africa. Not only that, but many people, including the instructors themselves, had a very difficult time with teaching and learning material in the new language. As a result of the new policy, school children in Soweto organized a protest in June of 1976 to speak up. On June 16, 1976, a massacre endured, as the police open fired on the students.

One of the first students to die in the massacre was a boy named Hector Pieterson. There is a famous photograph of Hector Pieterson being held by Mbuyisha, who fled the country and never returned, even after Mandela became president in 1994. He fled to Botswana and was last seen in Nigeria.

In 1987 there was an Anti-apartheid march in Soweto at a local stadium called Orlando stadium. This was at the time when Nelson Mandela was offered his release from prison if he agreed to be done with politics. Mandela refused, and proclaimed that he would refuse to be free until all of his people were free. This led to more tensions in Soweto which contributed to political tensions across the country which forced the government to reconcile with the ANC and bring one man one vote to all South African people.

Along with the museum, we also visited Regina Mundi Catholic Church in Soweto. During Apartheid, many meetings would happen in churches to discuss politics, and this church was no exception. The reason for this was that talking about politics in public, including the state of the ANC, was forbidden. The government responded with violence when they found out about these secret gatherings, and Regina Mundi was no exception. Throughout the church there were bullet holes through the structure of the building as well as old stained windows of theirs.

On June 16, 1995, president Mandela declared June 16, 1976, or the day of the Soweto massacre, as the first National Youth Day. Since then, South Africa has recognized National Youth Day as a national holiday. Mandela did this as a gesture to honor those in Soweto who fought in the struggle.

Mandela always believed that educating the youth properly was something that would lead to a fair and equal society that he was fighting for. He repeatedly honored people of Soweto during their protests of Bantu education including the Afrikaans language policy. He honored those who died in the struggle in Soweto, those who lived, and those who are disabled from it.

We also got to see Mandela’s old home today; for he moved from a small village to Johannesburg when he was young in order to escape an arranged marriage. In his house, which is now a museum, we learned about his early life before incarceration. Mandela was actually initially arrested in 1962 for false identity, as he had a fake passport and used it to frequently travel in and out of the country. He was sentenced to 5 years for that offense. It wasn’t until the Rivonia trial in 1964 that Mandela was charged with life in prison for conspiracy against the government. Mandela would spend about three decades of his life before returning to his home in Johannesburg and near Soweto once again.

One major factor from today was that we got to stay in the homes of the people of Soweto. I had the opportunity to learn so much about the culture of Soweto. We had an open discussion about both politics in South African land reform as well as politics in America. What amazed me and my group was how open the dialogue was and how open everyone’s mind was open even when we disagreed. Sometimes I think if we had more of that in America, we could bring about more necessary change. We also ate traditional South African food and spent the night in the Soweto homes themselves.

The homes were small and compacted, almost like an apartment. This goes back to the land reform, as much of the land in South Africa is owned by the white minority, leaving many people including those in Soweto to live in small compacted houses in urban settings such as Johannesburg. In fact, about 1 in 5 South Africans live in Johannesburg. The stay was quite engaging, as we discussed many things about the history of South Africa and Soweto with our host “mama.” We always refer to elders in South Africa as either “mama” or “papa” regardless of whether or not they are actually our biological parents. This is because these people have more experience than us, and as a tradition, South Africans use those terms as a sign of respect.

Soweto was a major part of the struggle, and a key example of Mandela’s decision to stay in prison even when offered freedom. For Mandela, he would never considered himself free if the people of his community were not free. His decision to stay in prison created a national state of emergency, which eventually forced his release and well as the political freedom of black South Africans. Had it not been for the people of Soweto and their part in protest of apartheid, Nelson Mandela may never have been released; and his mission may have never been accomplished.

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