Soweto Grapples With Apartheid Memories As It Prepares For A Presidential Visit

As Nelson Mandela remains in critical condition, Soweto resigns itself to its hometown hero’s fate.
By @FrederickReese |
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    As the world waits and prays for the recovery of Nelson Mandela, the first post-apartheid president of South Africa and revered freedom fighter, the nation is coming to terms with the realities of its past. Thirty-seven years after the June 16 protests in the South Western Townships — Soweto — the scars of more violent times are still felt as the man that helped to heal them lies in critical condition in a Johannesburg hospital.

    Before his first arrest, Mandela lived in Soweto — from 1946 to 1958 — in a small red brick house that is now a highly popular museum. After his release from prison — he was pardoned by then-President F.W. de Klerk in 1990 — he returned to Soweto before assuming the nation’s presidency in 1994.


    Coping with the possible loss of a hometown hero

    Today, Soweto resigns itself to its hometown hero’s fate. No tears are being shed in public and there are no signs of tension or frustration. Soweto will not explode upon Mandela’s death, but the town will grieve. Mandela has been hospitalized for the fourth time and is now in critical but stable condition with a lung infection. He has been in the hospital for two weeks and his prognosis is grim.

    Makaziwe Mandela, the former president’s eldest daughter, has described her father’s condition as “very critical.”

    “I won’t lie. It doesn’t look good,” she said in an interview with the South African Broadcasting Corporation.

    “There will soon come a time when all the medical help won’t work. We have to face that sad reality now,” said James Nhlapo as he served customers in his Soweto grocery store. “Mandela has done well for the country. It’s true that there is none like him, but we have to accept that he won’t live forever.”

    “If we believe that he will live forever we are lying to ourselves,” said 24-year-old Tankiso Mohapi. “People must accept that Mandela is old, and with old age comes health problems, just like in anybody else.”

    “Mandela has done his job, more than many of us. So why do we still need him around, he is not a monument of some sort,” said 29-year-old Veli Nene, according to Agence France-Presse.

    This is, however, betrayed by a real sense of concern for the man who has been called the Father of South Africa in the birthplace of the revolution.

    “Hearing that his condition has taken a turn for the worst really got me anxious,” Nene continued.

    Rev. Thami Ntongana, a Nazarene minister, indicated to The New York Times that he was asked by a local African National Congress Youth League to lead a prayer for Mandela.

    “My prayer will be, ‘God, your will be done,’” he said. “We are sad about the situation, but we are realistic about it. We want Mandela to go in his own time, when the moment has come, and it is only God who can pull the main switch.”


    Soweto as the birthplace of change

    In 1976, Soweto was nothing but a collection of shantytowns on the periphery of Johannesburg. Forced evacuations of the African and Indian residents from the cities created “evacuation camps” to form at the Klipspruit municipal sewage farm. New camps formed and squatters claimed the vacant land available to form towns. Eventually, a city council was formed. However, the expansion of the area did not explode until the 1948 ascension of the National Party to power and their implementation of apartheid, the codified system of racial segregation that established White rule in South Africa from 1948 to 1994.

    The established of “White-only” areas drove the African population to the outside townships, with Soweto being the largest concentration. Soweto consisted of the farms of Doornkop, Klipriviersoog, Diepkloof, Klipspruit and Vogelstruisfontein. Since the largest concentration of Africans could be found within Soweto’s borders, it is logical that Soweto would be the birthplace of the anti-apartheid movement.

    In 1974, the National Party passed the Afrikaans Medium Decree of 1974, which forced South African Black high school students to use both English and Afrikaans — a dialect of Dutch used by White South Africans — during instruction, with Afrikaans being used exclusively in mathematics, arithmetic and social studies. At the time, the end of colonialism in Africa and the “Black Power” movement in the United States inspired the Africans to rebel against the apartheid state. Because English and the tribal languages were the preferred languages of the Africans, and because Afrikaans was associated with apartheid, Afrikaans was rarely used among the Black population.

    On June 16, 1976, between 10,000 and 20,000 Black students left their schools and rallied in Orlando Stadium in a protest against the forced use of Afrikaans in school. The protest was meant to be peaceful. The police blocked the path of the impromptu march, forcing the crowd to head toward Orlando High School. Some of the students threw rocks at the police, while most just protested peacefully. Chaos broke out when a police officer, Colonel Kleingeld, pulled his gun and fired. The police released their dogs on the children and, when the children beat back the dogs with rocks, fired directly at the students.

    A total of 3,907 individuals were wounded, with a fatality estimate of 575. Another 5,980 were arrested. In the aftermath, the African National Congress became the voice of the slain students and the recognized leader of the anti-apartheid movement. The uprising brought the horrors of apartheid to the international community at a time when the apartheid state was trying to place a positive spin on its racial policies. Since the uprising and until the election of Mandela, the South African brand steadily devalued in light of divestment and sanctions, the international community withdrew from South Africa, and the fight for racial equality — which was fought outside of South Africa’s borders before the uprising — became an internal struggle.


    Soweto today

    Today, Soweto no longer exists. In 2002, the townships were incorporated into Johannesburg. In the time after the uprising, the apartheid state cut off funding to the area for housing and infrastructure repair. In light of popular resentment of the elected Black councilors — who were seen as puppets of the state — and the continued exclusion of Blacks from the governance process, protest and resistance were a common theme in the area. As President Obama prepares to speak to the area’s students as part of his African tour, Soweto is only barely recognizable, but the stains of a protest-saturated past can still be seen.

    On June 20, a protest was set off by hostel residents because it had no electricity.

    “They stoned passing cars and they also damaged the KFC nearby,” said Lt. Col. Lungelo Dlamini. “Today it is quiet.”

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