By Shezane Kirubi
Some of South Africa’s most interesting and pertinent history sites are in the township of Soweto, which was set up under segregation and apartheid as a dormitory town for the African workforce who were regarded, until the 1980s, as temporary sojourners under the migrant labour system. It has long been the most populous black urban residential area in the country, and its population size could qualify it to be a city in its own right, if it was not part of Johannesburg. I visited Soweto twice and those visits were the highlight of my time in Johannesburg as I experienced how the township acts a melting pot of South African urban culture.
Soweto’s significance in the struggle for democracy
Soweto’s rich political history has guaranteed its place in the history books. People around the world recognise the name ‘Soweto’ and the township’s significance in the struggle for democracy. There are iconic struggle sites like the Hector Pietersen memorial which commemorates the June 1976 youth uprising against apartheid; Orlando High School whose students were core activists in the 1976 uprising; and the Regina Mundi Catholic Church in Moroka which served as a spiritual haven for thousands of people as well as being a venue for resistance gatherings and the political funerals of people killed in the struggle against apartheid.
I was excited to also visit one of Soweto’s oldest suburbs, Orlando. On Vilakazi Street I visited the former home of Nelson and Winnie Mandela which is now a museum. Nearby in the same street is the former residence of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, making it the only street in the world where two Nobel Peace Prize winners once lived. I was able to also visit the Walter Sisulu Square in Kliptown where the 1955 Freedom Charter was signed. Other prominent figures from Soweto whose names resonate around Africa include boxing legend Baby Jake Matlala, singing diva Yvonne Chaka Chaka, and soccer maestro Jomo Sono.
In Soweto I was feeling brave and daring and so I headed out to the decorated Orlando Towers (formerly the cooling towers of the electricity utility) for a 100m bungee jump from a suspension bridge which was an unforgettable and incomparable adrenaline rush. Suspended high up in the air I overlooked the Soweto landscape and saw kilometres of settlements of shacks made of corrugated iron sheets.
I believe that no one should travel to South Africa without visiting Soweto because of its inspiring heritage and cultural journey to freedom. What is even more remarkable is how Sowetans pride themselves on the urbane and street feel of the township. I noticed that the area is filled with plenty of ‘shebeens’ which are local drinking joints that remain very popular. The township also remains a bustling urban hive of activity that hosts numerous festivals throughout the year. Luckily when I visited, I was able to listen to the intricate rhythms and harmonies of a male choral group playing near Mandela house which was very inspirational. There were many street performers who captured the attention of large crowds of people with their talents and ability to perform breath-taking acts. Although the township still includes people living in extreme poverty, one can observe its progressive aspect deeply embedded in its urban and social feel.
Insights about migration
Reflecting on my visit, I felt that Soweto offers important insights about migration particularly migrant labour and mobility. It has a complex history of the urbanisation of Africans both from within South Africa and elsewhere in southern Africa. Industry and mining were dependent on cheap ‘migrant labour’ for their profits; while at the same time a succession of white governments tried to control the stream of urbanising migrants by denying these workers both their political rights and their rights to live permanently in the towns and cities. Sites in Soweto like former hostels, monstrous prison-like buildings, were originally designed as single-sex accommodation for male migrant workers from rural areas and neighbouring countries while workers who were allowed to live temporarily in Soweto were tenants in houses with ’99 year leases’.
I have come to realize that to understand South Africa’s current immigration policies and hostility towards new migrants, one has to understand its migration history as well as the path that led to democracy. As sad as it may be that many South Africans express xenophobic attitudes, it is also imperative to be able to analyse the history of those perceptions, particularly in the context of the hard-won right to settle permanently in the cities.