Today we got to go through the streets of Soweto, a village of squatters who live without plumbing and electricity. The scene in Soweto is like something from a documentary on poverty. It’s unbelievable to think how part of a city can live so well, while on the other side of the city, citizens live in sub-poverty conditions.
The boys of Soweto
When we first walked in, young kids, all boys, came up to us. They were sort of shy at first, but they wanted to know where we were from, how long it took us to get here, and how many brothers and sisters we had. They were also eager for us to take their picture. It was cold outside, and some young boys only had old socks with torn sandals. They followed us and marveled at our cameras. The kids told us they had to walk nearly an hour and a half to school every day, getting up at dark. In the public school there is no real pressure for kids to attend school and no truancy policy if kids skip school.
We had a different guide take us around Soweto. He was dressed as if he was from the community. We went inside one home where a mother lived with her four children. There was a tiny square stove used to warm up the whole shack, although you could not feel the heat unless you stood next to it.
The Soweto township is where tragic riots took place during 1976. The riots were started by students who were protesting the government forcing the end of Afrikaans language in the public school system.
Church and shield
We left Soweto and drove to the Regina Mundi church. The church is in Soweto and is the township’s largest Catholic Church. This church served as a shield during the community’s resistance to apartheid and as a gathering place for the student opposition during the riots. During this time the government did not allow people to gather, but the students chose to gather in this church.
We were able to stand in the back viewing area as a service was taking place. I was taken by the music from the choir and the members. It felt strong and full of emotion. There are still bullet holes in the ceiling of the church from when the government shot it, attempting to break the student opposition. Our guide pointed out a huge white statue of the Virgin Mary. She was holding out her arms but missing her hands. Our guide told us the government shot the hands off, but they could never figure why.
Nelson Mandela’s home
We then drove to Nelson Mandela’s former home in Soweto, which is now a museum. This is the home he lived in after marrying his first wife, Winnie, and before he went to jail on Robben Island. To get there we traveled by Vilikazi St., which is the only road in the world that two Nobel Peace Prize winners, Nelson Mandela, and Desmond Tutu, lived on.
The former home of Mandela was packed with old artifacts as well as the honorary degrees he received. When he lived there there was no electricity or running water. A pair of Mandela’s boots were on display that Winnie kept out when he left for jail, and kept them out until his return 27 years later. After that we drove to the Hector Peterson Memorial Museum. He was a 12-year-old boy who was shot during the uprising.
We didn’t spend long there, and headed for a quick lunch stop at the famous restaurant Wandie’s. It was a small place in the township where tourists stop. It did not have a tourist feel at all though. The walls were covered in business cards and people’s signatures and quotes. We had a traditional African meal, which consisted of beef stew, mielie pap, and veggies.
Dr. Halperin left his mark there too. He left both of his business cards and wrote “Celebrate Life” and “Human Rights Now- There is no such thing as a lesser person” on the wall in a sharpie.
After Wandie’s we ended the day at the Apartheid Museum. On the outside of the museum there were huge columns stating the pillars of the new South African constitution, written after the first democratic elections in 1994. These seven pillars stated democracy, equality, reconciliation, diversity, responsibility, freedom and respect.
When you enter the museum you are given a card that denotes you as either white or colored. Each entry takes you through a separate entryway, and the two meet inside in the museum. The museum was very modern and had a special area describing the role women played in the struggle to end apartheid.
Recording our memories
We headed back to the hotel after a long day. It gets dark around 7 p.m. in South Africa, which made me get tired earlier. That night we had our first tape-recorder session. We would all gather in a circle and talk about our reactions and feelings of what we saw during the course of the day. We talked into a tape-recorder so Pat Davis, professor of theology and part of the SMU Human Rights Education board, could do a study on how the trip affects people.
Everyone reacted in a different way and noticed different things about the day’s activity. It was good to hear everyone’s viewpoints and reflect on the day. Both helped reinforce the focus of the trip – to study human rights.