Trying to learn anything about Johannesburg and Soweto in a single weekend is shear folly, yet it would also be irresponsible to fail to reflect on the experience. If any of you have been to “Joburg” (“Jozi”) or Soweto, or have studied these cities, please share your thoughts and suggested readings with me.
At 10:30 on Friday morning two weeks ago, 27 of us set off for Soweto: 24 undergraduates, 1 Batswana assistant, 1 Batswana bus driver, and me. The first thing the 23 of us from ACM learned is that a 28 seat bus is too small for 22 U.S. undergraduates, let alone the 27 of us squeezed into the bus. I have some students that anyone would characterize as “petite,” and yet even they could not rest their shoulders on the back rest while sitting adjacent to anyone else. Fortunately, I am absolutely blessed with a group of traveling companions who are almost always in good humor, or willing to try to put themselves in a good humor. It would not be a good idea to try to travel from Gabs to Soweto with anyone grouchy. One would be tempted to leave them on the side of the road with only the cows for company. For future travel on buses, I plan to request 1.25 seats per ACM person. Functional air conditioning would also be a nice touch.
We crossed into South Africa at the Tlokweng border. We learned that we may never understand why it is necessary for people to walk across the border in the heat instead of getting back onto the bus to drive across the border.
The view outside the bus was pastoral - for most of the way, there is either beautiful savannah with tall grasses like a prairie but with acacia trees, or well-kept farms of corn or milo (sorghum).
With no air conditioning and the wind blasting all of us, and the driver's ever increasing commitment to louder and louder bad pop music coming from the radio, it was not my favorite road trip ever. I think this was true for everyone, except that it was worse for the students who really were packed in the bus like herrings. We rode with the windows down and our hair flying; the students tried their best to sleep in various contorted positions. When we stopped in Zeerust for lunch, I discovered that my entire front was bone dry but my entire backside was plastered to the seat with sweat. I was amazed the people in the back of the bus had not fused into one giant student.
We found Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers without any problems; in fact there were nice tourism-oriented signs directing us once we got close. The signs were a bit incongruous in the setting where sometimes it appeared that the signs were of higher-quality materials than the housing.
I have not stayed at a “backpacker’s hostel” since about 1991. I am not really a backpacker. My backpack is intended for short-term trips to peaceful libraries, or longer term trips to dog parks. Not to a hostel, which not by mere chance sounds to me a lot like “hostile.” This hostel was a beautiful jewel of a hostel – friendly owners, clean, comfortable beds, good breakfast, lunch, and dinner, a bar to buy bottled water and/or beer, and a “rec-room” outdoors, containing fusbol, a pool table, and a dart board. The students LOVED it. I, however, am clearly an old fart. There was constant extremely loud reggae music, the same album played over and over and over and over and over. I was ready to take some sort of guerilla action when one of the students persuaded them to switch to a different (reggae) album, and to turn it down a notch. So it was one party after another – but in this the hostel was not alone. All around, all night long, people were playing loud music and partying, all Friday and Saturday night. Truly, I have no idea how anyone old or young survives the weekends in Soweto.
Soweto (SOuth WEst TOwnship) is a really big, really poor city, not particularly better or worse than other equally large, impoverished cities. I think there are 2.5-5 million people there. It used to be a giant collection of single-sex dorms -- confusingly called hostels -- where the South Africans required migrant mine laborers to live. Then women and children started to move in. In the 1970's, 80's, and 90's it was the heart of the anti-apartheid movement, and certainly the heart of one of the most influential and successful youth protests in the world. Sowetan school children, most younger than high school age, actually themselves rose up to protest "Bantu" education (which was worse than no education at all -- and even 6 year olds got into the fight). The Afrikaaner police actually fired on and killed children who were protesting -- and not just once. For those of you who remember the news footage from those years, please know that Soweto is nothing like that now .... it is populated by the descendants of those activists, but is nowhere near as dangerous as it once was.
We saw more of Soweto on the four-hour bike tour the next morning, which began at 10:0 a.m., when the sultry sun had already climbed high into the sky. The palest of us suffered sunburns, despite thick layers of SPF45+ sunscreen. I rode in a combination golf cart/motorcycle driven by Lebo himself (the owner of the Backpacker’s Hostel). We stopped at a shebeen, an informal bar where a woman makes and sells sorghum beer from her home. The making of sorghum brew was once a quintessential wifely skill, and the drinking of the beer was the duty and pleasure of a lucky skillful husband. But the conquest of Southern Africa by Europeans followed by apartheid and then grinding entrenched poverty has taken this tradition and turned it into something sinister. In apartheid times, men would drink a foul brew so horrible that it was not even bottled, but served in boxes, to escape from the misery of the mines, miserably crowded hostels, and the pernicious effects of relentless overt and covert racist discrimination. In the present day there is a horrific relationship between alcohol abuse, sexual risk-taking, disrupted intimate relationships between men and women, and HIV/AIDS. I found the book “The Baboon Woman and a Bagful of Locusts” very informative in this regard, and of course I recommend “Love in the Time of AIDS.”
But, we were just touring, not thinking these sober thoughts, and so everyone gamely tried a batch of beer served in a gourd, and some were willing to taste the sour milk. Then we moved on to a very poor neighborhood, which clearly lacked clean water and had sewage running in the streets under the bicycle tires. Meanwhile, literally across the street there were half-built houses intended to have electricity, water, sewage treatment…..but there they stood, unfinished. The guides explained that while the ANC-dominated government has long promised healthy, safe housing for everyone, this goal is still not possible because of the cost, and the difficulty of destroying unsafe housing only after first relocating gigantic populations to safer housing. Also, according to Lebo, there was a plan for the people who moved into this better housing to pay for at least some of the costs of electricity, water, and sewage treatment, but of course the people living in the unhealthy houses across the street could ill afford to pay anything for these services – so exactly how this housing development was supposed to help the people in Soweto who most needed the help was very unclear.
The next part of the tour was more “uplifting” in that we saw the some more middle-class neighborhoods in Soweto. There were morning glories, four-o-clocks, roses, marigolds, and cosmos everywhere, and gazillions of children who all wanted a high five as we rode past. We eventually came to the Hector Pieterson memorial for the children killed in the Soweto uprisings of the 1970’s, and then after that to the homes of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, two Nobel laureates living close to each other in a single neighborhood in Soweto. Neither of them were in residence in either house during our visit, but the guide was knowledgeable and told us a lot about the two men. It struck me that there are a lot of great men in the anti-apartheid struggle and that the voices of women are not often included and certainly not venerated, a thought that would occur again at the otherwise wonderful Apartheid Museum in Joburg.
The bike ride ended with a meal at a small place where we were fed “bunny chow,” an unappetizing, nutritionally void and calorie-dense food that miraculously has not appeared in the U.S. despite these qualities. Bunny chow is a hollowed out loaf of white bread filled with French fries (“chips”), a fried egg, fried bologna, a slice of tomato, and ketchup. When asked to explain why it is called bunny chow, I was told that it was first brought to Soweto by “Asians” (people of Indian or Pakistani descent). I still remain confused regarding how this explanation relates to the question I had posed. The students all said it was “great,” so perhaps had I been pedaling, I would have appreciated bunny chow a bit more.
After the bike ride, exhaustion reared its head and most students napped for at least a few hours. Some had to be dipped in vats of aloe, so sunburned were they, and several needed anti-inflammatories to help their entire bodies stop swelling up after the exposure to such heat and sun. No one suffered any long term effects, but I did spend quite a bit of time encouraging endless small sips of water and rest, and wondering if it was time to get out the oral rehydration salts (which taste foul but do work).
The rest of the evening was spent much as the first, so I will spare you.
The next morning we went to the Apartheid Museum, where we were all randomly assigned to “white” or “colored” or “black” and entered the museum in our proper doors. The museum is a compelling tribute to the remarkable struggles against apartheid, as well as a thorough documentation of the system of apartheid, its history, and its after-effects. We spent around 3-4 hours there, when our guide kept trying to rush us through in 1 hour and 45 minutes. The exhibit that included one of the giant armored vehicles used to subdue the people was literally frightening, while the newsreels from every decade literally brought tears to our eyes as each museum-goer met up with the reels that most reflected the time that we had first become aware of Apartheid. I kept thinking, why didn’t I know about this until 1989? What privilege, to remain in such ignorance and thus comfort!
The museum is extremely proud of its temporary Mandela exhibit, which will likely become permanent, but for me that was the least satisfying part. It documented Mandela’s life in excruciating detail, and was so complimentary as to be embarrassing. It used words from his own writings when possible, and those words were in a different color, as though I were reading a New Testament that has Jesus’ words in red. It is not that Mandela is not a great man – for surely he is – but I believe that every great person is supported by a community that feeds that greatness and deserves equal if not more acknowledgement. Reading between the lines, Mandela’s relationships with women and his respect for women probably place him up there (down there?) with Gandhi, showing that the struggle for equality among women and men has a long ways to go, even in South Africa which is justly proud of its constitutional commitments to civil, human, and social rights for all. There was no exhibit about how women managed to raise families while their husbands traveled to and from the mines, or about how women also resisted apartheid, or about how women raised brave children who fought Bantu education. There was almost no mention of females at all, except at the very end, when women’s organizations were mentioned briefly in a display about 1990’s political activism. I’m sure many compelling stories about women’s bravery, endurance, creativity, and perseverance during apartheid could also be told, and I hope that a South African writer will emerge to document their story with as much passion as the nation now devotes to Mandela and Tutu.
I will try to insert some photos of Soweto when next I get the chance.
I would love to read your reactions to this post, and any comments you have about Apartheid or Soweto.