Last Sunday, a family I was staying with gave me a tour of Soweto which stands for Southwest Township. Soweto is South Africa’s largest township with over 3 million people. I want to give you a glimpse of life in Soweto- the highs and lows; the good and the unbelievable.
- Soweto began as a settlement in the early 1900s when an influx of migrants came during a gold rush to work in the mines. From 1948 on, when the apartheid government came into power, the black Africans from Johannesburg were sent to Soweto to live ‘out of sight and out of mind’ of the white Africans.
- The area of land where Soweto was built was the least desirable place to place residents as it receives mine dust and pollution from the mine dumps. The apartheid government knew whites would not want to live there because of the mine pollution.
- Soweto stands for ‘South Western Township’ as it never got a proper name.
- Residents in Soweto were given housing restrictions. Houses could, legally, only be a certain size. No expansions were allowed. The houses are 4 equal sized rooms with a long-drop (outhouse) in the yard.
- Until the 2010 World Cup, Soweto sat in darkness at nigh as there were no street lights. The only lights in the township were tall, emergency lights used only if emergency vehicles had to respond to a drastic event.
- The apartheid government purposefully mixed different African tribes in Soweto instead of creating areas for each tribe. This has caused much violence, crime, and tension as tribes come with different language, culture, values, and worldview.
- Additionally, there were only 3 entrances and exits into Soweto until 2010. This meant if there was ever an uprising, outbreak of violence, or natural disaster millions of people had only three ways to get to safety. People working outside of Soweto had to leave for work by 3:30 in the morning in order to get to work on time (usually 8 am) because of the hundreds of thousands of people commuting to work.
- A Power Plant built a factory in Soweto with two huge cooling towers. Soweto does not receive any of the power from the plant but they do receive all the pollution, noise, and waste from it.
- By 1976, the apartheid government issued a law saying all schools were to be taught in Afrikaans. The students of Soweto wanted to continue to learn in their first languages (Zulu, Sotho, Twsana, etc) and English (as English was not seen as the oppressors language). Students organized what was to be a peaceful protest. Thousands of students marched from a central meeting point through downtown Soweto towards the government buildings to express their grievances. The police opened fire and lives were lost. This caught the attention of the world and started the downfall of the apartheid government. Hector Pieterson, who lost his life that day in June, 1976, became a martyr for the cause of ending apartheid rule.
- Soweto is so powerful and influential in South Africa, the saying goes ‘when Soweto sneezes, South Africa catches a cold’.
- Two Nobel Peace Prize winners came from Soweto. They grew up on the same street- it is the only street in the world that has reared more than one Nobel Peace Prize winner. They are Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. Tutu still lives in that same house in Soweto.
- South Africa’s largest Catholic church is also in Soweto. It is called Regina Mundi and was a safe haven for people during the student uprisings. Regina Mundi also became a meeting place to discuss ways to resist the apartheid government.
- Soweto saw the first heart transplant at its Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, the world’s largest hospital. This hospital originally opened for British soldiers around WWI.
- Even though Soweto is a township and many of its residents are in extreme poverty, there are millionaires who live in Soweto. They stay, despite the fact that they can now leave and live well in another area of Johannesburg, because it is a sort of badge of honor to be from Soweto- the most influential township in South Africa.
- The University of Johannesburg has a campus in Soweto.
- There are squatter camps in Soweto. Squatter camps are sort of like being one step above poverty. The people living there cannot pay for housing so gather whatever they can for a shelter. It wasn’t until fairly recently that the government came in to provide long drops (out houses) for these residents because before, they had no sanitary waste system. Squatter camps are full of violence, unrest, and danger because it is a mix of people groups, extreme poverty, and little protection.
- Now, with the end of apartheid in 1994 and upgrades because of the World Cup in 2010, Soweto residents have more opportunity for jobs, education, safety, better housing, and ownership of destiny.
- Most white South Africans have never set foot in Soweto and have no idea what conditions their neighbors live in.
The juxtapositions of Soweto boggle my mind and heart. How can one place have millionaires and squatter camps? How can one place be full of such power and influence in this country and yet it took decades for the government to treat them as humans? How can one place be full of such violence and hatred yet have large and influential churches?
I know the hope of Christ will transform this place. I know perfect healing from God can change this township. I know there is such potential in Soweto: potential for change, opportunity, harmony, and peace. The soil is rich and the workers are few to plant the Kingdom seeds. I pray for the fate of Soweto and its residents. Will you join me?