Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Soweto - an eye opening experience

The iconic Soweto towers - you can bungee jump from the central bridge
Leaving the Apartheid museum after our trip to Johannesburg, our next stop was Soweto, a township just outside of Johannesburg, known for poverty.

The first stop was a restaurant on Vilakazi Street, where Hector Pietersen was famously shot during the student riots. Situated in one of the wealthier areas of Soweto, the food was good, although the portions were on the small side.
 The street had lots of street art, including a graffiti illustration of the shooting of Hector Pietersen, and whilst driving away from the restaurant, we passed a Zulu warrior selling his wares at the roadside and stopped to have a look.

Although his story was very touching - his daughter had been born recently with cracked ribs - he was of a very cheerful disposition.

Further down the same street was the house which Nelson Mandela lived in intermittently from 1946.  Sadly it has now been commercialised, with a large fence outside, and is very different from when Mandela lived there. We didn't go inside, but our guide informed us that this is also now very unauthentic.

We then drove on to one of the poorer parts of Soweto, where many people live in the shack-type houses which people tend to associate with Africa and India. We parked on a flyover and looked down over a sea of ramshackle corrugated iron and tarpaulin constructions, clothes lines zigzagging across the settlement, which was right next to a fast-moving railway line.

 We had only been there for a couple of minutes when a young girl from the settlement and her grandmother started talking to us. Before we knew it, we turned around and there were 10-15 other children behind us, and plenty more in the settlement below who were calling for their friends to let them know we were there. Our driver, from Soweto himself, told us that they are so used to outsiders giving them money, that their parents send them up to the roadside when visitors approach, to beg for money or food. We gave them some food we had left over from our journey earlier, and it was heartbreaking to see how excited, how grateful they were, to be given half a baguette which we were going to throw away when we got home.

 Very quickly there were so many children surrounding us that the driver had to usher us back into the minibus, before explaining something to the children in a local dialect. When we later asked him what he said, he had told them that those who were not lucky enough to get food from us today would have to wait and hope that tomorrow brought them something. As heartbreaking as it was to know that we were powerless to help most of these children, the worst was yet to come.
The driver explains something to the Soweto children
We drove on to another poverty stricken settlement in Soweto, where we got out of the car with a local guide, this time someone who lived in the settlement. We started walking down one of the dust tracks, with the locals greeting us all the way, until one elderly woman invited us into her home.  It didn't feel right, us with our decent clothes, full-up stomachs and expensive cameras, invading this family's life, but our guide insisted that she was proud to invite us into her home, and would have been offended if we had refused. The house, although not much larger than my living room at home, consisted of 3 rooms; a kitchen, a tiny dining area and a bedroom. The kitchen had an oven, and not much else. The dining area walls were lined with tarpaulin. the whole time we were in the house, the lady was asking questions about us; our names, where we were from, the smile never once leaving her face.

On leaving the house, we found a group of children waiting for us at the garden gate. They all crowded round us, approaching us individually, holding our hands and hugging us. The volunteers talked as a group later, and we noticed that they all asked us the same four questions in the same order:

  • What is your name?
  • Where are you from?
  • Do you have any brothers or sisters?
  • Do you have anything for me?

Like the others, these children have learned that visitors usually bring them something, either money or food. As hard as it was, we had been told not to give them any money, as this teaches them that begging can become a sustainable way of life. We walked back to the minibus flanked by children, some still asking "Do you have something for me?" as we closed the door. An overwhelming sense of guilt hit us knowing that these children would have to go back to their parents, some with 10 or 12 mouths to feed, and tell them that they had not managed to get any money today.

But the most humbling thing of all was how friendly these people are, and how unfalteringly happy they are. Despite having next to nothing, and more worries than anyone in the Western world could ever imagine, struggling to survive each day, they are happy and welcoming, and always pleased to meet new people. From what I've seen, this is something that can be seen across South Africa; you cannot go into a shop without being asked "How are you?" and "How's your day?" by complete strangers.

The journey back to the Lion park was a subdued one as we all contemplated what we had seen. Those heart-wrenching, sympathy-evoking videos that we see every year on Comic Relief are not dramatised. exaggerated versions of the truth. For many people, they are the reality of daily life. 

As if the people of Soweto don't have enough to deal with, a dust storm was brewing as we left - strong winds blow dust and sand from the remains of gold mines which previously sat nearby. At best, the airborne sand was painful on the skin. At worst, it was blinding.

Previous entry ("Venturing into Joburg")
Next entry ("Pilanesburg National Park safari")

No comments:

Post a Comment