Soweto and Joburg: back from the bush

2 Sep

June 16, 1976 I was a carefree 20-year-old Aussie swanning around the Greek Islands. I’d just sat my nursing finals and celebrated by holidaying in Europe with my eldest sister Lynde and my best nursing buddy, Marion.

June 16, 1976 13-year-old Hector Pieterson was shot and killed by a policeman during a peaceful protest march by school students in Soweto, sparking more massive demonstrations that spread like wildfire across South Africa. Over the next few months between 1200 and 1500 black South Africans were killed in state-sponsored violence. Children as young as nine were shot by snipers as they walked in their neighbourhoods.

In the following years the anti-apartheid struggle and the political changes painfully achieved in increments barely pricked my conscience. I’m ashamed to say that only when I read Mahatma Ghandi’s autobiography and Nelson Mandela’s ‘Long walk to freedom’ did my eyes open to the long decades of injustice that caused so much suffering to millions of South Africans.

Visiting Soweto today (the immigrant community named the South Western Township) to walk through former President Nelson Mandela’s first family home and drive by the spot Hector died was an emotional experience. Yes, there is a shiny new shopping mall, smart townhouses and the 2010 World Cup 65,000 seat football stadium, but the single room shanties, each with its own stand alone long drop toilet still sprawl for hectares. The scourges of South Africa today are its low literacy rate, the 20% incidence of people living with HIV-AIDS, and 26% official unemployment (unofficial estmates cite 40% as the correct figure).

But the complaint most commonly voiced by young people, black and white, is that corruption is the biggest obstacle to development. As I write this Julius Malema, 34-year-old head of the ANC Youth League, and several of his cronies are undergoing their disciplinary hearing in the district court of Johannesburg on charges of bringing the ANC into disrepute. Local media have published evidence that supports the charges, including documentation of Malema’s personal finances that are well in excess of what his salary could conceivably provide.

Modern democratic South Africa has powerfully preserved large chunks of important history at Constitution Hill in central Joannesburg by repurposing the infamous jail where until 1983 male and female political prisoners were held alongside murderers and thieves into today’s impressive Constitutional Court. What a privilege to sit on the bench in the court room where 11 judges (7 men and 4 women) rule on cases of constitutional law and human rights, landmark cases such as the decision to ensure women with HIV-AIDS can access medication to prevent mother to child transmission of the virus.

You will see from the photo below that the workers painstakingly cleaning the massive wood carving outside the court depicting the people’s constutional rights in the 11 official languages were two white women. Somehow it seemed fitting.

Appreciation and Acknowledgements in Africa:

Special thanks to my personal guide and driver, Anthony, for an amazingly moving tour of Jozi. And a big thank you hug to the gorgeous Liza M who showed me the two faces of Johannesburg.
Greatest respect to the GapAdventures professionals GP and Barry for keeping the show on the road and to all my young fellow travellers for putting up with an ‘Aunty’ amongst them.



















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