Historical Divides and Future Possibilities

A frequent term you’ll hear in South Africa is Townships.  Townships are underdeveloped communities that oftentimes lack proper electricity, water, and infrastructure.  As a result of the Apartheid era, townships became peripheral settlements away from city centers designated for non-whites to live in.

Welcome to Soweto

The largest township in Johannesburg is Soweto and has over 3.5 million habitants.  Although it has a reputation of being extremely dangerous, even within the township there are many different districts, each with their own distinct reputation and status.

Notice the soccer ball in the background. Rugby, cricket, and soccer are the most popular sports in South Africa, but soccer is most often recognized as a sport among black people while rugby among the Afrikaans.

When we first entered Soweto, Tshembani told us we were in the wealthier end of the township.  This neighborhood had gated fences, two car garages and welcoming green lawns.  However, as we progressed further into the township, the conditions changed.  On one side of the street, lied a two-story house as described above.  On the other side, Tshembani pointed out the ‘middle-class residents’ of Soweto.   The ‘middle-class’ consisted of run down shacks.

Driving through Soweto.

Hector Pieterson Memorial

While we drove through Soweto, we arrived at the Hector Pieterson memorial.

On June 16, 1976, over 15 000 students gathered to peacefully protest the Apartheid Government (the National Party which instituted these legislation) for introducing Afrikaans as the required language in school.  While the students marched peacefully, they were soon confronted by police bearing weapons.  The police soon open fired on the students and the confrontation led over 600 students dead, thousands injured, and thousands more detained.

Hector Pieterson was 12 years old that day when he lost his life.  The famous photo captured by Sam Nzima exposed the brutality of the Apartheid and jolted the rest of the world into action.  The photo put a name to Hector Pieterson, 18-year-old Mbuyisa Makhubo who carried him and Hector Pieterson’s sister, Antoinette who ran behind Mubiyasa in complete anguish.

While the iconic photo was recognized globally, it had profound negative consequences for both Mbuyisa Makhubo and Sam Nzima, the photographer.  Nzima was wanted by the Apartheid officials for creating unrest in Johannesburg and threatening the stability of the government.  After numerous accusations and Nzima’s photography career stripped away, Nzima and his family packed their belongings and fled to a rural town in fear for their lives.

Makhubo, the teenager recognized as a hero for carrying Hector Pieterson, mysteriously disappeared a few years down the road.  After the photograph became a symbol of student uprisings and the fight for freedom, Makhubo was under constant harassment by the Apartheid officials, which prompted him to flee to Botswana.  Sometime in Botswana, Makhuba was granted a scholarship by the United Nations for political refugees and traveled to Nigeria.  The last his mother heard of him was in June 1978.  While it’s unsure if his disappearance was related to the Apartheid, to this day his family is still hoping to hear from him.

Mbuyisa is or was my son.  But he is not a hero.  In my culture, picking up Hector is not an act of heroism.  It was his job as a brother.  If he left him on the ground and somebody saw him jumping over Hector, he would never be able to live here.                    –  Ma’Makhubu, Mbuyisa’s mother.

Hector Pieterson memorial.

The different heights of the towers on the back represented the students’ range of age who gathered.  While the police had guns, the students only had pebbles and stones to protect themselves; represented in the memorial (not seen in photo).  As symbols of peace, olive trees were planted by the memorial.

Vilakazi Street: The only street in the world to have two Nobel Peace Prize winners.

We then walked down Vilakazi Street; the street where both Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu once lived.  On our walk, two local boys offered to sing us a welcoming song.   A combination of dance moves, a steady rhythm, and a catchy tune, the Welcome to Soweto chorus is something I will always remember!

Down Vilakazi Street. Vendors flock the sidewalks as this is a popular tourist destination.


Part-time vendor and artist! Met this talented vendor by his booth who self-taught himself to paint and draw.  Today, he makes a career out of it. 

Kliptown: The town of stone.

Following Soweto, we then met up with Monwabisi.  Monwabisi was born and raised in Kliptown, a township in South Africa that does not have any proper amenities.  Kliptown has 45 000 people, however, lacks a school, clinic, or infrastructure.  As a result, the electricity they have is accessed illegally and extremely unstable.

When I asked Monwabisi why the government did not install electricity for the community, he explained to me the irony of the situation.  Officially, the government did not recognize Kliptown as a region and required its residents to leave.  However, residents were not offered any alternative options to move too as the government usually offers alternative housing as options.  Furthermore, the official Freedom Charter of South Africa originated Kliptown and it is one of the oldest townships in Johannesburg – so what’s stopping the government with supplying proper amenities to Kliptown?

Kliptown; previously a suburb of Soweto.


Illegal electricity supplying Kliptown with power. 



It’s frustrating but also ironic when you see the blatant comparison of inequalities in our society.  Frustrating and horrible because is it fair for some to live more comfortably than others?  To be provided with a pedestal of privilege based off of race rather than merit?  But who am I to judge what is fair or not as I sit on a pedestal of privilege?  I was born with this privilege, and this is all I knew, but now seeing these inequalities, speaking with the people, it can’t help but make me realize; what if I wasn’t?

Isn’t life just a game of chance then?  Why am I more lucky than someone else?  I’m not worthier, or smarter.  In fact, most people born with this predisposed pedestal probably feel entitled, when in truth, all it is was a roll of a die.

With my provided privilege, which perhaps I was luckily bestowed, I encountered those who lived in Kliptown.  Here in Kliptown, these individuals suffer from the scars of the apartheid but still remain so hopeful.  And at the risk of sounding cheesy, the truth is, there’s nothing more refreshing than seeing people with so many aspirations.  Honestly, growing up in America, we become accustomed to what we have.  We don’t realize that the problems we suffer are the luxuries of others.  My exams which I grudgingly complain about each semester, are the dreams and aspirations of other children who can only wish for such an education.

Kliptown Youth Program (KYP) is a stance against accepting the status quo many impoverished find themselves in.  KYP is run by our tour guide Monwabisi and was created as a response to the social challenges faced in the township in order to bring hope and education from students ages six to young adults.  Offering sports, computer ad performing arts programs, KYP serves over 460 students thanks to the dedicated team of 17 staff.  The largest funding KYP received was from CNN US$50,000 that was used to by the technology equipment and other resources around the facility.  KYP also provides breakfast and lunch for all their students and covers the fees for all the books used by students through their programs.   The students can’t study on empty stomachs and Monwabisi kept emphasizing the importance of seeing the entire picture in order to make any impact.

Many youth in the community are given better chance to free themselves from poverty thanks to KYP. That being said, Monwabisi was frank when he explained the struggle to fund the program.  Running KYP takes 5 million rand a year (approximately US$338,000) and many staff members find themselves leaving because the program cannot afford to pay proper salaries.  While their circumstances aren’t the most opportunistic, the KYP team was very positive and constantly looked for alternative solutions to raise awareness of their mission and gain more funding.

One of their most exciting and rewarding programs was “The Gumboot Dance”.  To our delight, the KYP students put on a show for us by dancing and chanting intricate rhythms at speeds we could only marvel at.  Initially, when the students marched in with heavy rainboots, I was confused as to how they would be dancing given the extra weight on their feet.  However, I quite literally felt the need to pick my jaw off the ground as the students began jumping and moving while smacking their rainboots all on beat.  We were informed that smacking the boots became the common language among South African miners when they did not speak the same mother tongue (since their are 11 official languages in South Africa).  The Gumboot Dance crew has competed internationally and are sharing their story with the world.

But sitting in the small room surrounded next to the other KYP students that were drawn in by the music, the room was alight with excitement and awe.

While the conditions of this Kliptown neighborhood were terrible, the strenght of the youth we met at KYP was inspiring.  Having said that, the poor conditions the community is in is frankly still a question to many Joburg residents.  On one hand, Kliptown is one of the oldest settlements in Johannesburg – so how can they not be recognized by the government?  On the other hand, I’ve heard statements from many locals that people will move into areas and set up “temporary” shacks because the government will then provide them with subsidized housing.  A hefty statement, however, I don’t believe this applies to the neighborhood we saw in Kliptown because they are one of the older settlements – rather than the newly set-up shack neighborhoods.  Another statement I heard explained that the government wanted the people to move out from the neighborhood because it was prone to floods.  But if that were the case, shouldn’t they be more supportive in helping the residents from relocating elsewhere?

It’s all very confusing.  Sometimes, it’s easy for us make suggestions on the outside.  But the longer I stay here, the more I learn everyday.

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