Johannesburg and Soweto Tour

This entry is part 4 of 6 in the series South Africa:

  1. Flying The Longest Flight in the World
  2. Safari in Kruger National Park, Part 1
  3. Safari in Kruger National Park, Part 2
  4. Johannesburg and Soweto Tour
  5. Driving on the Left, Robberg, and Plettenberg Bay
  6. Adventures Along The Garden Route

After the long ride back from Kruger and a few hours showering and catching up with the outside world, we booked a full day tour of Johannesburg and Soweto township that could conveniently (and for free) get us to the airport for our flight to the coast. The tour picked us up the next morning, although this time we were the first, so we spent another hour driving around Joburg picking up. You win some, you lose some.

Constitutional amendments carved into the door

Constitutional amendments carved into the door

Our first stop was Constitution Hill, which was a former Apartheid era prison where Nelson Mandela and Ghandi both were imprisoned, during their younger days. The conditions seemed pretty bad. Most interesting was that in many cells, around 20 prisoners would share the space, and there was a hierarchy; if you were on the low end, your blankets no mattresses would get taken by the higher ups. They also talked about how white prisoners were cared for much better, which isn’t surprising. After Apartheid, the government tore down the prison and erected the country’s Supreme Court in its place, keeping some of the original prison structure in place. The idea is to always remember the dark past as they are building a new country. The building is beautiful. The doors of the building are carved with the original constitutional amendments, there is lots of art installed, and the court chamber itself has windows to the outside, symbolic of the newfound transparency the court should have. Very cool place.

JoBurg, beautiful...

JoBurg, beautiful…

We then drove over the Nelson Mandela bridge on our way to the Top of Africa, which is a lookout on the highest building in Joburg (about 50 stories). There we learned that JoBurg is a really ugly city. Anyway, we moved on to the far more interesting Soweto leg of the journey. Really dumbed down version of history: during Apartheid, the whites made the blacks (and Indians, and Coloreds) move out of the city and into townships. They had to carry passes to go into another part of the city (if they worked there or something). Soweto (short for Southwest Township) is the largest in JoBurg, and still currently has around 5 million people. As you can imagine, it was not given nearly the same resources as the white areas, and quickly turned into a slum town. While there are some nice parts now (Winnie Mandela still lives there), it is still a massive slum.

Our tour set us up with a local guide who took us first to an NGO that helps the youth there, and the we just walked around. Most of the houses were 1 or 2 rooms, with sometimes more than 10 people sleeping inside. Everything was very basic, and the tin roofs kept it nice and toasty on the scorching day we were there. It was quite a moving experience, but important to see that there are still millions living in squalor even in the most developed parts of Africa.

Courtesy of Wikipedia

Following the Soweto walk, we went to the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum. The museum commemorates the death of the local student of the same name. A very condensed/simplified version of the history: in 1974, the Apartheid government mandated that Afrikaans (basically, the white language) be the official language used in schools. This was not well received in the townships, and was perceived as another way to oppress minorities (if the students and teachers can’t speak it, how will they learn?). There students at one of the Soweto schools started a protest and boycott that eventually spread to others in JoBurg. On June 16th, 1976, the students led a massive peaceful march that led to a violent police response, and eventually the shooting death of Hector Pieterson (along with 150-700 others, depending on the source), and this famous photo. This shooting (called the Soweto Uprising), and other violence like the Sharpeville Massacre, led to other uprisings in townships throughout South Africa, and was the impetus for many of the international condemnations of the Apartheid regime.

So, overall it was a pretty heavy day. We had to make our flight, so we dropped half the group off at the Apartheid Museum, and the other half were stuck riding with us to the airport (sorry…). We got checked in, and then realized that we hadn’t eaten a thing since breakfast (why doesn’t this tour include a lunch break?). Anyway, it was a great day, but we were mentally and physically exhausted when we finally down on our plane.

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