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Riding the buses » Cultural travel, South Africa, Travel itinerary » Highlights of South Africa: Soweto and Robben Island

Highlights of South Africa: Soweto and Robben Island

Soweto, South AfricaBarbara Reinhardus worked as a United Nations election adviser in South Africa in advance of the second non-racial general election in 1999. When family and friends from Canada went to visit her, she became a tourist and saw much of this beautiful country. 

When I was in South Africa the country was really in transition. The 1994 election when Nelson Mandela became president was largely organized by outsiders but five years later the election commission was changing from an all white institution to include black South Africans. Several of the women I worked with lived in Soweto and I would listen to them talk about their families, their church, their activities and I was interested in seeing this township but I was discouraged from doing so by my colleagues.

Soweto is actually an acronym for the South West Township. It is situated 15km southwest of Johannesburg and at the time was home to over 4 million people spread over 120 square km. It was made famous during the struggle against apartheid.

Nelson and Winnie Mandela’s old houseA friend of mine was visiting from Canada and Nelson Mandela was a great hero of hers (as he was mine) and she was determined to visit Soweto and see his home and where the first battles against apartheid took place. At that time it was difficult to find someone to take us there but we were finally able to arrange it. We had a black tour guide and black driver and as soon as we entered the township there was a switch because we were suddenly the outsiders.

My first impression when approaching the township was that it was an enormous, grim, undifferentiated sprawl. There were comfortable homes for the tiny elite, but most lived in government-built four-room ‘matchbox houses’ with an outside tap and toilet. There were squatter camps and many of the shanty houses were typical of any third world slum.

We visited Nelson and Winnie Mandela’s old house and it was a very moving to see the mementoes of their life together. I understand Winnie experienced years of harassment from the police while her husband was in prison. Even though the mainstream press presents her rather negatively, black South Africans seem to adore her. Every black woman I worked with said she was a great heroine, a leader who truly cares for her people and continues to be one of them.

The Faces of the DepartedWe came upon a photographic exhibition called “The Faces of the Departed”. It was blown up pictures of children who had been killed by the police on June 15, 1976 because they were protesting the use of the Afrikaans language in their schools, replacing their languages. Most of their teachers did not even know Afrikaans so it didn’t make much sense. Around 20,000 children took part in the protest and about 200 were killed by heavily armed police and many more injured. One of the images that was seen around the world at the time was of 13-year-old Hector Pietersen being carried away from the scene with his sister walking beside him. There is a special memorial to honour him. You could not help but feel a kind of reverence for the exhibition was very powerful.

When we were there, people came up and told us about it and how it was a turning point in the country. The protests spread from there to other townships and Soweto was in a virtual state of war from 1976 until the 1994 election when Mandela became president.

Later I went to Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was jailed for 18 years. You take a ferry from the Cape Town area. A museum was established there shortly before I went. The tour guides were all ex-prisoners so it is very personal for them and they tell their own stories. I am sure everyone who goes into that cell where Mandela lived for so long is moved by it all. He was only allowed one visitor and one letter every six months. The strongest image for me was of the lime quarry where he was forced to do hard labour.  It was very bleak.

Hector Pietersen memorialIt is hard for us to understand apartheid. White South Africans often told me I was colour blind but in truth I just didn’t have their fear. They had never really interacted with their black fellow-citizens and in fact had put themselves behind a wall. But things have changed.

June 16 is now Youth Day in South Africa, a public holiday. Today Soweto is a major tourist attraction and there is a Hector Pieterson Museum next to his memorial.

By Barbara Reinhardus

Photo credits Barbara Reinhardus

© Riding the buses 2011

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