Johannesburg, Soweto and the Apartheid Museum

We arrived in Johannesburg from Cape Town on Sunday, October 14 mid afternoon. It was dreary, rainy and cold. We took the shuttle to our hotel and hunkered in for the night – and all of the next day as it turned out. We spent Monday working on future travel plans which now include a tour of Egypt in December, Midnight Mass in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve and a tour of India at the end of November. This was like putting a full day’s work so we had a nice supper in the hotel restaurant and watched a couple of movies back in our hotel room. We did ask the front desk clerk if it would be safe to go for a walk around the neighborhood and she said “no”. So, the rumors of crime in Johannesburg is not exaggerated then.
We booked a tour for Tuesday so in the morning, we checked out of our room, stored our bags, had breakfast and waited for the van to pick us up for the tour. Our tour guide was a young black man who is very proud of his city and his country. He spoke of the politics, the corruption and some of the other problems that face South Arica today. However, he is hopeful for a great future even though he knows this will take time. Apartheid has only been abolished for 20 years following hundreds of years of white rule. It will all take time, he says.
Our first stop was the Apartheid Museum. This would prove to be an emotional experience. It started right from the time we got our ticket. There were eight people on our tour. Four tickets were printed “Whites Only” and four tickets were printed “Non Whites” When we got to the entrance, there were indeed two seperate entrances. This was the start of our emotional journey. The museum took us through the history of South Africa and how colonization, first with the Dutch and then the English, took place. There was a complete Nelson Mandela section which explored his roots right through his years of incarceration and finally freedom, the presidency and a new Democracy. The final section of the museum had pictures and commentary from people that lived through the Apartheid era. There were news clips of politicians proclaiming how great this was for the country, subsequent riots and beatings. It was to say the least, disturbing. We had two hours to complete the museum but 5 hours would be more realistic. How can a country recover from this type of racism and oppression? We have many of the same issues in our country and we have had 150 years to figure out a solution and we still do not have one that satisfies everyone. South Africa is still in the infancy stages of making their country whole again. With young people like our tour guide Tsholo, I believe that they are headed in the right direction.
From there we travelled to the township of SOWETO. This is an acronym for South West Township. Remember in an earlier post I wrote about townships and how these were the areas that black people were forced to relocate to, or ended up squatting in, to be close to the city. This is the largest and most famous township of South Africa. It houses 4 million people in 9 subdivisions. We weren’t sure what to expect but there were some pleasant surprises. Firstly, since the end of apartheid, education has become more accessible to marginalized children. More students are going to colleges and universities which is improving the economics of these people. However, many have chosen to stay in Soweto and are building homes within the community. We saw one area that was quite affluent with nice homes and cars in the driveway. Not to far from there, we stopped for a Braai. This is the South African equivalent of Brbq . Though the venue was a little interesting – underneath a couple of decomissioned power plant cooling towers – the food was delicious. From there we took a walking tour through the heart of Soweto. We started at the Freedom Circle of 1955 where a number of South African leaders (white, black and colored) got together to form a list of 10 items that would determine a fair and just society for the future. These principles were later used to form the constitution that they are using today. From there we walked through the open air market where the people of Soweto are selling their wares – anything from bracelets made from recycled copper wire to fresh fruit and vegetables. This is one of the community initiatives that these folks are using to raise themselves out of poverty. From there we walked along the dirt path past the homes of the poorest of the poor. These homes were tin shacks with no water, plumbing or electricity. Water is taken from a communal tap in the ground. Toilets are portapotties and electricity is stolen from businesses down the street with wires strung haphazardly along the houses. As in most poverty stricken neighborhoods that I have seen, garbage is everywhere. I would imagine that this is a result of no proper infrastructure in place to take away the garbage. One of our tour participants suggested that the community should take matters into their own hands and clean their areas. Our guide responded that garbage is collected by residents on a regular basis but the garbage trucks never come to take it away. Dogs, rats, wind and rain redistribute the mess right back where it started. From there we moved onto another community initiative which was an after school program for children. There, the makings of a playground, some balls, a garden project, books and games give the children something better to do than get into trouble with gangs. This is giving hope to the community that their future will be better than the past. We also noticed in this area that there was always clean laundry hanging on the line, people always looked neat and tidy and there were hair salons of every type everywhere. These people are proud of their appearance and are all looking for a better life for themselves and their children.
We wrapped up our tour with a walk down Vilakazi Street where Nelson Madela and Desmond Tutu both lived. We then went to the memorial square where the 1976 Soweto Uprising took place. In short, this was a protest march by students against the education system of the time. Even though it was a peaceful march, police came out in force and killed 69 people including an elementary school child, Hector Pieterson who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. The memorial is a touching tribute to all that have fought for their freedom and was a perfect way to sum up the day.
Back at our hotel, we collected our bags and took the shuttle to the airport. We now have a 13 hour trip to Tanzania where we will be staying at a lodge for the next couple of weeks. We believe that this is where we will see the “real” Africa!!
This is Richard now just adding a bit to Col’s blog if you will indulge me. As Col mentioned the apartied museum was a very emotional epericence and I felt it most as we were walking in, came around a corner and saw the signs that read White and Non Whites. My first reaction to seeing the sign was to verbally say “Oh No”. I was given a ticket for the Non White entry and made my way in. I will be honest, when walked in through that turn stile I had tears in my eyes as I was overcome with emotion. How can we treat another human like they are not human, but something less. It is so hard to put into words. Also, I can’t begin to say how impressed I was with the positive attituede our tours guide had and the volunteer who ran the drop in center for the children after school. If ever a situation would validate someone to say, what’s the point in trying, we might as well throw our arm up and give up they choose not to. They are working towards a better life one day at a time. It is just amazing.


Below is the restaurant where we had South African BBQ..

The Ten Commandments or rules that the new constitution of 1994 was based on.

A local barber shop in Soweto.

Washing dishes in the public water works.

The program of the after school community center.


Below is the street that Nelson Mandela and bishop Desmond Tutu love on.

Below are pictures from the Soweto school demonstration which happened on June 16, 1976.

Our tour guide for the day.

3 thoughts on “Johannesburg, Soweto and the Apartheid Museum

    1. There are eleven official languages of South Africa: Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, SiSwati, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa and Zulu. Fewer than two percent of South Africans speak a first language other than an official one. Most South Africans can speak more than one language.


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