Apartheid's advance and retreat Soweto: The history of this South African township and its role in forging democracy is depicted in a new publication and six-part TV series.

Sun Journal

September 22, 1998|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SOWETO, South Africa -- This ramshackle black township is (( not much to look at, but it has an epic story to tell.

It was in this crucible of change that today's democratic South Africa was forged. Here was where whites honed their expertise in repression, and blacks developed their will to resist. Here is where the advance and retreat of apartheid can be traced step by step. Here is where black culture found a haven and black consciousness took hold.

Yet, for all the heroes, martyrs, visionaries, bloodshed and violence Soweto has known, it has had until now no formal history.

The record has finally been put straight with the book publication and six-part television series of "Soweto -- A History," by Philip Bonner, professor of urban and labor history at the University of Witwatersrand, and Lauren Segal, historian and TV producer. South African TV is broadcasting the series.

The history shows that this country's struggle to overcome its colonial and racist past was, more than anywhere else, played out here.

The discovery of gold in the mid-1880s on the stretch of high veld known as the Rand brought both white and black fortune-seekers. Within 10 years the original mining camp had grown to a roistering shantytown of 100,000.

By the turn of the century, Johannesburg began to take on the trappings of a proper city, with permanent commercial buildings and palatial homes for the mine owners. White miners married, started families and moved to the new suburbs.

Black miners were forced into short-term labor contracts and housed in squalid, single-sex barracks. They also had to carry a "pass," detailing their contracts and enabling the authorities to control their movements.

As African laborers and domestic workers flooded into the city, the government created three separate living areas for Africans, Indians and Muslims. These soon became disease-ridden slums. After a 1904 outbreak of bubonic plague, the council burned down the inner-city homes of 1,358 Africans and 600 Indians. The blacks were relocated to Klipspruit, nine miles southwest of the city and the site of modern Soweto.

But many blacks, facing a daily cattle-truck commute to work, resisted the move and remained in the slums. In the 1930s, the government introduced the first of a series of acts that sowed the seeds of apartheid, forcibly clearing the slums.

The new site for blacks was Orlando, built of identical two- or three-bedroom homes, with little ground and fewer amenities. It is the center of today's Soweto. Although no paradise, it started a trend toward more permanent residence by blacks, reflected in the increasing ratio of black women to men in the Johannesburg area. From 1 to 12 in 1900, the ratio grew to 1 to 3 in 1939 and reached parity in 1967.

During World War II, in which South Africa fought alongside Britain against Nazi Germany, there was no money for new housing. The waiting list in Orlando grew from 143 in 1939 to 16,000 in 1945 at war's end. Homeowners accommodated relatives and friends in shacks built in their tiny yards. To this day, subtenants crowd into Soweto's older areas.

The living conditions inevitably provoked political unrest and the emergence of squatter camps, where the homeless seized land and built shacks of corrugated iron, wood or cardboard. The council reacted by evicting the squatters, who simply moved to the next plot of land.

It was against this background that the Afrikaner Nationalist Party, campaigning for racially segregated cities, was voted into office in 1948. Immediately, the new government tightened controls on black workers, turned black property freeholds into 30-year leases and limited the locations where blacks could live. The apartheid era had begun.

A competition was launched to name the mushrooming townships outside Johannesburg. Among the proposals: Black Bird's Bunk, Darkiesuburban, Darkest Africa, Kethollo (Segregation), and Kwantu Thinavhuyo (We have nowhere to go).

The council committee eventually played it safe, opting in 1963 for "South-Western Townships," or, abbreviated, Soweto.

In the mid-1960s, the government began relocating blacks into Bantustans, or homelands. In 1968, it ended homeownership rights in Soweto, depriving 10,000 householders of their domestic security.

"The very process of tightening and restructuring apartheid institutions had generated social forces that would lead to their destruction," wrote Bonner and Segal. Prime among these was the black-consciousness movement, which began to grip the youth of Soweto.

On June 16, 1976, the police confronted a student protest march, and, without warning, opened fire at the youngsters. First to fall was Hector Petersen, 13. Enraged, the students ran amok, setting fire to government offices, municipal beer halls, buses and cars.

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