Life after apartheid in Soweto


Legacy: South Africa's racism stunted the black township, but it retains an astonishing vitality, even some optimism.

November 30, 1999|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- For more than half a century, Soweto has been this country's best-known black township, but strangely little has been known about it.

This, perhaps, is not surprising, given its history. Its location, 10 miles from this commercial capital, was intended to keep its resident blacks out of sight and out of mind of the ruling whites.

Soweto gained its notoriety as the crucible of the anti-apartheid struggle -- a place where black consciousness, imported from the United States, was nurtured and political violence fanned.

Although it has been a symbol of the deprivations of half a century of racial discrimination, it has also been the seedbed of black urban culture, fashion and music. Yet it has always remained very much a world unto itself.

Now a group of sociologists at Johannesburg's University of Witwatersrand have published the first full-scale survey of Soweto -- an acronym for South West Township -- its people, its problems and its pulse.

The survey, based on interviews with 3,000 families, was conducted in 1997, but the analysis of the results -- "Change and Continuity: A survey of Soweto in the late 1990s" -- was published only this month.

What emerges is a vibrant but still troubled and disparate society, ranging from the impoverished shack-dweller without water or electricity to the middle-class professional in a smart, suburban home.

The survey portrays a community still struggling to cope with the legacy of apartheid, which divided even the township into ethnic zones, reflecting language differences and tribal affiliations. Five years after black-majority rule came to this country, Soweto still suffers from the lack of services, education, health care and economic investment visited on it by the racist state.

But not all is gloom and doom. The middle class, which represents 15.4 per cent of Soweto's million people, is slowly expanding as residents try to build their own futures right where they are.

Eight out of 10 residents say they do not plan to leave the township, with more than half of those questioned planning to retire there, and two out of three ready to recommend it to outsiders looking for a home.

Soweto was started as a so-called coolie location in 1905. By the time apartheid was introduced in 1948, it was a well established community. In an effort to slow its development in the 1960s, the apartheid government switched funding from public housing to mainly single-sex hostels, accommodation for the black workers needed for Johannesburg's white-run industry.

This produced a local housing phenomenon: the backyard hut. Many homeowners built single-room huts on their tiny plots and rented them to newcomers. The survey found just under half of Soweto's current housing stock consists of single rooms, either a backyard hut (home to 20 percent of the population) or a shack in a squatter camp (6 percent of the population).

Significantly, when restrictions on the movement of blacks were relaxed in the 1980s -- again to serve the economic interests of whites -- annual per-capita spending on residential infrastructure in black areas like Soweto was just $60, compared with $550 in the white areas of Johannesburg.

Not surprisingly, the Witwatersrand survey found only half of all dwellings in Soweto had a separate kitchen, and only one in five had a separate bathroom. Two-thirds of households got their water from an outside tap, and while all households had access to a toilet, the facility was usually an outhouse.

The physical hardships of life in the township reflect economic reality: Only 40.5 percent of the working-age population was employed at the time of the survey, and in the 20-29 age group this dropped to what the survey calls a "catastrophic" 25.8 percent.

The "devastating" impact of the apartheid-era "Bantu" education system for blacks has left one in ten Sowetans without any formal education, and a quarter with schooling only to the age of 11.

But Soweto is still credited with being the most educated of the country's black townships, which sprawl around all major cities. One in 12 adults reported a post-high school education.

The survey found that lack of education was matched by lack of income. A third of Sowetan families lived on less than $166 a month, and almost two-thirds had a household income of less than $250, barely above the estimated subsistence level.

The poorest of the poor lived in the shantytowns and hostels. In public housing the average income rose to $290 a month, and in the private sector to $660 a month.

One surprising result of the survey was that one in five employed people works in Soweto, indicating that the township is developing its own economy and is no longer simply a dormitory for commuters to Johannesburg. But, at the time of the survey, the city center still provided one in three of Soweto's workers with jobs, mainly in the service and retail sectors.

Apartheid has also left its mark on the family structure.

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