Stories of Soweto

Third World Child

©Andile Bhala

For South Africa’s largest black township, Soweto has an extraordinarily stable population. This is hardly surprising considering that until the 1980’s a person could lose the right to live and work on the Witwatersrand merely by losing or leaving a job after less than ten years’ service. For blacks working in urban areas the moral is clear - you will be happy.

In the early 1970s the government hatched a characteristically cynical plot: Sowetans could own their own houses if they took out citizenship of a homeland. In effect, this would deprive them of any political rights in Soweto. They stay here because there is nowhere else to go, and as a result, Sowetans have developed a strong identity and attachment to their place.

Most houses are the two to four-roomed ‘matchboxes’ where whole families, averaging six people per family, squeeze into each tiny room, with a poor tenant family living in a little shack in the backyard. The place is a town planning nightmare of monotony, inadequate facilities and poor services.

Many are still tenuous residents, migrants from the homelands working on contracts and living in dismal, overcrowded and underprovisioned hostels. Savuka’s Johnny Clegg, learned his music in these all-male mining hostels and he sings with experience of these misplaced folk: ‘I learn to speak a little bit of English, learn to wear a suit and tie, learn to walk in the dreams of a foreigner; I am a Third World Child’.

Alfred the Builder

Retired builder Mr Alfred Tafane lives in a comfortable house which he rebuilt in Orlando West. He was born in the Orange Free State farming community of Rouxville (he can’t remember when), but he recalls what a nice place the township used to be when he first came to Soweto in 1936. That was before apartheid, when black South Africans were still afforded the dignity of citizenship in their own country, and in their homes.

‘The place has changed altogether. You could walk around at night, do anything you wanted’. After working as a painter in Johannesburg for many years, Alfred became a self-employed builder in Soweto. ‘But the job was not good because we had so little money then and the houses I built were all very cheap.’ ‘When I look at the people working now, I wish I was young today.

I would make a lot of money, but the people today are lazy. I can see some people have got a lot of money. We couldn't get money from the banks. If I was young...' he laughs. 'But I am not a lazy man, I still do some small jobs, but now I am retired.' 'People can get more money today than before because many can improve their houses a little bit. But Soweto, it is not right yet.

There are not enough houses and the people must stay in those tin houses. Also, employment is worse than before. The people suffer without jobs and they lose their jobs. There is more chance to be self-employed now in Soweto.

Some youngsters want to go to school but tsotsis give them a tough time — since 1976 things are not the same. We can say the future it is good and it's not good. We want clothes, we want to bring up children and all that. Some people have no chance to work but they have many children. It brings them down!'

Fast Life

Giga, Sydney, Amos and Thabo are four young friends who have grown up in post-1976 Soweto. Amos was in standard four at that time, and he left school during the riots. 'I think it is a bad thing that so many people left school after '76, but it was the government, you know. There is no future, things will just carry on the same.

So I just like to enjoy myself, I like to party, and I go to clubs. I also like sports, but I can't afford to pay for a gym. Anyway, all these places are in town (Johannesburg). If a guy wants to play soccer he has to play in the street.' Like most young Sowetans, Amos likes pop music: 'I like Whitney Houston, ('Everyone likes Whitney Houston's body,' somebody quips), Teddy Pendergrass, Rick Astley, Billy Ocean, and Lionel Richie of course.' Giga is a more studious, more serious fellow.

He goes to the local technical college, on Saturdays he visits friends, on Sundays, he goes to church and then studies. 'I don't like Soweto, life is fast and the people are dying, it is a violent place. There are no places for the handicapped, or enough sports facilities. The youngsters hang around and they don't want to go to school.

They end up being tsotsis, doing nothing, stealing a car or two.' Sydney reckons that he had his best days at school. Now he is a lithographic apprentice. He has a part-time job as a hairstylist — he'll give you a 'German' like Carl Lewis, or a 'cameo' like Lionel Richie, but Michael Jackson-style 'blowups' are out. 'Almost everyone I know who has a full-time job is doing something part-time,' he says. 'It's hand to mouth.' He has now applied to the University of Chicago and is waiting to hear from the United Nations about a bursary application. On the weekends he visits friends because one is never safe going out at night to the clubs.

'I never travel on foot, but even by car, it is not too safe. You come to a stop and you see some people there, you must lock your doors to make sure. Life is too fast here in Soweto. Most of the people are unemployed. That is why this place is so violent.'

Dangers of the Township

Unlike their elders, young Sowetans are all outspoken and self-assured. Thabo was educated in private multiracial schools and hopes to be heading for UCLA film school soon, or Princeton. He talks about the new upmarket suburb of Diepkloof: 'It's the first area you see when you come into Soweto, but this has been planned to bluff whoever comes here.

It is easy to bluff people; President Botha has been babbling on about change, but we know he is really doing nothing. First, we need a proper education system. Anytime during the night, you can find a cop just knocking into your house giving you trouble, we don't call that change.

The '76 unrest period is one of the things that pushed this change through that you can see; before that, you couldn't find someone staying in a nice house in Diepkloof. It all depends on what the people inside Soweto do.' While the four guys are jazzing around, listening to music on Saturday afternoon, a group of girlfriends pops in to visit.

One of them is Matsepho, a commerce student at correspondence university who did her schooling in Lesotho. She feels strongly about the rising number of unwanted teenage pregnancies in Soweto. 'We have to organize clubs for women and go around schools talking about family planning.

There is a lack of things to do here, there are no facilities.' After the mountain splendours of Lesotho, she finds Soweto a dangerous place to be. 'These comrades are mostly uneducated kids who don't know anything about politics. They can condemn me for something and then they will burn me. Because of this I just stay at home most of the time, but you can't live in your house all your life. Even though there are nice places to go to, it is dangerous to go out.'

By David Bristow