Memories of Soweto

It is January 2000, first days of a new millennium. Almost 10 years since Nelson Mandela’s release from Victor Verster Prison, I am standing on the ‘free soil’ of Johannesburg’s Soweto Township. A vast sprawl of assorted dwellings fills the horizon, mixed with dust, flies and the hypnotising shimmer of the late morning sun. Three million (perhaps double) residents of this ecosystem of chaos and deprivation continue their daily struggle for existence. Life, in all its forms has found ways to flourish in the back-yard of Johannesburg’s privilege.

Soweto has been in the news for decades. Within this ANC strong-hold, crucible of the struggle against apartheid, I confess a degree of trepidation. There is a palpable sense of adventure. The pre-conceptions with which I arrive are soon challenged by the dignity, stoicism and optimism of those that I meet. Apartheid is gone, but fading too are the promises and anticipation of rapid social change. The adage “fortune favours the brave” seems cruelly ironic.

Weaving through tin huts, I bake in the heat of the South African summer. Children run in every direction, swirling dust covering their otherwise bare feet. Smartly attired ladies, sheltering like delicate southern belles beneath parasols, make their pilgrimage to church. For an instant I am transported to the Southern States. Historic parallels of segregation and dignity in the face of oppression are striking.

My retrospective thoughts are interrupted by a malodourous stench. Sanitation is not Soweto’s strong-suit.

I move away, into the township’s heart of corrugated tin. A one-room, multiple occupancy dwelling provides temporary relief from the unforgiving sun. A mother and daughter hold court. The girl is underfed. I estimate her age at 12 or 13, it transpires that she is 18. School books defy physical laws, perching precariously on a rickety shelf. It might be that the shelf is holding up the house.

A pristine school uniform drapes over a solitary chair. Learning is second only to survival, and learning is survival. The girl says she would like to become a doctor. I express my admiration, but her chances are as meagre as the possessions in her tin-shack home.

I go on to Mandela’s modest former residence. The in-house guide beams as he recalls the early years of struggle. His sense of purpose seems lost. Today’s challenges are nation-building, reconciliation and economic development. He lives in a romanticised history, his memory is selective and his yearning for relevance burns through his cloudy bloodshot eyes.

Imagining the scent of fear, tear gas and gun-smoke I am standing at the memorial to Hector Pieterson. Today the children ran carefree through the shanty; in 1976 they were fervently pursued by the security forces. Pieterson was 13 when he was shot dead during protests. There is a semblance of peace. Memorials contrast reflectiveness with the lamentation of history’s deeds.

When leaders become statesmen, there is a prospect of moulding a shared future for separated peoples. De Clerk took risks, Mandela took risks, and the people together took risks.

Within months of my visit, the world’s eyes are on Camp David.

Clinton, Arafat and Barak seem tantalisingly close to an historic deal on the Middle East. Northern Ireland’s Good Friday peace accord provides an encouraging precedent.

With incalculable folly, Arafat squanders the opportunity of a generation. US President Bill Clinton later says:

I regret that in 2000 Arafat missed the opportunity to bring that nation into being and pray for the day when the dreams of the Palestinian people for a state and a better life will be realised in a just and lasting peace.

Arafat had failed the test of statesmanship. He lacked the courage and vision of Mandela or De Clerk.

A scurrilous campaign of de-legislation rages in the present day. A significant low point is the deeply offensive conflation of apartheid South Africa and Israeli defensive actions and security measures. False comparisons attempt to vilify Israel and dishonour the true and hard earned victory over apartheid. As one who has stood in the heart of Soweto, Jerusalem and settlements in Judea and Samaria I decry this libel.

The 1948 Declaration of Independence states that:

THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the In-gathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

This is no mandate for apartheid.

The blades of libel and falsehood whilst sharp will lie blunted and broken at the feet of truth.

About the Author
Steve Nimmons is a technology entrepreneur and writer with interests in Innovation and Digital Transformation in Defence, Security and Policing.