I first heard about Soweto (SOuth WEstern TOwnship) when I was at university and anti apartheid campaigners, New Internationalist, War on Want and Amnesty International we’re all busy raising my consciousness. There were big campaigns against Nestlé and Barclays Bank amongst others, all companies which were perceived as supporting Apartheid. Awareness was being raised wherever possible by all sorts of people – I remember one incident when War on Want society was “invaded” by the Marxist group when debating these very issues. What I couldn’t understand then, nor now, is why they were arguing so vociferously for the same points, it seemed to me. We were all on the same side.

Anyway, on Friday 9th February I was given the opportunity to go to Soweto itself. The driver who took us told us that he lives there with his wife and family. Bisu is a Zulu and came to Johannesburg, as so many, to find work. He is one of the lucky ones because he is educated and has a skill. But he told us that after work he has to drop off the car at the office in Jo’burg and then take a minibus to go back to Soweto. A two hour round journey. I asked him if he would ever have the opportunity to live in Jo’burg itself, now that Apartheid is officially over. Probably not, he said as it all boils down to money. Obviously , there are still major inequalities though living conditions in Soweto itself are slowly improving. He took us round the major tourist sites: the houses where Tutu and Mandela lived – in the same street now known as Laureates Walk – apparently the only street in the world in which lived two Nobel peace prize winners.

We saw Winnie Mandela’s house and the spot where 600 children were massacred by the police. a small plaque marks the spot.  too small in my opinion.

It was pouring with rain and the roads were flooded so we didn’t get out. But it was a very moving experience as Busi told us the history of this enormous township. He took us past the cemetery where the only two white people are buried. They had insisted on showing this loyalty when they were still working for the cause. I asked if any white people lived in Soweto. Straight answer. No. Four million black people had been forcibly relocated there in 1954 from Johannesburg. No room for anyone else. We were shown the areas which were still very poor – about 25% – houses with tin roofs and no running water. But the majority of the people now have electricity – solar power is the way forward – though plumbing and sewerage are still not good. There are schools and hospitals and a university- for teachers. There is an extreme shortage of teachers and doctors, but getting a teaching qualification is one way forward for many young Sowetans. There is no bar to becoming a doctor but the length of the training makes it a significant difficulty. But most people know all this.

What intrigued us as we were being driven about were Busi’s words, “So, you are Polish? A Polish president’s wife, the one who was killed in the plane crash, donated the stained glass for our cathedral. Would you like to see?”

Would we like to?.. of course we would. Not only was it a cathedral and I like churches, but the Polish connection said it all. It was still pouring with rain and the roads were a good few inches deep in water. We arrived in the cathedral yard and one of life’s small miracles. The sun came out and so did we.

We looked around us and there was this aircraft hangar type building. Brick built, lowish pitched roof – and can hold up to four thousand people. 1000 seated and 3000 standing.

We went inside and there were two amazingly moving stained glass windows. One indeed funded by Mrs Kwasniewska in 1998 and one by the Polish ex-combatants society of Africa. Both very different and both very beautiful. Then we were escorted round the cathedral by an extremely knowledgeable guide who explained the windows and then led us to an amazing black Madonna – one of the four major ones in the world (Montserrat, Częstochowa, Guadeloupe and Soweto). This one was a gift from the artist, and very symbolic.

To add to our pleasure there was also a small statue of Our Lady of Alparaiso in Brazil. Marta, our friend and companion on this trip, lived in Brazil for many years. So it was a beautiful congruence of nationalities and friendship.

The visit to Soweto, learning its history and seeing its character for myself has to be one of the most moving experiences. So much wrong has been done to so many people – when the cathedral guide showed us the broken altar rail which was descended upon by hundreds of students fleeing the police, when we went past the place where 600 children were massacred by the police, I was completely twisted inside.

I have been so fortunate all my life, just by an accident of birth. But I know empathy is not enough. What next?

2 comments on “Soweto

  1. So interesting, Basia! what a wonderful experience and beautifully written. Thank you and brought back good memories of my consciousness raising in Sheffield too

    Liked by 1 person

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