Soweto lies 15 kilometers southwest of Johannesburg. By car, it is most easily reached from the M1 highway, which loops around the edges of Johannesburg’s central business district, past Braamfontein, over numerous office buildings, past train tracks, and across many city streets. The red roofs of the old market buildings and the gold cupolas of the Oriental Plaza can be seen in the distance, and the area of Pageview (which used to be the traditional Indian area of the city) can also be seen within the distance. On the other side of the highway a few miles west, lie the remnants of mines and the industrial and manufacturing center of the city, another shopping center or two, and then a sign that forewarns the ending of the highway. The paved road seems to suddenly lose definition and widens into a filthy and pot-hole filled path of bustling streets, taxis, and busy informal markets. Here, lies the sign that reads “Soweto”. (See image below)
Soweto is one of many sprawling urban townships encircling Johannesburg, and is a common picture on the South African landscape. Soweto is a child of the apartheid policies in South Africa. Apartheid is an Afrikaans word meaning “separateness”. It was a legal system whereby people were classified into racial groups – White, Black, Indian and Coloured (mixed race); and were then forced to live in separate geographic areas that were demarcated for each racial group. Apartheid laws were part of South Africa’s legal framework from 1948 to 1994. However, it is important to note that racial segregation was practiced from the earliest days of White settlement in the African Cape, it was not until1948 that apartheid formalized, codified and strictly enforced the separation of races.
The sign at the entrance to Soweto once declared, “Private Road, Non-Bantu entering this area must have a permit” (This sign, and others like it, are preserved and displayed in the Apartheid Museum, on the outskirts of Soweto to this day) . This is ironic to say the least, however it was once true that Whites needed permission to enter Soweto, the township itself was designed to keep the black population out of the “white “ city, except of course when they were needed for work. In fact, it was actually such “Bantu- speaking” people that were required to carry a permit with them on all occasions as evidence of their legal status permitting them to reside in Soweto and move beyond its boundaries into the commercial, industrial, and residential areas of Johannesburg. These permits, also commonly referred to as “pass-books” listed a person’s registration for work, home registration, and a visitor’s permit for relatives and friends who were also often living in the house. Nighttime raids for “illegals’’ by the police were a part of life in Soweto, and other townships like it (including Alexandra, which is located on the Northern side of Johannesburg).
Segregation was forced upon many groups of people in South Africa. Not only were blacks segregated, all people of color were forced into their own living areas (albeit, most Coloureds and Indians were better off economically, and were not subjected to indignities such as the pass laws as the Blacks were.)The South African population was classified into four groups: Black, White, Indian, and Coloured, under the Population Registration Act. The Coloured group included people regarded as being of mixed race, including people of Bantu, European, and Malay ancestry (Malay people were typically bought to South Africa as slaves by the Dutch East India company). Many were descended from people brought to South Africa from other parts of the world, such as India, China, and the Philippines, as slaves and indentured servants. Discriminated against by apartheid, Coloureds as well as blacks were subjects of state policy forced to live in separate townships under laws such as theNatives Settlement Act and Group Areas Act. In some cases people had to leave the homes that their families had occupied for generations. They also received an inferior education (Blacks receiving more inferior education than Coloureds).
The original settlement of Soweto (an acronym for SOuth WEstern TOwnship) was driven by the increasing eviction of Africans by city and state authorities. Africans that were drawn to work on the gold mines that were established after 1889 were accommodated in separate areas on the outskirts of Johannesburg, such as Brickfields. Segregation in South Africa was not a new phenomenon at the beginning of apartheid. In 1904 British-controlled city authorities removed African and Indian residents of Brickfields to an “evacuation camp” at Klipspruit, a separate township outside the Johannesburg boundaries. Two further townships were laid out to the east and the west of Johannesburg in 1918. Townships to the south west of Johannesburg followed, which eventually became the collective township of Soweto. (More information can be found here)
The government also set up a series of ten “Bantustans” or homelands, for the purpose of concentrating members of designated ethnic groups (about seven percent of South Africa had already been set aside for rural blacks under the Natives Land Act of 1913.) Each homeland, in theory, would be the basis for creating “autonomous” nation states for South Africa’s different black ethnic groups. Under apartheid, about thirteen per cent of the land was reserved for black homelands, a relatively small amount compared to the total population. The Apartheid homeland system was based on recommendations by the all-white Tomlinson Commission, appointed by the government in 1954. The commission also proposed that additional land ought to be given to the homelands, a recommendation which was never put into practice. Under this system, blacks would no longer be able to declare citizenship to South Africa; they would instead become citizens of their independent homelands, who merely worked in South Africa as foreign migrant laborers on temporary work permits. The homelands system was not abolished until 1994 with the demise of the apartheid regime their territory was reincorporated into the Republic of South Africa.
However, while the independent homelands may no longer exist, many of the townships outside South African cities, such as Johannesburg, still exist – in practice if not by law -today. The layout and location of such townships are by no means accidental, and reflect the ideology and basic principles of the apartheid era. Townships are completely and strategically placed far from any wealthy white areas of the city, and typically are located in areas where wealthy people would never wish to live. (See Diagram) As this diagram shows, the white population is typically settled on more arable land furthest away from the industrial and inner city areas, and are normally separated by some sort of physical barrier (or buffer zone) from poorer areas of the city. (See Google Earth Photo) Coloured and Indian neighborhoods are usually less separated from the city than those of blacks. This is shown here by separation from the Central Business District (CBD) by buffer strips (typically open land, or highways). However black neighborhoods are located quite far from the CBD or any white area. Black townships are located near industrial areas, across railroads, or in the case of Soweto- near the grounds of a nuclear waste facility, and the Orlando cooling towers (See photo below).
In 1994, under President Nelson Mandela’s guidance South Africa began the post-apartheid period as a country beguiled by its own miraculous stepping back from the brink of a race war. It began to refer to itself as the “rainbow nation” (As seen in Cape Town artwork in image) in hopes of a new spirit of acceptance. Johannesburg would have to live up to its new motto: “World Class African City”, and South Africa was to be the engine behind an African renaissance, with Johannesburg as its hub. Today, over 10 years since the end of apartheid, Johannesburg is home to more than eight million people that enjoy a standard of living that towers above the African norms. However, Johannesburg and South Africa as a whole still endures one of the highest crime rates in the world (albeit it decreasing), mostly because of the extreme economic inequality that still exists there today.
Houses in white neighborhoods are lined with towering walls, gardens, and electrical fences. Some shopping malls are completely exclusive, and communities are guarded with numerous security guards. Driving through the city you can still see people living in conditions that echo old apartheid laws. While the Central Business District may be sprawling with new commerce and street side restaurants, other inner city areas are extremely over populated, and are lined with hostiles in extreme despair (such as Alexandra, another Johannesburg township). Coloured and Indian communities still exist to an extent on the outside of town with a bustling commercial life of their own, and then on the other side of the tracks, mines, and industrial plants lies communities such as Soweto. Soweto today is expansive; it is home to over one million people. Today, it is considered a lower-middle class community, however crime rates are extremely high and living conditions are still below par (See photo below). Many homes have improved since the apartheid era, but informal shacks are not hard to find. Many residents lease out their yards for those who wish to build informal shacks. The view in Soweto and other townships is horrific (especially to American bystanders, such as myself), however they are starting to become encouraging. South Africa has a long journey before it can declare
itself an equal nation; conditions are certainly improving one step at a time.
Author: Elizabeth Lewis
Please use hyperlinks throughout the text to find more information regarding the Apartheid, and many South African cities and townships.
I drew from many sources while writing this blog, they are listed below:
Johannesburg. (2010). In South African History Online. Available online at www.sahistory.org.za
Maylem, Paul. Explaining the Apartheid City: 20 years of South African Urban History. Journal of South African Studies, vol. 21. March 1995. Available online at: http://www.jstor.org/pss/2637329
Pohlandt- McCormick, Helena. Undated. “Soweto: History, Geography, Society”. Available online at: http://www.gutenberg-e.org/pohlandt-mccormick/pmh02w.html