In search of the real Soweto - by bus
Soweto, South Africa
`I WOULD suggest,'' said our tour guide a bit anxiously, as we moved up Soweto's version of the Avenue of the Stars, ``that you do not take photographs of the Mandelas' home. There are policemen at the door.'' The advertisement in a tourist magazine had offered a look at ``the real Soweto - a truly balanced picture.'' Although the tour is run by the Soweto Municipal Council - a body rejected by many black activists as an appendage of apartheid - the 3-hour bus ride made good on that promise.
To the outside world, acquainted with South Africa's largest ``black township'' only through news headlines and clips of antigovernment violence, Soweto is a place where blacks seethe, fester in poverty, and battle with police. It is also where Winnie Mandela, wife of jailed African National Congress patriarch Nelson Mandela, lives.
Yet to move through the many neighborhoods - in the ninth month of a state-of-emergency that has sharply reduced black political violence - is to be reminded that Soweto is much more than this.
The name is an acronym for Southwest Townships. It is, in fact, a conglomeration of 26 separate black, mixed-race ``Colored,'' and Indian neighborhoods sprawled across 36 square miles of low, rolling terrain. Most of its 2.5 million people are black.
Many Soweto families own cars, our black guide said as we drove through one of the township's more affluent areas. The homes were rambling structures with neat gardens - places that could be plunked down easily in any middle-class American suburb. Three Soweto homes, the guide noted, have swimming pools in the backyard.
Most Soweto homes, he made clear, do not. He pointed out more typical single-story dwellings of red brick or concrete. They had between two and four small rooms, usually sheltering between five and 10 people.
Each house, noted the guide, has a freshwater tap. Virtually all, since 1982, have electricity. A small toilet stall stands outdoors, often sharing the rest of the plot with two or three tiny corrugated-iron structures. These typically house families unable to work their way up Soweto's 95,000-long waiting list for permanent housing.
``The average monthly income in Soweto is about 400 rand [$200] a month,'' said our guide. ``Our unemployment figure,'' he added, ``now stands at 52 percent.''
Each morning, he said, about 500,000 Sowetans board trains, buses, or one of some 4,000 privately run mini-bus ``taxis'' into Johannesburg, about 10 miles away. Some go to work, others go to search for work.
``I know that a lot of overseas people think that Soweto is a place where you find people throwing stones. Actually, Soweto is quite safe.... We haven't had [major political] violence since, I think, about last June'' - when the government announced the nationwide state of emergency. During the worst of the unrest before the emergency, the Soweto Council stopped these daily tours.
No one threw so much as a pebble at our busload of 16 tourists: German, Swiss, Israeli, American, British, and one Australian. Indeed, no one seemed to take much notice of our visit. Children waved and smiled as we passed. They sang songs when we visited an impeccably kept kindergarten run by the Soweto Council.
``You can take pictures of absolutely anything you like,'' the guide announced. ``Except for police or the military forces.''
Yet until the bus chugged its way uphill past Archbishop Desmond Tutu's home, near the tail end of the tour, only two off-duty policemen were seen, and no soldiers. The Mandela home, just up the street, was the exception. ``The young lady standing at the doorway is Zindzi, the Mandelas' daughter,'' the guide said.
Before it was clear why the police were there - perhaps fortunately so, since emergency restrictions bar reporting on security force actions - the bus moved on.
Prompted by an elderly American tourist's question, our guide ventured gingerly into politics as we moved away. The South African government, he suggested, should speed its program of race-policy reform. ``The trouble is that the people believe that the government, and the white people, are not doing enough.''
Young Sowetans in particular, he said, seemed to be looking to the East bloc for hope. ``They believe that we, as parents, went too far in adapting'' to apartheid. ``And they believe the West is not doing enough to help them.''
As we passed a magistrate's court, he noted: ``All the magistrates in Soweto are white. Not that we don't have the ability. But the law doesn't allow a black to practice as a magistrate in a white area - only in a Bantustan,'' a reference to South Africa's 10 black-tribal homelands.
Can whites live in Soweto, a German tourist asked.
``No,'' the guide replied. ``Because of the Group Areas Act,'' which segregates much of urban South Africa according to race. He said he hoped the government, which has hinted at more flexible application of the statute, would repeal it outright. ``Everybody here loathes `group areas.' A lot of people would like to move to other areas, and have the money to afford it. But because of the law they have to stay in Soweto.''
As the bus rolled past a high school, our guide noted that - in contrast to the boycott of recent years - black children were in school now. ``You note, that most of the windows at the school are smashed. This was done by the children, who were protesting Bantu education - an educational system for blacks that is very inferior.
``This,'' he said, ``is a bad way of registering dissatisfaction.''
When an American tourist mumbled, ``Mandela is a communist,'' our guide abruptly changed tone.
``Mandela is not a communist! I can swear to you he is not.''
Mandela, he said, is a hero to many in Soweto.
``A lot of people regard him this way. And a lot of people love Tutu - because these are the only people who are outspoken and register our dissatisfaction to the government.''
This report was written in conformity with South Africa's press restrictions.