The city of Soweto is closely linked to the recent history of South Africa and for several decades has been the symbol of the struggle against apartheid and resilience; today it is one of the most known townships and visited by travelers but not everyone knows its history.
The birth of Soweto
The township of Soweto arose when gold was discovered in the Johannesburg area and the first mines were opened to extract it; during that time many people, mostly blacks and Indians, moved to this area to seek employment as miners.
The miners initially settled in the Brickfields area but later, in 1904, under the pretext of containing a plague epidemic, all blacks and Indians living in Brickfields were moved to Klipspruit, outside the Johannesburg municipal boundary; this moment marks the birth of Soweto and, according to some, represents the first act of racial segregation.
In the following years, following a steady influx of people looking for a job, Soweto has grown; a series of neighborhoods have been created, such as Orlando.
After the Second World War, large numbers of people, mostly blacks, flocked to the suburban area of Johannesburg; many moved in the hope of finding work in the factories that had sprung up in the meantime, many others were deprived of their lands as a result of the new rural laws and then moved in search of a place and a way to survive.
In this period Soweto, like the other suburban areas, began to grow dramatically and the houses of sheet metal, cardboard and wood began to appear; the term township actually identified only the part of Soweto with the slums.
Soweto during the apartheid period
In 1948, the National Party took over and, at the same time, the racial laws of apartheid were created; this led to an exponential growth of the townships, also as a consequence of the forced evictions of some residential areas.
The areas set up to accommodate the blacks who poured into the townships were inadequate and insufficient; in several places the settlements grew immeasurably and uncontrollably.
Subsequently, in 1956, again following the segregation laws and as an advance of the institution of homelands and stans, some townships were defined distinct by ethnic groups and by tribe, for example the Sotho, the Xhosa, the Venda, the Zulu, the Tswana, etc.
It was in these years that Soweto began to be called Soweto that means "South West Township"
The 1976 clashes in Soweto
In 1976, the South African government decided that Afrikaans should be adopted as the only language in all schools of all levels, rather than English; Afrikaans was the language spoken by the European settlers identified with the term Boer, a language similar to old Dutch, with German and English influences.
This decision was not well received especially by the black community as it was interpreted as yet another gesture of oppression against them who did not speak Afrikaans but English and tribal languages.
The South African Student Movement organized several demonstrations in the country and on June 16, 1976 in the Orlando West neighborhood many students invaded the streets to protest peacefully to make their voices heard.
An estimated 10,000 teenage students attended the event.
Although the white South African government subsequently denied and apologized, the testimonies that were collected show that the police first attacked the procession of boys, starting to throw tear gas and then shooting at eye level.
The boys responded by throwing stones and in response the police fired again, many young people died and the clashes and violent repression by the police continued for about ten days; the boys built barricades to protect themselves from police attacks and destroyed everything that belonged to the municipal authority.
These gestures created a rift between the youngster and the elderly, the latter were convinced that the boycotts were irresponsible gestures that would not lead to any results while the young accused the elderly of accepting too passively the oppression of the government; this was a historical rift in a society where respect for the elderly has always been a priority.
The rebellion also spread to other townships in the country while all the schools in Soweto were closed indefinitely and only reopened in 1978; but many students had already abandoned the idea of receiving an education, some emigrated abroad to join factions of the ANC and the PAC, others joined street committees to maintain order in the communities.
These episodes of violence will later be remembered as the Soweto Clashes.
Several hundred people were killed in the Soweto clashes and almost all of them were students, that is why June 16, the day the uprising began, is now National Youth Day in South Africa.
The Soweto massacre, for the first time, had a strong echo not only in the country but also internationally and this also thanks to the photo taken by Sam Nzima that portrayed the young Mbuyiswa holding the lifeless body of Hector Pieterson in his arms while Antoinette , Hector's sister, screamed for help.
Unfortunately Hector died that day at just 16 years old but the photo of Sam Nzima went around the world who, for the first time, was shaken and became aware of what was happening in South Africa, the horror of apartheid and the harshness of the National Party regime.
While in South Africa many activists left the country and some anti-segregationist movements took the path of armed struggle; on the other hand, at international level, numerous institutions, including the UN, imposed heavy economic sanctions on South Africa.
The protests of the 1980s in Soweto
During the 1980s the population of Soweto protested several times against the apartheid regime and with different forms of protest: school and economic boycotts became more and more frequent and neighborhood committees were established who began to carry out an activity parallel to that of institutions.
In 1985, the ANC, African National Congress, clamored to South African citizens to make the country ungovernable; this claim increased protests and sabotages.
In response, the South African government banned blacks from any form of assembly or gathering, a gathering was considered to be a group of three or more people; in this way the government believed it could break ties and prevent the organization of protests.
It was at this time that the predominantly Catholic churches became the places where secret assemblies were held.
One of the churches known for hosting these clandestine meetings is Regina Mundi Church, the largest Catholic church in South Africa that can accommodate up to 2000 people.
Regina Mundi, that is located right in Soweto in the Orlando East neighborhood, was the scene of a tragedy: the police entered shooting at eye level when they realized that the church was used for assemblies.
In the mid-1980s, the apartheid regime, attacked from within the country and crushed by international public opinion, showed the first signs of abating that led to the release of Nelson Mandela from prison in 1990; this was the first step that led the country towards the end of apartheid and towards democracy.
Soweto after apartheid
Administratively, Soweto was incorporated in the city of Johannesburg in 2002.
The social fabric of Soweto is the most varied one can imagine: within it coexist residential neighborhoods where the middle class lives and slums where the poorest and immigrants take refuge; the South-Western part of Soweto is on average richer and there is no shortage of luxurious villas of music or movie stars who, despite everything, have never left Soweto.
The past of Soweto, during the apartheid period, in which economic development was almost nil, has weighed heavily on the economic recovery even if now there are signs that bode well.
Three social classes now coexist in Soweto: a high social level that corresponds to a middle bourgeoisie, a middle level and a low level; besides these there is another social class that corresponds to those who live in a situation of poverty in the tin shacks.
Soweto is trying to improve and there are timid signs of an economic recovery: several entrepreneurial activities have sprung up, the roads are now in good condition and there are investments to build both public and private infrastructures, but sometimes the works are progressing slowly.
Much still needs to be done, especially by the government, who has promised a home to all those who live in irregular settlements, or slums, but one step at a time, work continues here too.
Another problem that afflicts Soweto, as well as other townships in South Africa, is the high crime rate, the free movement of weapons and the presence of gangs, all the effects of a social unrest that is still sadly present and hopefully will be defeated in the future.
The economic development of Soweto from apartheid to the present days
From the second post-war period until the end of the 1980s, that is, throughout the period in which the apartheid regime remained in force, Soweto's economic development was practically nil.
Soweto was born as a dormitory area for those who worked in the mines first and then in the factories, but the infrastructure was never developed: dirt roads, lack of electricity and running water, precarious sewage system and more have certainly not contributed positively to the social and economic development.
The various laws that were passed by the government to limit and segregate non-whites more and more have had a deleterious effect on the population and have discouraged any private initiative.
The Native Consolidation Act wanted by the National Party in 1957 set heavy limits for the inhabitants of Soweto who practically became unable to start commercial enterprises.
Only seven types of shops were allowed and the number of shops was strictly controlled and this led to the birth of clandestine activities and the black market of some products.
In 1976 at Soweto there were only two hotels and two cinemas and the infrastructures were lacking, only 20% of the houses had electricity, hygiene was non-existent and in the houses and shacks the fire was used for cooking and heating, with a high risk of fires difficult to control.
Fortunately, restrictions on entrepreneurial activities were relaxed in 1977 and the collective taxi business exploded at Soweto and soon replaced a system of public transport that was practically non-existent at that time.
After the collapse of the apartheid regime and after Nelson Mandela became the first black president in the history of South Africa, poverty was still widespread at Soweto, the unemployment rate exceeded 50% and those who had jobs received a salary that was equal to one sixth of Johannesburg's white inhabitants; in many areas, such as in Klipspruit, there were still many shacks and the poorest could not afford to pay for electricity.
In recent years there have been weak signs of recovery, many Soweto residents have opened businesses, hotels and shopping centers have also opened.
In addition, Soweto is home to interesting museums, such as the Hector Pieterson Museum and Mandela's house, and has become an important cultural center; these aspects mean that many tourists decide to visit it and this only increases the possibility of its inhabitants to undertake new activities such as restaurants, souvenir shops, local guides and more.
There is still a long way to go, but it can be said that Soweto and its inhabitants are on the right track.