Kliptown, Soweto – the Lost Generation

The structures you can see in the left of the picture above are not outhouses or sheds, these are the houses of Kliptown, tiny shacks constructed of corrugated iron and bits of fibreboard and any other materials they can get their hands on. There is no (legal) power, and a communal water supply tap in the street is shared by a few hundred households. They fill up buckets to carry back to their houses, or bring their washing down to the tap and wash it there in the middle of the street. When I say ‘street’, I mean ‘dirt track’. But it doesn’t matter as no one can afford a car around here. The government has recently provided modern portaloos, which the council come and empty out weekly, but the locals are not sure if this is an improvement, as they used to have a daily service to empty their previous outhouses. The houses provide no protection from the heat in summer or the cold in winter.

Kliptown is a Soweto township community without most of the basic needs such as schools, health clinics, electricity, or proper sanitation.  And thats just the infrastructure issues. There are apparently all sorts of complex reasons why these issues are so concentrated here. Then there are the people issues. There are approximately forty four thousand people living here.  This is not a new community full of recent immigrants, Kliptown has been here for decades and some families have been here for generations. Unemployment runs as high as 70%; teenage pregnancy about 60%; HIV/AIDS infection at 25%. The current young adults in Kliptown are often referred to (sometimes to their faces) by the government and the media as the ‘lost generation”, as their circumstances have not improved in the 19 years since the end of apartheid, and they will describe themselves as being without hope.

In spite of this, Kliptown is not without historical influence –  it was here in 1955 that an unprecedented Congress of the People was held, and the Freedom Charter was created, which set out the aims and aspirations of the opponents of apartheid. So it helped end apartheid, but is there any way to help Kliptown?

Against this bleak outlook, I was humbled to be able to visit KYP. The Kliptown Youth Program (KYP) is run by 16 volunteers from the local community, many of whom could be holding down “corporate jobs” elsewhere in the city but choose to stay and help their neighbourhood. Have a look at their website, they can explain what they do so much better than I can. But basically their mission is to give hope to the children of the area, focus on the next generation, and try to break the pattern of hopelessness. KYP feeds 350 children daily, for many it will be their only meal of the day. The program is not a school, the participants are all expected go to their normal schools (but there are no schools in Kliptown so they have to walk a considerable distance to get to school, if their parents can afford the cost to send them anyway). KYP supplements school with remedial training, and with extra pre-exam swotting, particularly for the older students getting ready to matriculate. They give extensive sports coaching, and dance training, along with classes on ethics and leadership. KYP have also been a recipient of the One Laptop Per Child program. For the last three years, 100% of their senior students have passed their matriculation exam, an amazing result in any environment.

For me, travel is usually all about fun and excitement and all things interesting, immersing myself into an exploration of culture and scenery and food and markets, relaxation and adventure. Occasionally it throws up something very different to that, and this is one of them. A small amount of money goes a long way here – there’s no charity bureaucracy, no highly paid foreigners driving brand new jeeps and filing project reports and expense accounts. All funds donated to KYP are used very directly and practically on their programs, so if you feel like doing something good for a tiny corner of the world this week, go have a look at their website and donate if you can.  Thank you.

Sleeping in Soweto

Here’s an idea! I have to stop overnight in Johannesburg, South Africa between flights – yes, the city with a scary violence reputation. So what do I do? Bypass Johannesburg and stay for two nights in Soweto of course. That’s right, in the infamous “townships”.

Stay in a Soweto B&B.

Now this might seem counter-intuitive, but Soweto has a well established network of B&B’s, especially in Orlando West, and they are, well, as safe as houses! And not surrounded by barbed wire fences and security guards. In a place where I can walk down the street to the local pub and wander back again later that night, and feel perfectly safe. And my B&B booking also happily arranges my transfers to/from the airport, only 40 minutes away. Now this definitely doesn’t apply to all parts of the townships, but in this area of Orlando West, the community has been determined to create a safe environment for themselves and for visitors, and they have succeeded.

Orlando West appears to be one of the “up & coming” neighbourhoods in Soweto. The houses are nearly all original “matchbox” houses, so called because they were, literally, a small box. But many have also been renovated, extended, or even replaced. And some have built a row of B&B rooms on the spare land at the back of their section, and created a thriving business. I am staying at Linle’s B&B, and I am accommodated in a near new, very comfortable room with a good ensuite. And they feed me a breakfast of fruit, yoghurt, cereals, juice and a huge fry-up that would rival any of the best B&B’s in the UK. The family are so welcoming and friendly, I can’t recommend them highly enough.

Soweto, Vilakazi St.

Linle’s is just around the corner from Vilakazi Street, the “tourist street” of Soweto, as this is the only street in the world which has housed two Nobel Peace Prize winners.
Bishop Desmond Tutu still has a house there, and the Mandela House is now a museum. This is the house Mandela lived in before the final incarceration and immediately after his release. Vilakazi St also has the well known restaurant & bar, Sakhumzi’s, a very pleasant place to wind down on a Sunday evening, under the umbrellas with a cold beer. Given it’s location I expect it might be full of white tourists and therefore lacking any local atmosphere, but I am pleasantly surprised – there are plenty of tourists, but on this evening I am the only white one. Most are South African tourists from other cities, or visitors from other African nations. And there is a fair smattering of locals too. I am befriended by a group of three friends visiting from CapeTown for the weekend, and two locals who have grown up in Soweto but now live in other suburbs, and we drink too much super dry cider.

Soweto Tours and Attractions.

]During the day I take a tour of Soweto in the morning and then spend the afternoon in the new Apartheid Museum which sits between Soweto and Johannesburg. The tour covers a lot of ground, including a few World Cup football stadiums, and the Twin Towers, the stacks next to an old decommisioned power station, painted in beautifully colourful murals. It also covers a fair range of emotional ground, particularly for those of us old enough to have been aware of or involved in the anti-apartheid movement from far away in our own countries.

I start to get an idea of how diverse Soweto has become. Here is a suburb nicknamed” Hollywood” where there is no sign of the original matchbox houses, and the architecturally designed mansions would not look out of place in any major city around the the world. Just across the stream from here is a much poorer area, where the government is currently rehousing the residents into new, better, bigger homes. But as people move into their new homes, the old shacks, earmarked to be demolished, are immediately filling up, illegally, by new immigrants from other parts of Africa. Its an ongoing problem as the influx of people from rural areas as well as from other countries has increased dramatically in recent years.

Soweto Neighbourhoods.

We stop at a local market (fruit and veges, electronics, clothes, even a “witch doctor” table of herbs and medicines), and also visit a local resident in an original and well maintained “matchbox” house – it’s humbling to realise his ‘two room with outdoor toilet’ is smaller than my bedroom and he has raised an entire extended family in here. It does however now have clean running water, (legal) power supply and a flushing loo, so can be considered “middle class” for the area. Then the owner points out that the walls and ceiling are asbestos, which is why all the householders keep them heavily painted, to seal them and try to prevent any asbestos escaping into the air! (at this point I have to confess I stop breathing and try to hold my breath until we leave – I fail!)

It is a very different story as we go into Kliptown, one of the oldest and most deprived areas of the townships. It’s an area which seems to have gotten no benefit from the end of apartheid, a true slum, a place easy to put into the “too hard” basket. See here for the separate post I have done on Kliptown (coming soon).

Soweto – History of Apartheid.

Our final stops are a roll call of the anti-apartheid movement – Vilakazi St with Bishop Tutu and the Mandela House museum, and just a couple of blocks away the Hector Pieterson square, memorial, and museum.
These commemorate the 68+ school children – school kids! – shot dead while protesting over a new rule that required them to take their lessons in Afrikans, back in 1976, an event that captured the attention of the world and was instrumental is creating worldwide public awareness of apartheid. I’ll warn you, this is a museum that is going to make you want to cry, as it has extensive tv footage, witness accounts & photographs from the time that bring the events all too well to life, and immerse you in it. This is officially the end of our tour, and most of us get dropped off at the Apartheid museum to browse by ourselves for the afternoon. I am very impressed with the museum, it is a world class, informative, interactive, multimedia museum covering much of history of South Africa, not just the apartheid years. It needs a good two or three hours to do the museum justice and I am glad there is a lovely garden cafe attached for a bit of sustenance.

So go to Soweto and stay in the middle of some incredible recent history, it is an amazing, stimulating, positive experience – I promise you!