by Alisa Routh
SOWETO — Today at 6 a.m. the dynamic 21 woke up and piled into our custom Coca-Cola bus to explore township life outside Johannesburg. Nelson Mandela’s home, the Nelson Mandela Museum and Hector Pieterson Museum were all places on the list to stop and see. This may have seemed boring to some, but for me this is the part that I had been looking forward to!
As I mentioned earlier, I have been interested in the people of South Africa and their journey since I was in a play in high school about apartheid and the protests against Afrikaans. I have been waiting for my chance to go hear the students’ stories and taste their victory. So this feeling of curiosity has been in me way before we arrived in South Africa, before we got the itinerary and even before I was selected as a winner.
On our way to Soweto, the sprawling complex of townships on the southwestern edge of Johannesburg, we drove by Mandela’s house. It was in a relatively well-off area as expected, but what was not expected were the numerous barbed-wire fences, brick walls, surveillance cameras and security guards not just at his house but all around the neighborhood and many of the other upper-class areas. Apparently, there is a big crime issue in South Africa. After seeing all the poverty later, I think I understood why. People are trying to survive.
We also passed by Winnie Mandela’s house, on a hill called Hollywood. There were several big houses on the landscape but at the bottom were thousands of little shanties, dwellings made of scrap materials like aluminum, plastic, tires and cardboard. There is no electricity, telephone lines or sanitation. Her house and the glory of it was a stark contrast; houses that could hold over 20 people comfortably versus a house that could barely fit one.
These places were really smaller than some people’s bathrooms in America. Sad. Words cannot express how devastating it was to see. It made me wonder if I could ever live that way. Could I survive? I realized that I probably wouldn’t. Many people have lived their entire lives in places such as that. That is all they know and as of right now there are few ways out. While young kids in America complain about not having the newest pair of shoes to add to their collection, some of these kids only have one pair for their entire childhood.
Our stop at the Hector Pieterson Museum was very emotional. We walked around becoming immersed in what was South Africa only a generation ago. The museum told the story of the first boy killed during the 1976 Soweto uprising that protested a government policy to teach students their core subjects in Afrikaans. It also told the history of apartheid and the events that occurred after the global recognition of the events occurring there. Many of us left crying, angry and asking “why?”
A little farther down the street was the Nelson Mandela Museum. In actuality, it was his old house. It sat in the middle of the township similar to how Martin Luther King Jr.’s childhood home stands on Auburn Avenue in Atlanta. Distinctive. After we paid, a woman guided us around the property telling us the story of Mandela’s life. One part that stood out was his humble beginnings. Although he had a lot more than what many black South Africans have he did not live a luxurious beginning.
Today I had the opportunity to find out the truth and status of Johannesburg without gaining this information from the often distorted images of mainstream media. I learned that there aren’t a large number of middle-class people in South Africa. Many people here appear to be either stricken with poverty or blessed with wealth. Fighting for what you believe in no matter how long it takes really works! I’ve learned about the past, so now I am ready for battle.