July 23, 2011

We were greeted in Johannesburg by Thomas, our guide for the day. Since Joburg is the murder capital of the world and people have flame throwers installed under their cars to limit the chance of armed carjackings, we opted to hire a local guide to show us around. As it turns out, Johannesburg isn't nearly so dangerous as it is made out to be, and we felt perfectly safe while we were there. It was nevertheless important to have Thomas with us; as a black African with eight languages under his belt and many friends in the townships, he was able to give two white Westerners the tiniest glimpse of the South African township experience, for which I am eternally grateful.

We spent the fist half of the day in Soweto. Kliptown, Primville, Orlando... I had seen photos of shantytowns before, but witnessing them in person was an entirely different matter. I say "witnessing," as that's how it all felt... like I was not just looking at a shack or child or a woman... but instead at an event. Apartheid may officially be abolished, but the simple existence of the townships leads me to believe that this is a very long story, still unfolding and refolding and unfolding again.

We walked down dusty paths between shacks of corrugated tin, old billboards, and potato sacks. There were some concrete structures, but the majority of the homes were constructed in a way that suggested an extreme lack of resources and perhaps an original hope for impermanence. A gang of children was at our heels almost immediately, holding our hands and asking us to take pictures of them goofing around. They told us they wanted to be doctors and lawyers and policemen and asked if we could help them out. I didn't have money to give them, so I instead asked about the game they had been playing when we arrived. They immediately jumped from their litany of open-hearted and well-rehearsed soliciting to an enthusiastic description of the game, interrupting one another in their excitement to tell me the rules. They were happy and silly and smart, and my heart ached for them.

It is all so unfair and confusing.

We stopped for a beer at a shabeen, which is basically an open bar in the back of someone's home. The beer comes out of a waxed carton, and everyone drinks from the same bowl. It was warm and creamy and tasted like liquid bread. I felt out of place and self-conscious as the other inhabitants of the shabeen glanced our way. How do you glimpse another person's way of life without feeling like a voyeur? How can you attempt to step into someone's shoes when it is preposterously obvious to everyone else that the shoes don't fit?

After another drive past another squatter's encampment, we stopped at a small Soweto eatery called Wandie's for lunch. Over beans and various meats, we spoke with Thomas about what it was like to grow up in Soweto, about his family, about his tribe, about living through apartheid. If this isn't an education, I don't know what is.

We visited Regina Mundi after lunch, Soweto's largest Catholic Church. Their literature captures the church's history and it's general energy, so I'll just post a bit of it here:

"Not only has the vast church always been a spiritual haven for thousands of Sowetans... every day the church opens its doors to visitors keen to witness the scars it still bears from the Soweto uprisings, when police stormed through its doors, firing live ammunition at fleeing students. But both before and after the dramas of the Soweto uprisings, Regina Mundi has quietly offered its protection to those struggling for liberation. When political meetings were banned, people sought the safety of Regina Mundi to form their political strategies. What started out as 'church services' often ended up as political rallies.

"When protesting students were fired at by police on their way to Orlando Stadium on June 16 1976, and Hector Pieterson and many others were killed, the students fled for sanctuary to Regina Mundi. With buckets of water at the ready, they managed to douse the teargas canisters thrown into the church by police. But then police stormed the church, firing live ammunition. Although no one was killed, many were injured and the church's sacred symbols were damaged. The broken marble alter, the bullet holes in the ceilings and the damaged figure of Christ all bear testimony to the terrible lack of restraint shown by police that day.

"On 30 November 1997, former President Nelson Mandela paid tribute to the church during a ceremony marking its restoration. 'Regina Mundi served the greater Soweto community in times of need. It opened its doors to anti-apartheid activities when all other avenues were closed to the majority of oppressed It was this stance that earned Regina Mundi a reputation as one of Gauteng's greatest protest centres, a literal battlefield between forces of democracy and those who did not hesitate to violate a place of religion with teargas, dogs and guns. Regina Mundi became a world-wide symbol of the determination of our people to free themselves,' Mandela said.

"Fittingly, Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings were held in the church from 1995 to 1998, presided over by Archbishop Desmond Tutu."

From Regina Mundi, we visited the Hector Pieterson Museum, a small museum memorializing the young people killed in the '76 uprisings. When thousands of black schoolchildren took to the streets to protest the use of Afrikaans in their schools, the police opened fire on them, shooting many in the back as they tried to get away.

Why do things like this happen? Even more importantly, why do things like this continue to happen?

And then it was a visit to the Apartheid Museum, at which I could have spent hours and hours. There is much to write about the experience, it's late, so I must get to bed... We're staying at a hostel in a suburb north of Johannesburg, surrounded by large homes and swimming pools. The irony is not lost on me.