Soweto Rich Political History

Soweto’s rich political history has guaranteed it a place on the world map. Those who know very little else about South Africa are often familiar with the word “Soweto” and the township’s significance in the struggle against apartheid.

Since it came into being, Soweto was at the centre of campaigns to overthrow the apartheid state. The 1976 student uprising, also known as the Soweto Uprisings, began in Soweto and spread from there to the rest of the country. Other politically charged campaigns to have germinated in Soweto include the squatter movement of the 1940s and the defiance campaigns of the mid to late 1980s.

The area has also spawned many political, sporting and social luminaries, including Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu – two Nobel peace price laureates, who once lived in the now famous Vilakazi Street in Orlando West.

Other prominent figures to have come from Soweto include boxing legend, Baby Jake Matlala, singing diva Yvonne Chaka Chaka and soccer maestro Jomo Sono. Others include mathematician Prof Thamsanqa Kambule, medical doctor Nthato Motlana and prominent journalist Aggrey Klaaste.

The township has also produced the highest number of professional soccer teams in the country. Orlando Pirates, Kaizer Chiefs and Moroka Swallows all emerged from the township, and remain among the biggest soccer teams in the Premier Soccer League.

There are plenty of politically significant landmarks, including the houses of some world-famous anti-apartheid activists.

Just a few kilometres drive from Diepkloof is Orlando, home to Nelson Mandela’s first house, not surprisingly a popular tourist attraction. Mandela stayed here with his then wife, Winnie, before he was imprisoned in 1961 and jailed for 27 years.

The house is now a museum, run by Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, and contains memorabilia from the short time they lived there together before Mandela went into hiding. Mandela now lives in Houghton, a suburb several kilometres north of Johannesburg’s city centre, with his third wife, Graca, widow of the late Mozambican president Samora Machel.

One can also glimpse the high-security mansion belonging to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in an affluent part of Orlando West.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s house, the residence of ANC stalwarts Walter and Albertina Sisula, and the Hector Pieterson memorial museum are in the same neighbourhood. The recently renovated museum offers a detailed account of the events of 1976, including visuals and eye-witness accounts.

In Kliptown, you can visit Freedom Square, a place where the Freedom Charter was adopted as the guiding document of the Congress Alliance – a broad alliance of various political and cultural formations to map a way forward in the repressive climate of the 1950s. The charter was the guiding document of the African National Congress and envisaged an alternative non-racial dispensation in which “all shall be equal before the law.”

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Hector Pieterson, who was shot dead by police during the student uprisings which spread around the country and changed the course of history for South Africa, and the famous picture of his lifeless body being carried by mourning youths, have come to symbolise the 1976 Uprisings.