DAY 4: Soweto


I cannot remember the last time I was in Alexandra Township. The one thing I remember is that I was showing someone how people within a stone throw’s view of leafy enclaves of Sandton, live in wretched conditions in shacks and dilapidated industrial buildings. Today, it was one of those days.  This past week I had the opportunity to visit Constitutional Hill, Apartheid Museum, Voortrekker Monument, Freedom Park, Soweto and Lillies’ Leaf Museum.  All these historical sights had a remarkable collection of memories of the apartheid history with many pictures and facts displayed through photos, text and videos.

The rich history of activism and the pursuit for dignity was echoed in various narrations throughout the week. The sad and harsh realities permeated my mind on each visit as if it happened yesterday. I guess the fundamental and essential part of such narratives is to ascertain that visitors understand and appreciate the magnitude of the previous circumstances that shaped the prevailing socio milieu, conditions and dynamics. I kept on asking myself, had I been a white South African at the height of apartheid I don’t know if I would have had the moral fortitude to stand up against the National Party government. It is hard to go against the powers that be when defiance means prison or torture. Perhaps I would have condemned it in the comfort and privacy of my mind.

However, one thing I noticed is the way this extraordinary story is told. The fact that it is named “the struggle” is reflected on how these acts of bravery are translated into victimhood and martyrdom. A sad picture is painted over and over again with the same story being repeated in every memorial site. Much as we should acknowledge the magnitude of atrocities as a result of the liberation struggle, and the negative impact that can have on a society, the story could be told as an inspiration. Much focus should be on how these individuals stood up in a time when everything was “against” them and make their mark on the world. They did so against great odds, they knuckled down, and did what they could with what they had available at the time.

Lilieslief Museum on the other hand, encapsulates reasons behind the aspirations of a one nation. It has created a memorable account on the events that led to the Rivonia Trial. Despite Nelson Mandela being the important figure in most of the stories, the museum skillfully narrates the importance of others. Such acts of courage usually are an impetus towards responsible citizenry, distancing themselves from blaming and putting insurmountable pressure to the people they have placed into power. Narrating such positive stories despite the hardship experienced might inspire the youth to seek justice in transformational leadership initiatives with the aim of bringing about monumental changes. Now the problem is reversed. If I was a black South African at the height of democracy that promised equal opportunities for all, do I possess the moral fortitude to stand up against the African National Congress government on socio-economic dilemmas faced at Alexander Township.


Symbolism in a community is internal and subjective as well as assuming a public status enshrined in officialdom. The symbolic iconography I encounted celebrating and commemorating the significance of Soweto, it’s pivotal role in town uprisings through youth activism, particularly the fateful “Soweto uprising” of 16 June 1976, displays this odd relationship between representations of memory.

While visiting the schools involved in the Soweto uprising and the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum, I felt intrusive on a community, playing in the street, morning at a funeral, shopping at markets, while I took notes. It would be misguided to try to understand the profound meaning of the place by coming to analyze and take pictures. But I guess this is endorsed by the fact that these memorial sites are here for tourists, as are bike tours and bungy jumping between the smoke stacks which provided power to the white suburbs in the apartheid era. Here the public memory is formed.13-year-old Hector Pieterson, shot dead by the Special Branch police on 16 June with his final moments captured and used as evocative visual evidence of oppression internationally, is commemorated as a martyr representative of all who died “for freedom peace and democracy” (Hector Pieterson Memorial plaque). As time goes on, this mythicised memory is strengthened and distorted in political attempts at nation building and unity, whereas the private memories of the families for their children are obscured.

It is not that these figures should not be perceived as heroes for their sacrifices in the name of education, equality and dignity. I am just left contemplating whether visiting these places, talking to locals who participated in the movements of Soweto and observing people’s lives through a critical lens, conveys that the issues that Pieterson and his peers fought against have been left behind with the end of the apartheid.

In studying the modern history of South Africa, perhaps the only thing that is becoming clearer for me is that the end of the apartheid regime was a political transformation. A new nation did not emerge ‘Phoenix-like from the ashes of the apartheid’ (Coombes, 2003). With continuing inequality and  widespread poverty in South Africa today, it is important to acknowledge that many of the social aspects of the apartheid era remain. The significance of the loss of life in the commitment to social change is not to be observed as history by tourists and academics, but as a reminder of the change yet to occur.


There are few places in the world like Soweto. At least this is the conclusion that I came to, as the lights cut out in the theatre as the Sarafina performers skipped from the stage. It is laden with the weight of the past; indeed a proud consciousness of its history lives on in every inch of it. From the young guides who called it home, to the red brick path marking the course of the 1976 protesters even to the all too evident social dislocation visible on every street corner, the past is perhaps more real than the present. Yet to my eyes, Soweto is also brimming with a painful sense of the future. It is poised on the brink; it stands unshackled and free in name, but faces the task of pulling itself from the invisible grip of Apartheid that remains still. This became apparent to me as I spoke to one of our guides. For him, Apartheid hadn’t really ended. Many black South Africans were still relegated to the outskirts of Johannesburg, including Soweto. They face social problems of a scale that their white counterparts in Sandton or Melrose Arch could not fathom. According to our guide, drugs had taken over the Sowetan youth, and not many finished school; for them unemployment is a certain fare. All this is the same place that was the heart of the resistance in 1976. Yet the story of Soweto is not necessarily unique, it is in essence a microcosm of South Africa. The country has not been reconciled to its past – that much is clear to any outsider who probes deeply enough. There is no true acceptance by white South Africans of the origins of their relative privilege. Nor is there universal recognition amongst blacks of the complexities and moral ambiguities of their struggle for liberation. The day spent in Soweto brought this latter reality home to me.

 The dominant historical narrative of the 1976 protest, and of the Apartheid resistance more broadly, is that of an organized united movement of black freedom fighters, who fought justly, doing what was necessary to secure their righteous cause. The heroic oppressed striking back at their oppressors. It is often said that history is written by the victors, and South Africa is no exception to this. The Sarafina performance embodied this story. It clearly serves a political and social purpose. It not only legitimates the ANC government whose origins lie in the resistance struggle, but it also confers a sense of agency to the black majority, long denied it over the framing of their past – the most essential power in societal reconstruction. Yet whilst the official version is undoubtedly grounded in truth, it is unacceptably simplistic. It ignores the criminality of ANC members who violently coerced their fellow citizens into joining the resistance or who conducted savage reprisals against informers. The impunity enjoyed by Winnie Mandela demonstrates the injustice of the mainstream narrative. Yet it also fails to recognize the often accidental nature of the resistance. Hector Pieterson, was, according to his sister, little more than a curious bystander. Nevertheless he was appropriated as a symbol of the Sowetan uprising. The use of a 13 year old boy to further a political cause, however worthy, and the denial of his identity, seems undeniably exploitative. This fundamental unwillingness to face the past in all its ugliness has yet to be addressed. Perhaps the performance of Sarafina was a tentative first step in doing so; the portrayal of the protagonist by a white actor challenged the traditional dichotomy of black versus white. However, it is evident to me that South Africa’s task is twofold; to come to terms with all the competing voices of its history, and to tackle the present-day legacy of Apartheid. An easy statement to make, I know. From my limited experience of this country, it can be done. The visible pride, determination and strength of the South Africans in the Sowetan theatre as they sang their national anthem at the end of the performance leads me to believe this. In the words of Sarafina, “freedom is coming.” It’ll just take some work to get there. 


“Education is not preparation for life, education is life itself” – Dewey

 Nowhere has this quote been more evident to me than in the township of Soweto. The education of Sowetan young people has long been a defining feature of the township, especially during the apartheid era.

A visit to Naledi High School demonstrates the agency that education has long provided Sowetan youth. In a school with few resources, it is clear that the student involvement in apartheid resistance is a source of great pride, and a narrative that is instilled within students. The modest assembly space is named after Enos Ngutshane, the pupil who wrote a letter to then – Education Minister Botha protesting Afrikaans being imposed as the medium of instruction in schools. Eight days later, the June 16 youth uprising protesting the very same education reforms took place and included youth from different schools in Soweto.

The play Seraphina, although fictional, further demonstrates the empowerment an education can instil in young people. It demonstrates the confidence provided by an education and it illustrates the importance of critical thinking and questioning, both skills which are gained from education. For example, the students ask their teacher why their curriculum includes the recital of British literature that has no relevance to their lives. Furthermore, the teacher permits the students to write their own play centred around their idol Nelson Mandela, as opposed to putting on a pre-written play. Moreover, education provided Sowetan students with a platform to share their grievances about the political climate of apartheid. Seraphina and her peers are angered by the torture inflicted by white authorities on friends and loved ones, they also sing struggle songs during their breaks.

The Hector Pieterson memorial documents in detail the education policy during Apartheid and the active student resistance to this policy, although the focus the name of the memorial imposes upon visitors is misplaced, considering Hector Pieterson decided to join the student protest on a whim and had little knowledge of its aims. The memorial does however further demonstrate the importance of education during the apartheid era and the questioning it encouraged. One aspect of the memorial shows questioning of the apartheid policy in the form of the struggle song ‘what have we done?’ [to deserve such treatment]. The song was sung by students during the June 16 uprising.  A memorial with a more appropriate namesake is currently under construction directly opposite Morris Isaacson (MI) High School. It is based on the life of Sowetan student activist and former MI pupil Tsietsi Mashinini.  

The agency described above continues to be afforded to Sowetan students to this day. This is evidenced by the fact that where Australian schools would call pupils students, schools in South Africa call their students ‘learners’. Naledi’s principal also noted in a private conversation that he asks the learners to write and respect their own school rules. I believe that such extensive agency has been afforded to Sowetan youth because the community remembers the active role they played in resisting apartheid. In a society riddled with unemployment, lawlessness and a lack of role models, education is necessary now more than ever for the youth of Soweto.


Today was the first day I felt like I was in another country. The stark reality of the inequalities within South Africa became growingly evident as we drove to SOWETO for the day. For the first time this week something felt real, we were no longer protected by barbed wire fenced off museums or shopping arcades – we were hands on within a community and immersed in the narrative of a youth liberation struggle of the apartheid.

 The entire day spent in SOWETO was a demonstration and embodiment of the importance and power of the youth within the community, represented in both the past and present. From the June 16th 1976 SOWETO student uprising, protesting the governments policy of education in Afrikaans through to the memorialization of the apartheids student liberation struggle in the Hector Pieterson museum and in a more theatric way the adaptation of ‘Sarafina in Black and White’ preformed by an adolescent group at Jabulani Theatre.  It became obvious that in SOWETO it is the youth who are both responsible for the creation and remembrance of the rich and dark narratives of the nation encapsulated in a broader collective memory. However, many times throughout the day this collective memory felt forced and protected, as if it were designed only to ascribe a false remembrance to history in the creation of the cornerstone of a sympathetic national identity of victimhood.

 I felt uncomfortable with the way in which the 1976 SOWETO youth uprising was memorialized in the Hector Pieterson museum. The emphasis and memory pitted on the death of just one young boy who was portrayed as both the victim and martyr of the students struggle has created the memory of June 1976 being too exclusive and an example of the inaccurate representation of history. Little focus is given to the other student victims of June 16th, as the death and memory of Hector Pieterson dominates the narrative of the SOWETO uprising.  Though out the day I was conscious not to be distracted by the forced memorialization that is emulated in SOWETO. I fought with myself not to take away from the genuine political activism and courage of the entire youth body of 1976 that fought for liberation but are barely recognized in collective the national memory. The creation of this national collective memory remembered through the falsified narrative of Hector Pieterson has undermined the truth to the history of the SOWETO uprising of June 1976. Later that day, I found myself sitting awkwardly through the adaptation of ‘Sarafina in Black and White’ feeling as though it was a forced attempt of memorialization and reconciliation. By changing the lead character of ‘Sarafina’ to be played as a youthful white female it felt to me as though it was merely and extension of the Governments Affirmative Action policy. This was an unnecessary alteration in the memorialization of what was originally black youth liberation struggle.

 As Baines argues ‘the ANC government has sought to fashion a foundational narrative that can be embedded in a collective memory’ (Baines, pg.361, 2007). The day spent in SOWETO was confirmation of exactly that. SOWETO is an example of the creation of a national identity ascribed inaccurately to history and controlled and structured by the government to validate actions of the post apartheid order.


The drive out to Soweto offered a different view of South Africa than that we had previously been exposed to. Gone were the marble shopping malls playing host to international designers and gone were the securely gated communities with private bodies guards. The road to Soweto continued to show an inequality in wealth but this time rich meant being able to afford a brick house and not a tin shack. Colour still runs through the whole country and communities all along the freeway were painted in a rainbow of colours. In front of them the presence of fences continued, even to the poorest communities where it comprises of a piece of wire tied round some small logs that have been pushed into the dirt. Soweto’s population grew when black South Africans were pushed out of their neighborhoods as they were deemed to be too close to the white suburbs, many came from Sophiatown which was bulldozed after the forced removal of black residents. It became a hub for black culture and activism against the apartheid.

 The first of two schools we visited was called Naledi High School, which is where the student, Enos Ngutshane, wrote to the government declaring that the students would refuse to take classes in Afrikaans. This letter was one of the influential events that led to the 1976 student uprising, where thousands of students marched in reaction to the Bantu Education Act of 1953 and the changing of all curriculum to be taught in Afrikaans, the language of their oppressors.   The Bantu education system was the worst in South Africa and provided the basic skills to become laborers, making sure the black students would never rise above the white ones. The school’s motto “work, faith, reward” accurately describes the attitude towards the march. The next school, Morris Isaacson School, gave much the same heroic attributes to its students. A statue of Tsietsi Mashinini, who led the march, stands tall in the entrance of the school grounds. He made it clear that he was not anti-education just anti-Afrikaans.

 Just across the road from the school stands Memorial Acre, although the building itself is not yet complete, the memorial to all those students who marched on the 16th of June is. The tiled structure resembles a school bathroom where students can anonymously write about their anger or concerns. The structure demonstrates how the uprising was led but regular students that had had enough of being treated as second-class citizens. The writing read “whatever happens to me black people should believe what they want” another wrote “the black student in South Africa is being fed the type of education that will domesticate him to be a better tool for the white man…we don’t get much work on democracy”.

 The portrayal of the uprising is somewhat artificial though and I found contradictions in the different stories told. On Memorial Acre is says 7000 students protested but outside the Hector Pieterson museum it claims there were 15000 students involved. The way that the students were displayed in the museum as both victims and fierce opponents depending on what part of the story is being told evokes a sense of guilt amongst the tourists that visit the site. The differing accounts further blur the truth. The white Colonel Johannes Kleingeld recalls the students destroying property and endangering lives and claims that they instigated the violence by throwing stones. Though some stories from the black students say that a white policeman threw the first stone. Even with the re-writing of history and some unclear truths, the story of these students continues to inspire, as it was a monumental incident that supported the fight against the apartheid.