Soweto is a giant township just outside of Joburg where all the non-whites had to live. It's a fairly calm place now, but there are still areas you don't really want to go unless you know what you're doing. I had actually never heard of the place before I headed off to see it, so I had no real preconceived notions. It was an enlightening visit. It was one place where I started to get a feel for how the Apartheid government worked and how they managed to keep power for so long. There were some surprises.
The first and most enlightening surprise was that there were different parts of Soweto for different classes of citizens, and they were (and still are) strictly segregated. I kind of pictured a sort of "All you non-whites go over here and live" sort of thing, but what I found was more insidious. The first part we drove through was an upper-middle-class black neighborhood. This was an area with reasonably nice houses, about equivalent to the suburbs in any of the white areas - not great but not bad. This went on for a few blocks, and then we crossed a magic line that was apparently in the middle of a designated street, and we were in a middle-class black neighborhood. The houses weren't bad, but they definitely took a step down in quality. The streets were narrower and of lower quality, the houses were more crowded and obviously more poorly constructed, and so forth. We crossed another magic line and arrived here:
We spent some time wandering around this neighborhood. As you can see, these aren't exactly ideal living conditions. I went into a few of the houses, and they don't look any better inside than they do outside. It's not at all uncommon for a family of four to eight to be living in a tin shack that's about 2-3 meters by 3-4 meters(6-9 feet by 9-12 feet)... or about the size of a bedroom in a typical American house. Insulation is unheard of, let alone air conditioning. Most don't have running water, sewers, electricity or any of the other niceties of life, and this is after the new government has been working hard for six years on upgrading these places.
I didn't see enough of this particular township to get a feel for the percentage of people living in these conditions. I would wild guess it at about half, but could be wildly wrong. Every city in South Africa has a township something like this outside of it. I rode by them or through them regularly. I would say that this particular area was the worst I saw. Most of the townships were a bit better than the worst of Soweto, but not quite as good as the "middle class" area in Soweto. There is another huge township called Cape Flats near Cape Town that's reputed to be even worse than this one, but through extreme laziness I never got up there.
After we'd been through this area for a while, we went off to see Desmond Tutu's house. As you can see, even among the blacks, if all were equal than some were more equal than others.
This experience got me thinking and reading a bit about how power is managed between groups of people. I won't pretend to really understand it, but I'm closer to understanding it than I was six months ago. It involves a lot of things, including the culture of the oppressed people, the strategy and tactics of the rulers, the reaction of the rest of the world and a lot of other things. Some of the pieces started coming together here, but I'm writing this page almost a year later (I got WAY behind in my writing), and I still don't have it all figured out.
One thing I've noticed in the history I've read, and the real-world effects on the ground I witnessed first hand here is the rule the British coined as Divide and Conquer. One of the ways that small and repressive minorities manage to keep power is to keep their opponents divided. The most "efficient" way to keep them divided is to keep them fighting each other, but that can be supplemented with other tactics. Getting one group to dehumanize another group is another tactic. Another old standby is the old carrot and the stick. In SA, the Apartheid Regime and the Colonial System that preceded it used all of these tricks. The big disparity between the classes within each of the non-white groups was deliberate. It's difficult for moderately rich and powerful blacks to get connected with poor ones, so the divide tends to keep them sniping at each other, and it makes the rich ones less likely to do something to upset their position. The Apartheid Regime would seemingly randomly reward one group and punish another group one day, and then reverse the groups later.
These and other methods are how the Colonial Powers managed to conquer countries of millions with only a few thousand troops. Sure, they had better weapons, better tactics, and other more advanced weapons of war; but the best tactic was to get some of your opponents fighting different groups of opponents. This is usually easier to accomplish than it sounds, and the same tactic is routinely used in more subtle ways even today; and even in such relatively enlightened places as the US. Saddam Hussein is a great example. During the Iran/Iraq war of the 1980s, the US carefully kept both sides armed well enough to insure they would keep fighting, but not well enough to score a decisive victory. In that particular war, that included giving or selling Hussein weapons while denying them to the Iranians, but helping the Iranians out covertly and indirectly with intelligence and other services. This was all in the interest of keeping a strong Middle Eastern country from emerging. OK, I'll get off my soapbox and back to SA now.
I wouldn't be a proper tourist if I didn't stop at a proper tourist spot. Here I am in front of the Mandela house. This is the house where Nelson and Winnie Mandela lived when they were young. They lived here when Nelson had first completed law school and set up as a lawyer, and stayed here for several years. As you can see, they were in a "middle class" neighborhood as I described them before. This house still has bullet holes in the walls from when people took pot-shots at it, and the guide explained where some reinforcements were added to try to armor plate the place a bit. It's by far the most important site in Soweto, and what most people came to see.
I had some photos from inside the house, but most were lost in the hard disk crash. About the only thing that survived the photo purge was this picture that was in the house. I have no idea what if anything it means, but I liked it anyway so I snapped away.
Another interesting from inside the house that I didn't get a photo of was a large picture of a handsome black man in his 20s or 30s that I couldn't quite place. It turned out to be Nelson from when he went into prison. He came out 30 some years later and stepped onto the world stage. I was shocked and saddened to see the difference. I'm always shocked to see the human potential that repressive regimes just throw away because they threaten the power structure. How many more brilliant and talented people have been wasted in this manner?
Nelson and Winnie Mandela are an interesting pair. I didn't know as much about them as I should have when I went here. The guide was very good and gave us a good tour and lecture. The couple then had a long and colorful career both together and separately. Unless you lived in a cave the last 20 years, you probably know that Nelson spent most of his adult life imprisoned on Robin Island for treason. He was involved with a group that was trying for political change through non-violent means. After one particularly nasty crackdown by the authorities, it briefly decided to use violence as a tool. They planned one attack that Mandela wasn't actually involved in (he was in Europe at the time), and the authorities discovered it before any action was taken. This gave them carte-blanche to go after everyone in the organization, and Mandela was convicted and sent to prison for treason, along with a bunch of other activists.
Winnie was left to carry on their fight from the outside. Winnie is still a very controversial figure. She has been accused of being complicit in abductions, torture and the like. That may or may not be true. If she did it was more in the context of a war than in the context of ordinary crime, but that still doesn't make it right. There have been a lot of accusations from time to time, but nobody has ever produced any real evidence that would stand up in court. The two were divorced some years ago, and Winnie is still involved in politics. Every time she comes up for reelection, the accusations come up again.
Nelson Mandela was instrumental in the negotiation between the various parties when Apartheid was dismantled. Oddly enough, he was the main negotiator and conciliator, precisely because he had been in prison for 30 years. At the time that F.W. de Clerk decided to dismantle apartheid, the black communities were deeply divided. There was what amounted to a mini civil war going on to establish the pecking order among the blacks and other groups. None of the active leaders that had been out all that time had enough of a following to claim a legitimate right to negotiate for all the parties. Mandela had been severed from the outside world, but had the stature, the intelligence, the negotiating skills, and the credentials to do so. Had he been on the outside, he would probably be too closely associated with one faction or another to be able to negotiate between all of them.
After the new constitution was enacted, Nelson served one term as president from 1994 to 2000, and then retired. He's still a well-respected international personality and he is spending his energy these days trying to end other Apartheid systems (such as that in Israel/Palestine), and engaging in other Human Rights activities.
About a days bus ride northeast of Joburg is Kruger National Park, which is the biggest wildlife preserve in the world. It's not there because the early settlers were closet environmentalists, or because they were thinking ahead to Western tourist dollars. In reality, it's a Tsetse fly area which makes it completely unsuitable for cattle or sheep, and the soil is very poor for farming. The only way to grow anything on it short of chemical based farming is slash and burn. It's still there basically because nobody wanted it.
I considered going up there while I was in Joburg but decided against it mainly on the grounds that SA is loaded with wildlife preserves and I was planning to ride right by several of them. It takes about 4 days to take a decent tour from Joburg to the park, most of which is spent on a bus. This was the first of a series of procrastinating moves that resulted in me not seeing any wildlife at all. Every time I came to another preserve, I had a choice of organizing a tour into the park (you can't just ride a bike into any park worth seeing), or just getting on the bike and riding. I chose the bike every time, and figured I'd see the next one. Basically, I want to Africa and didn't see a single large critter, or any critters at all except for a few monkeys. If you're a wildlife aficionado, don't bother writing to chastise me for it... that's already been taken care of. I am planning to hit Kenya and Tanzania on a later trip, and I promise faithfully I'll go see some critters there. I would quite like to see some big cats, and maybe some elephants in the wild; and I'd really like to see the migration on the Serengeti planes of Tanzania. I came to South Africa mainly to study people and culture.
Next - Swaziland Ho!