South Africa – Part 3: Soweto and the Apartheid Museum

One of the most interesting (and sad) aspects of the trip to South Africa was learning about Apartheid.  Although I knew a small part of the history, I didn’t feel well versed in my knowledge of the subject.  Therefore, I decided to gain some knowledge during my visit.


On the second day of the conference a few of us decided to skip the afternoon workshops (as we found they weren’t applicable to all of us, only a select group).  We went back to the hotel and right up to the front desk where we asked about a tour of Soweto, beginning immediately.  They told us there was a driver downstairs who could take us, so we met 15 minutes later in the lobby to go explore another part of the city.  Soweto stands for South Western Township and is technically a “suburb” of Johannesburg – still a part of the city, but housing over 5 million inhabitants.  The townships were created to separate the coloured people from the white people in the cities – which is pretty awful! – and Soweto is the biggest one.


It was astounding to see the discrepancy in wealth in just a tiny area.  For example, the rich area has a school, but all the rich kids go to boarding school in the city so the school is empty.  Therefore, the middle-class kids walk there because it’s seen as high-class to go to a school in the rich neighbourhood.  But then their own schools are empty, so the poorest kids go to those schools.  No kids go to school in their own neighbourhood, which seems like a lot of unnecessary walking to me… Also, these two pictures were taken in the same area just facing different directions!  The houses of millionaires are literally across a field from the poorest barracks type houses that were originally made for single migratory men to live in but now house whole families.


One of our stops was at a local market place.  It seemed much more organized than Ghana, with relatively normal traffic, and lots of room to walk between the shops.  We also took a group picture (Amanda plus the Scandinavians – you can tell by the height!). I was worried they would speak Swedish the entire time, but thankfully they made an effort to speak English most of the time while I was around.


There was also some pretty cool art, including: a mosaic of tiles along the one column in the market (all the way up and onto the ceiling), a hanging sculpture in the middle of the open market square, and a large mural on the old cooling stacks.


The middle-class area of Soweto was full of these tiny houses converted to taverns.  I guess during Apartheid the coloured people were banned from drinking “white man’s alcohol” so they set up these illegal little shops in their communities that still exist.  However, they’re now trying to close some of them down since they’re too close to schools or have no liquor license.


We also visited the houses of Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela.  It’s the only street in the world that has housed two Nobel Prize Winners.  We didn’t go inside, but it was cool to see the area.


We went to the moment of Hector Peterson, who was a young schoolboy shot during protests in the 1970’s.  The school children were protesting against the fact the could not learn the languages they want in school, due to new laws.  There was a lot of violence, and it was a really beautiful monument.  We also saw some of the really poor areas of town.  It’s difficult to see but these tiny houses hold whole families, they use porta-potties for their sanitation needs, and the metal roofs are held on by simply placing rocks on top.  I’m glad we went on the tour to see the other side of Johannesburg.  Our conference group was ushered around Jo-Burg in an air-conditioned bus and only taken on “safe” roads through lush upper-class neighbourhoods.  However, I’d prefer to see the whole city, that’s how you really start to understand a culture.


On my second last day in Johannesburg, I decided to check out the Apartheid Museum, which was a relatively new building.  It’s located just past downtown, right next to a theme park (ironically) and I decided to take a cab.  I was the only one at the gate when I got there.  I paid my student entrance fee and she gave me a randomly generated ticket.  The tickets say either white or coloured (I got white) and that decides how you make your way through the museum.

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I’m really glad I went, even though it made me emotional.  The museum basically starts far back in history and takes you up to the present day.  There are signs, pictures, and videos from events and important milestones along the way.  Towards the end it gets a bit more hopeful and optimistic but it’s still very somber.  There’s also a special exhibit in an attached wing that’s nearly as big as the whole museum, and is a tribute to the life on Nelson Mandela.  I found it equally fascinating to hear all the stories of his life and struggles.

Although the content is pretty hard to watch and read, it’s actually a very beautiful museum.  A lot of attention was paid to the details, and it’s surrounded by nature and hills and it really inspires tranquility.  At the end of my visit I explored the gift shop and this outdoor area while waiting for my cab to pick me up at 5 (when the museum closes).  I was glad to learn more about the history.  Although I feel a lot of guilt at my white privilege in these circumstances, I think it’s a really important thing to learn about.


On the last day, I slept until 9:30, showered, and packed my bags. I always get the same look from porters, taxi drivers, and almost everyone else actually… The look that says “Damn girl, that bags looks really heavy, and you’re so small, are you sure you can carry that?”. And the answer is yes. I can carry my 24kg backpack. In fact, If you ask Steve, he’ll tell you I can even get up from the ground with it on, as long as I have a wall nearby to steady myself. But don’t nudge me at all… I just might fall over!  I checked out of the hotel and went to the grocery store to buy soup for Mike (they didn’t have cans but I got the powdered stuff, since it’s difficult to find either in Ghana). Then I met up with a member of EWB Johannesburg for lunch. We both had delicious goat cheese salad (as if I now indulge on salads!).

It was incredibly interesting to talk to someone from the same organisation as me but who had a completely different background than I did. He grew up in rural South Africa and was lucky enough to have the chance to go to university and study engineering in Cape Town. He now lives in Johannesburg and works for an international engineering firm. He’s on the exec for EWB Johannesburg which is a new chapter that just started this year. They struggle with some of the same issues as any new club, how to get new members and where to get funding for their programs. However, they also have their own unique challenges and opportunities.

They’re mostly youth with an engineering backgrounds, and some of them come from communities where people are not well off. They don’t have much money but they have passion, and are excited to do things to improve the lives of people in their own country. They help local companies with projects based on their skills, and they try to engage the youth.  The most interesting aspect for me was his thoughts related to “development”, which are really similar to mine. He talked about working within your own country and the problems with the aid system. We talked about how important it was for there to be jobs for young people, with a special focus on entrepreneurship. I mentioned the problems I had noticed about how people and government seemed dependent after years of getting free handouts, and he agreed, though coming up with a real solution to that issue is very complex.  We talked for over 2 hours and I didn’t realize the time! We paid the bill, said our goodbyes, and agreed to stay in touch.  I love meeting people who are really well educated in issues I’m passionate about, it gets me excited about the type of work I’m doing, and what I want to do in the future!

If you want to know more about this trip, check out my other blogs about South Africa (which will all be posted at some point this week):

About Amanda

Hi, I’m Amanda! Originally from Ottawa, Canada, I am currently living with my partner (Steve) in Sucre, Bolivia for the next year. I work in the unique space between industrial design and international development – but what does that even mean? I’m passionate about working WITH marginalized communities in a way that utilizes design to improve the lives of different types of people around the world. I have worked, studied, traveled, and researched on every continent (except Antarctica), and most recently I lived in Ghana, Bangladesh and Nepal. I love exploring new cultures and learning more about myself along the way.
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