Johannesburg stirs strong emotions.
It is one of South Africa’s wealthiest cities, yet it is also a city where poverty and crime stalks its citizens. It has seen violence and heroism; cruelty and courage.
My first reaction to the city’s personality is one of apprehension – a sense of unease. Not that I am under threat. Far from it. I am sitting in a comfortable, air-conditioned tourist bus, surrounded by fellow travelers who are familiar, friendly companions. Yet beyond my window are crowds of people milling a busy sidewalk – none of them chatting with friends or smiling, but instead sullen, almost belligerent, as they shoulder past each other. Burly African men stand, backs resting against walls, smoking, knocking back cans of beer, their expressions insolent and cocky. Others merely lounge hands in pockets, silent, empty-eyed. Poverty stalks, resentment simmers. The scars of apartheid are scabbed over, but only superficially.
The city’s conflicted past is embodied at the Hector Peterson memorial in Soweto. The stone tablet says, “The symbol for the courage, anguish and courage of the school children is epitomized in Mbuyisa Makhubu who on this site on 16th June 1976 carried to safety the wounded Hector Peterson...” At least 600 students were killed in the wave of resistance that swept South Africa, and thousands more were detained, imprisoned and tortured. The 12-year-old Peterson killed by the bullet of apartheid—in both the literal and metaphorical sense—remains a powerful symbol of resistance to the suppression of freedom and liberty by South Africa’s colonial rulers.
Nowhere is man’s inhumanity to man more evident than in Johannesburg’s prison on Constitution Hill. My group is escorted on a tour through No. 4 prison, and we stand appalled at the room where inmates lying on thin pallets on the floor were crammed one against another.
The dining area that would have carried the stench of the nearby overflowing latrines, displays comments from black inmates whose meals were very different from those of the white prisoners. An example: “The tin plates were unwashed and encrusted with layers of dried food accumulated over months mixed with rust” and “...supper was a mixture of old rotten boiled fish whose stink would reach us from the prison kitchen...on the day it was pig skins, the fat had long curdled with pieces of skin sticking out of the mess like shark fins...” Better food could be bargained for by indulging sex demands from jailers, and photographs show white guards commanding naked prisoners to jump so they could examine their anuses for possible hidden items.
One of the most notable prisoners held here was Mahatma Gandhi, but as a lawyer and a political entity, his incarceration was relatively brief. A room displays numerous photographs, letters and belongings of the Mahatma, including a pair of slippers which he made in prison for General Smuts, whose response was: “I have worn these sandals for many a summer even though I may feel that I am not worthy to stand in the shoes of so great a man.”
It seems to me that there is something ironic, yet hopeful and reassuring, in the juxtaposition of No 4 prison with Constitution Hall – the former a symbol of the denial of civil and political rights to black South Africans, the latter a building dedicated to honoring democratic freedom and justice for all citizens.
11.Constitution Court, Johannesburg
I’d heard so much about Soweto, and had imagined it to be a slum, crowded with tin shacks and destitute families. The reality comes as a surprise. On a Friday evening, as the sun casts long shadows across the road, the township is alive with folks strolling along the sidewalk, strains of music wafting from open-air restaurants, and the hum and bustle of street activity. Perhaps this impression is deceptive and Soweto has a darker side, but today to my mind, this could be any middle-class suburban town in the country.
Except that two buildings set it apart. Our group lingers in front of the gate leading to the home of Reverend Desmond Tutu, and just a five minute walk around the corner, we pause once more before the home of South Africa’s most beloved leader, the late Nelson Mandela, whose family continue to live here. The house is shielded from view by a high hedge, but memorial stones are displayed on the sidewalk with messages from across the globe—a testament to the respect accorded to one of South Africa’s greatest leaders whose bequest to his country was hope for the future.
PHOTOS by Margaret Deefholts:
1. Hector Peterson Memorial, Soweto
2. Hector Peterson Memorial, Soweto
3. Entrance to Desmond Tutu’s home in Soweto
4. Nelson Mandela’s family home in Soweto
5. Messages to Mandela in stones memorial in front of his house
6. Message from a Canadian family to Mandela
7. Placard in dining area at No. 4 Prison in Johannesburg
8. Latrines at No. 4 Prison in Johannesburg
9. Statue of Mohandas Gandhi
10.Gandhi’s sandals and Gen. Smut’s note
11.Constitution Court, JohannesburgTravel Writers' Tales is an independent travel article syndicate that offers professionally written travel articles to newspaper editors and publishers. To check out more, visit www.TravelWritersTales.com
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