Words: Joonji Mdjogolo | Photography: Sydelle Willow Smith
Soweto will never be free of its political history. It is written in stone, at venues like the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum in Orlando West, which commemorates the student revolt of 1976, and in Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication in Kliptown, the oldest township in Soweto, where the Freedom Charter, the founding document of South Africa’s constitution, was drawn up in 1955. An estimated 1.1 million tourists will visit these and other famous Soweto sites, including Vilakazi Street, where South Africa’s first post-apartheid president, Nelson Mandela, once lived with his former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. The increase in visitors—numbers have doubled since 2005—has changed the way Soweto is understood, by residents and visitors alike. It is also changing the economic profile of the residential neighbourhood where the Mandela’s lived in a four-roomed bungalow. Private homes along Vilakazi Street have been refurbished; there are also numerous restaurants and bed-and- breakfasts.
Vilakazi Street forms parts of a new—not uncontested—narrative about Soweto, one that speaks of a booming edge city characterised by a growing middle class who drive flashy cars and spend their surplus cash at Soweto’s Maponya Mall. A joint venture between Soweto entrepreneur Richard Maponya and Zenprop, a white-owned property development company based in Sandton, the 65,000m2 Maponya Mall doubled the available retail space in Soweto overnight when it opened in 2007. Not long ago, access to basic goods and services was limited to small, poorly stocked family-operated stores and spaza shops, the alternative to which was a 45-minute commute to central Johannesburg, typically in a cramped 16-seater taxi. This is rapidly changing. Soweto has seen several new malls open in recent years, including Jabulani Mall, Protea Gardens, Bara Mall and Diepkloof Plaza. Collectively, they have increased retail floor space in Soweto from 60,000m2 in 2005 to more than 220,000m2 by 2011. Further signs of a fledgling formality reshaping Soweto include the new Holiday Inn in Kliptown, as well as Maponya Motor City, a R120- million car dealership launched in 2010. Based in Orlando East, the car dealership forms part of a phased R600-million development, which, when complete, will include petrol stations and fitment centres. Change has irrevocably come to Soweto. Spearheaded by government, with big business selectively cherry picking opportunities in its wake, the effects are however limited to a certain tier of resident. I spent two weeks in Johannesburg, meeting the people whose decisions are directly influencing how Soweto is taking shape. Some of those days were spent in Soweto itself, where I grew up and lived until 2001, around the time when most of the physical change began in the township.[quote style=”boxed”]Despite improvements in infrastructure and the gloss of middle-class living suggested by the increasing spread of retail businesses, Soweto’s economic stratification remains unchanged[/quote]
A product of apartheid spatial planning, Soweto occupies a tenth of the total land taken up by the City of Johannesburg, a sprawling metropolitan area covering 1,645 km2. The 2011 national census revealed that 1.3-million people—or 43% of Johannesburg’s population— live in Soweto. Despite its congestion, migrants from South Africa and elsewhere, drawn to Johannesburg by the lure of jobs, continue to settle in Soweto. Patrick Lephunya, Soweto’s regional director in the city government, estimates that unregistered migrants from other parts of the continent account for about 3% of new residents, while migrants from the country’s under- developed rural areas range between 6 and 10%.
Despite improvements in infrastructure and the gloss of middle-class living suggested by the increasing spread of retail businesses, Soweto’s economic stratification remains unchanged. Up to two-thirds of Sowetans live in abject poverty: in cramped family homes, as backyard tenants, or in shack settlements. The ultra wealth is only visible in Diepkloof Extension; it is here that Soweto’s millionaire entrepreneurs, many of them taxi operators, live. Soweto’s small middle-class is scattered, but tends to congregate in areas like Protea. This living pattern was established nearly a half century ago. “In the 1970s, lots of people lost jobs when companies started closing,” said Lephunya. “I don’t think we have recovered. In the 1960s South Africa boomed, and then it plummeted right after that—obviously Soweto could not be divorced from that.” According to Lephunya, Soweto’s middle class emerged in the 1970s and is composed of the nurses, teachers and banking staff. With
their regular incomes, they were able to secure home loans and purchase homes in places like Selection Park. These homes are typically larger and better than the once for-rental government-issued “matchbox” houses that typify Soweto. This small professional class however only grew for a short period, and then flat-lined. Relaxation of apartheid-era pass laws, which restricted migration to cities, saw more rural migrants move to Johannesburg in the two final decades of white minority rule. By the 1980s shack settlements started becoming a common sight (15% of the 180 informal settlements across Johannesburg are located in Soweto).
Nearly two decades after the African National Congress (ANC) came to power in the country’s first democratic elections, in 1994, informal settlements are still a common feature in Soweto, as in many other parts of the country. Much of the ANC’s leadership was politicised in townships similar to Soweto; many know from firsthand experience the human and infrastructural neglect that typifies life in South Africa’s townships. Still, it took seven years before any development was instituted in Soweto after the ANC’s landslide victory in 1994. Until 2000, Soweto was a separate administrative region. The incorporation of Soweto into the City of Johannesburg in 2000 formed part of the ANC’s vision to integrate the area into the city, rather than letting it develop as a “city within a city”, a strategy the ANC believed would further entrench apartheid’s separatist logic. In 2001, Amos Masondo, a member of the ANC’s former military wing and a Robben Island political prisoner (1975-81), was elected executive mayor of Johannesburg. I met Masondo, who held office until 2011, at his current offices in Luthuli House, the ANC national headquarters on Sauer Street in central Johannesburg. The years prior to his tenure as mayor were marked by intensive planning, said Masondo, name-checking many in the 15-member committee tasked with reviewing the state of the city after the 1994 elections. The committee faced an arduous task: to reconnect and fix the greater Johannesburg. State entities were in a bad financial state. “Financially it was a big problem, just throwing money into a bottomless pit,” said Masondo, offering as an example the Johannesburg Zoo. “It was clear to me that we had to do a lot of work.” Under Masondo’s leadership, the city earmarked its first developmental project in Soweto. This decision involved debate and discussion around government’s reimagining of the townships. A key question emerged: “What is it that needed to be done to restore the dignity of each and every inhabitant?”
In 2003 the city started with a project tarring and resurfacing roads. Upgrading roads, an infrastructure that touches the life of almost every citizen of the township, helped contribute to re-instilling dignity amongst residents, said Masondo. He drew a map of Soweto on a piece of paper to illustrate his point. He painstakingly marked the three sections—east, middle and west—of the 27-neighbourhood township. The project, he explained, saw the deployment of R485-million in capital expenditure and creation of 314km of tarred road. Aside from the installation of kerbing and edging and the development of a storm-water drainage system to prevent flooding during heavy rains, the project also included the construction of cycle lanes, a first for any township in South Africa. “Nobody believed us when we started,” said Masondo. The project was completed within deadline and budget. Masondo tells the story of a woman who thanked him for not having to worry about dust on her washing, and for not having to walk through the mud to cross the street. It might seem like an insignificant anecdote, but for Masondo, who was born in Soweto in 1953, it remains a source of pride. The project addressed the real-life needs of everyday Sowetans. Other key projects completed during Masondo’s tenure include repairs to Moroka Dam in the lead-up to the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002. A place of particular childhood significance for the former mayor, the dam’s redevelopment prefaced the Greening Soweto programme, which saw the restoration of Thokoza Park and rivers like the Klipspruit River Valley, as well as the planting of 200,000 trees on the township’s mostly barren landscape. READ FULL ARTICLE IN PRINT ISSUE