My first full day in Johannesburg has been a highly informative and eventful one! We went on a tour with NK, our guide from Soweto. On the van ride to town, we could not help but notice the many mining mounds that resemble large hills. These mine dumps grew from an extensive history of mineral mining throughout the area. In fact, the high impact of gold mining in Johannesburg prompted the city to earn its Zulu nickname of “E’goli”, which means “place of gold”. Although the gold-bearing ore in the city was depleted for the most part decades ago, many of these giant mine dumps still remain. To learn more about the history, environmental concerns, and future plans surrounding these mine dumps, check out this interesting article from Earth Magazine.
During the tour, we saw countless exciting sites in Johannesburg. My favorite landmark was the historic Market Theater, where notable artists like Fugard and Maponya first introduced their famous multiracial works during the apartheid regime. It was a wonderful experience to see original stills from plays such as Hysteria and Master Harold and the Boys. We also had the opportunity to visit the Top of Africa, a landmark which offers a panoramic view of Johannesburg from the tallest building on the continent. It was a surreal experience to finally be able to take an all-encompassing view of the city I had been dreaming of visiting for so long!
After the Johannesburg tour, we embarked on a special tour of the Soweto township. This area has an especially famous history in South Africa, as this is where the Soweto Uprising took place on June 16th, 1976. The massive protests initiated when the government decided to enforce an Afrikaans rather than English language policy in schools. This was one of the many discriminatory measures outlined in the Bantu Education reform movement. Forcing Zulu and English-speaking children to learn Afrikaans seemed unfair in several ways. First of all, Afrikaans was a rather difficult new language for students to learn in a short amount of time, and they felt that their performance in school would decline sharply with the language change. Secondly, and perhaps most notably, young Zulu students felt deeply distressed at the prospect of being once again forced to learn the language of the colonizer. Thus, it is clear that these student uprisings sent a major message to the South African government that the people of Soweto would not openly accept these oppressive language policies. During our tour of the area, we saw Morris Issacson High School, where police opened fire on the students, in addition to the Hector Pieterson memorial, which honored the first child to die at the hands of police during the uprising. The dedication at the memorial site was written in many languages. Our tour guide, Lungi, asked us all to attempt to read this message in Zulu so that we could empathize with how difficult it was for the Zulu people to try to read and comprehend their learning material in a completely foreign language. Mastering the three click sounds in Zulu is a daunting enough challenge for me, so I can only imagine how challenging it would have been for these young students to try to learn an entirely new curriculum in a language full of complex grammar and orthography! One of the final stops on the tour of Soweto was Regina Mundi (Queen of the World), a church where shots were also fired. In this church where bullet holes are still visible in some parts of the structure and where the most famous portrait of the black Madonna hangs, we also found a guest book signed by First Lady Michelle Obama herself!
It was incredibly awe-inspiring to see how much the township of Soweto had changed in nearly thirty-five years. Although most of the houses are still simple structures, most of the homes now have relatively reliable sources of electricity, running water, and many other utilities. Nonetheless, there is still considerable room for improvement. Our tour guide mentioned that, despite the fact that black people have more opportunities in the medical, legal, and other professional fields, it appears that unemployment continues to grow rapidly in the region. Furthermore, despite the fact that President Jacob Zuma has garnered widespread support among people of Zulu heritage, he is simultaneously resented to some extent by these same supporters with regard to his polygamist practices. After all, many men in Zulu society would like to be able to afford to have multiple wives and support a family, but they cannot do so because of financial burdens. The fact that President Zuma has multiple wives and arguably uses taxpayer dollars to purchase them sends a rather unpleasant message to the thousands of poor Zulu people who cannot afford such luxuries. However, most Zulus would not even consider voting for any party opposing the dominant ANC party because that would represent a vote for the white oppressors who have caused so much hardship in the past. In short, despite the fact that South Africa has improved a great deal and features an impressive parliamentary republic, it will no doubt take some time for underlying political and societal tensions to considerably diminish.
After an exciting day of exploring, I am excited to spend my last evening in Johannesburg sitting around a campfire and making s’mores with the hostel owners and fellow backpackers. I actually just met a new backpacker today who is from France! Now that he is retired, he is taking full advantage of the opportunity to travel the world. I was thrilled to learn that he had traveled all throughout Middle East, including Iran, and he had much to say about the beautiful art and architecture throughout the region. He even designed and built his own home in Nice to reflect the architectural style of ancient Persian buildings. I think it is a wonderful coincidence that we met on this trip, and I can’t wait to practice my French and learn more about his travels! Although my time in Johannesburg has been short, I look forward to the possibility of visiting again someday!