Friday, September 28, 2012

Tuesday September 18

Today we toured SOWETO (South West Townships), a huge sprawling area south west of Johannesburg where over 3 million predominantly Black South Africans live. This is a city larger than Johannesburg itself and within it there are over 100 suburbs, varying from extreme poverty stricken areas to suburbs with wealthier homes.  Every year, June 16 is commemorated for the anniversary of the Soweto uprising in 1976 when some 20,000 students rose up against the forced introduction of Akrikaans as the language of instruction in schools.  Afrikaans was considered the oppressor’s language. Up to 700 students were killed and the first of these was Hector Pieterson, a 13 year old student.

Our tour guide for the day was “Snowy” Mattera, whose father was a poet and veteran anti-Apartheid fighter and our driver was Elvis.  Our first stop was Constitution Hill, the site of Johannesburg’s notorious Old Fort Prison Complex, where thousands of ordinary people were brutally punished before the so-called “dawn of democracy”. It is now a wonderful museum with beautiful monuments honouring the struggle of those who fought for the rights of all South Africans.  It is still the home of the Constitutional Court (like our Supreme Court) but the renovation of this original site and the grounds around it are magnificent.  Many political activists of South Africa were imprisoned here, including Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu as well as Winnie Mandela and Snowy Mattera’s uncle.  However, this site is so historic that one could say that every transgression committed by a Black person in South Africa would have been dealt with here in this court. 

The origins of Soweto are linked to the discovery of gold in the Johannesburg area in 1885.  Multiracial shanty towns sprang up all around the city as the need for cheap labour in the mining industry grew and grew and formed the basis of the migrant labour system in South Africa.  The first settlement in SOWETO was Orlando in the 1930s.

After the Constitution Museum we headed straight to the Apartheid museum and spent a mere two hours there when we could easily have spent two days there.   The detailed history and archival materials, including film footage of major events, was incredible.

At the entrance of the Apartheid Museum, tickets were randomly distributed and visitors went through one of two entrances marked on their ticket – Whites Only or Non-Whites Only.  It was a lesson in itself and soon after we all met up in the same gallery. 

From the exhibition of the First-Known People of South Africa, the Bushmen (San) to the end of Apartheid, this museum was an invaluable history less for all of us who went through those first gates.


We hopped back on our bus to go into Soweto for lunch.  Snowy took us into a modest home in the townships where a woman has started a small cafĂ© in her own home. Local Africans were already there enjoying the food when we sat down to order our meals.  The food was great and we loved the concept of supporting this woman and her family, instead of some restaurant chain.


We drove through Soweto some more and stopped in Kliptown, the site of the original founding of the Freedom Charter in 1955, where thousands gathered in support of demands like The People Shall Share in the Country’s Wealth! All National Groups Shall have Equal Rights!  The Land Shall be Shared Amongst Those who Work it! There Shall be Work and Security!  All Shall Enjoy Equal Human Rights! Described as “a visionary document that became a beacon of hope for the liberation struggle and a primary source in framing the new South African constitution adopted in 1996”, the significance of the Freedom Charter to the people of South Africa is profound.

What a contrast, however, as we stepped away from the Freedom Charter monument and walked across the railway lines and right into the midst of Kliptown township. The level of poverty and the incredibly run down shacks shocked us.  How could this be in the midst of all of the wealth in Johannesburg and indeed, South Africa as a whole? We did to have to walk far until we came to another beacon of light, however.  Snowy took us through some colourful gates into a community centre where we were met by Bob, the Coordinator of SKY – Skills for Youth.  What a wonderful place for youth and children.  Bob took us in to an after school lesson for young kids who were reading books together and learning English ad Xhosa together.  Next we were invited into a large room where kids spontaneously volunteered to do some Spoken Word and some music for us.  Both were amazing performances.  A lovely young woman recited a poem about the importance of looking inside a person, rather than concentrating on external appearance.  Then a small boy with a powerful and beautiful voice lead 4 others in song and we were literally blown away by all of this impromptu concert! Tears flowed like rain once again as we marveled at this talent in the midst of such poverty.  Many of us were especially touched at the work being done in this small community centre and have vowed to follow up with some kind of application for funding.



From there we headed to Nelson Mandela’s house and took some photos of the exterior, drove past Desmond Tutu’s house nearby and went to the Hector Pieterson Memorial. This was the site of the student uprising in 1976 and the place where the first student was killed. Hector was only 13 and the photo of his father carrying him in his arms is well-known throughout the world. It was here that we ended our tour of Soweto and many of us reflected sadly upon this moment as the sun was setting and we headed home to Genderlinks.

Tues. night  - Marikana Massacre Solidarity Meeting

 We did not have much time to reflect on our day in Soweto as we were invited to an important meeting at the University of Johannesburg (formerly University of Witwatersrand), a meeting of groups in solidarity with the Marikana Massacre and the mineworkers and families who were part of this struggle.  Comrade Andile Nyembezi, an organizer with the General industries Workers’ Union (GIWUSA) accompanied us to the meeting.  GIWUSA is an independent union and very active in fighting against the casualization of workers such as those at Marikana.  The union is trying to bridge the divide between permanent workers and casual labour, especially appealing to the youth.


We thoroughly enjoyed observing this very important meeting where groups were planning a Women’s Only March for the coming Saturday.  Although our schedule did not allow us to stay for this march, we had been invited to a Marikana Solidarity Rally in Cape Town.  The women’s march was planned as a call for Justice, a march against police brutality in the community and for the people’s rights to assemble and the right to freedom.  The call was going out – we want the police out of our townships and out of our community!  The men in attendance offered to line the streets in solidarity with the women and send messages of support.  We left the meeting, impressed by the solidarity movement in support of  Marikana men and women and the tight agenda, the leaders recognizing that many people have to travel miles home to the townships and outer areas.

Here is the text  of the letter sent by our President, Warren (Smokey) Thomas in solidarity with the planned march (subsequently banned!)
Message of Solidarity regarding the Marikana Massacre

On behalf of the 130,000 members of our union, the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), please convey our message of solidarity with those who are marching in support of the Marikana workers and families on Saturday, September 22.

We condemn the actions of the South African police on August 17 as they opened fire on 3,000 striking drill operators who refused to obey orders to disperse at the Lonmin platinum mine in Marikana, killing 34 miners and injuring 78 others.  We also abhor the neglect and brutality of the mining corporations who continue to exploit South African mineworkers, the backbone of the working class in South Africa.

We send our deepest condolences to the families and co-workers of the 34 killed and a message of support to all those who were injured. Yesterday we heard that a woman protester died of a rubber bullet wound received while demonstrating last week.  The wave of violence at South Africa's Lonmin Marikana platinum mine is appalling. We call on the South African government to put a stop to this violence and killing now and to set up an independent inquiry into the Marikana massacre.

In Solidarity

Warren (Smokey) Thomas

President, Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), Toronto, Canada

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