Soweto. Or So.We.To. for South Western Township. Its history is intrinsically linked to the one of Johannesburg, and its name bears memories of freedom fighters and greater men.
Soweto was created as a result of the gold rush that started in the late nineteenth century in the south of Johannesburg. “Matchbox houses” were put up for the hundreds of black workers who came to the golden city in the hope of making a living and it grew steadily during the industrialisation of the first half of the twentieth century.
But it’s only after the World War II that Soweto started to expand exponentially, to become what is now the one of the most populated areas of Johannesburg, and home of more than 1.3m people. By depriving the black population of their rural lands, the Afrikaan National Party drove thousands of men towards to the city. The new migrants settled with their communities, in the one of the dozens of townships that composed Soweto at the time.
Soweto was therefore a land of immigration and a refuge for many. No wonder to see that all of the 11 official languages of South Africa are now spoken there. It is a true melting pot and the cradle of the rainbow nation. It is the home of two Nobel Prize winners, which cannot only be seen as a coincidence. And it is also there that started the uprising of 1976, where policemen, on June 16th, opened fire on 10’000 marching students, killing 23 people that day, drawing worldwide attention to the apartheid regime and fuelling the nation’s wrath that would shape the future of South Africa.
For who wants to better understand the history of South Africa, it is therefore only a matter of time before you get drawn towards Soweto. And my first contact was a very surprising one.
Tim, a fellow grammer, organised a few weeks back an instameet at the Soweto Theatre (if you don’t know what an instameet is, you can find more details here.). Despite an early wake up call that could have scared many, we gathered with a few friends and drove towards Soweto, to be there at 6:00 am, to see the sun rising.
I didn’t know what to expect, and I felt like a child when I arrived at the theatre. First of all, Soweto is no longer a shanty town. Although it is still one of poorest areas in Johannesburg, you can see the rise of a middle-class there. Surprisingly (or maybe not), this middle-class feels so strongly attached to its community that it decided to upgrade its homes rather than moving to wealthier suburbs. Shopping malls have now sprung around, most roads are paved, and some of them lit at night.
The Soweto Theatre embodies the essence of the new South Africa. As colourful as the Rainbow Nation flag, its volumes are huge and surprisingly rounded. It reminds you of these countless African women you can see on the side of the road, draped in gay colours, exquisitely curved, carrying their child on a butt that can only be seen in Africa.
Having such a theatre, in such an uncommon place, could be questioned at first, and I’m sure it was when it got erected. But that would be forgetting the strong bounds that link Sowetans to any form of culture. Kwaito and Kasi rap (South Africa hip-hop) were born in Soweto. Poetry has been for many years another form of battle that Sowetans have engaged into, leading to the birth of many renowned Sowetan poets. Many of the actors of the most popular South African shows come from Soweto. So it’s only natural to have a proper theatre to celebrate the cultural diversity of the place. And the Jabulani Theatre does that perfectly.
It is also a place filled with history and existed long before it was revamped. It is there that Mandela’s daughter Zindzi stood in 1985 to read to a crowd of bemused Sowetan his father’s refusal to be freed from prison on the condition of renouncing the violent struggle.
All of this, I didn’t know at the time I arrived at the theatre. But I could feel the majesty of the place. Tim had asked some of his skater friends to come and entertain us while we were shooting the structure of the theatre reflecting the first rays of the sun. Skateboarders and BMX riders soon started to make acrobatic figures on the rounded base of the building, for the greatest pleasure of the photographers. We spent the morning there, chatting and shooting. You could see our Sowetan friends being very proud of having one of the meetings organised in their hometown, and honoured to see so many Joburgers braving the cold of the early hours of the morning to discover their birthplace. That was a lovely morning, and by the time people started to drive back home, you could see grinning faces everywhere you looked.
I, lost amidst the crowd, discovered on that day that the sun also rises on Soweto. And it gave me hope.