A renaissance in Soweto

Soweto shopping mall The gleaming shopping mall has everything you could ask for: brand-name outlets such as Timberland and Puma, a garishly colored food court and a courtyard with one of those nifty dancing water features.

The only clue that this is Soweto, the huge black township where a 1976 student uprising galvanized the struggle against South Africa’s white-controlled apartheid system, is at the mall’s entrance. A bronze statue captures the iconic image of the revolt: a 12-year-old boy named Hector Pieterson, shot by police, lying lifeless in the arms of a grief-stricken teenager.

At the base of the statue, on a recent weekend, you could enter a drawing to win a new BMW.

Fifteen years after South Africa’s first free elections marked the end of apartheid, Soweto’s transformation from seething flashpoint to cosmopolitan city is complete.

In addition to the Maponya Mall, which opened a year and a half ago, there’s a health spa, wine bars and several bed-and-breakfasts. In row upon row of residential streets, black families have revamped the matchbox dwellings they inhabited during apartheid into tidy homes with gated lawns, two-car garages and satellite dishes.

There’s even an upmarket section, a hillside enclave of custom-built villas that real estate agents refer to as Diepkloof Extension. Neighbors call it “Diepkloof Expensive.”

“People are driving beautiful cars. People are starting businesses of all kinds,” said Shadrack Motau, 63, a lifelong Sowetan. “The changes are remarkable.”

Large sections of Soweto – home to an estimated 1 million residents – remain grindingly poor and overcrowded islands of tin-roofed homes disconnected from main roads and reliable utilities. But even a partial renaissance is striking given Soweto’s origins, and it reflects the broader changes in South African society.

The first big waves of inhabitants arrived in the 1930s, when tens of thousands of blacks were forced out of designated “white” areas of Johannesburg into government settlements along the city’s southwest corner. Blacks were to serve as the work force for booming Johannesburg, and in the 1950s, as more and more inner-city black neighborhoods were wiped out, the maze of townships mushroomed in size.

In 1963, the name Soweto, an abbreviation for “southwestern townships,” became official. The apartheid government never intended it to be more than a bedroom community, but Soweto grew into a center of culture and resistance, producing some of the major figures of the anti-apartheid struggle – and one of its watershed moments.

On the morning of June 16, 1976, thousands of high school students staged a walkout to protest a government policy to teach classes in Afrikaans, the language of South African whites of Dutch heritage. Police used dogs and tear gas against students, who responded by hurling rocks until, suddenly, officers fired shots into the swelling crowd.

One of the first children to be killed was Pieterson, whose bloodied body was captured in a newspaper photo and became an instant symbol of police brutality. By some estimates, more than 500 people died in the revolt, which marked the beginning of a more aggressive form of black resistance nearly two decades before Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first black president, closing the book on apartheid.

Today, a museum and memorial mark the spot where Hector was killed. Several blocks away is Mandela’s three-room family home, recently reopened as a museum but with the original corrugated roof and concrete floors intact.

Restaurants and bed-and-breakfast inns have sprung up to cater to a steady stream of tour buses. One of the most popular spots is Wandie’s Place, a former “shebeen,” or neighborhood bar, that’s been converted into a restaurant and, on the second floor, a seven-room guesthouse.

In the low-ceilinged dining room on a recent Saturday afternoon, a long table of Americans lunched on local dishes such as stew and pap, a thick cornmeal porridge. At a nearby table was something that just a few years ago would’ve been unthinkable: a silver-haired white South African man leaning back in a chair, watching a cricket match on TV.

“We feel everything has changed,” said Thoko Modise, whose son-in-law owns Wandie’s and who marched in the 1976 protests armed with stones and a metal trash-can lid to fend off bullets.

“We never had a shopping mall here, or cinemas. To have everything around us, you feel this is really your place.”

The new shops are keeping more money circulating inside Soweto, which was never designed to have jobs or an economy of its own, and it’s spawned a host of successful businesses. In 2002, Thabang Molelefi, 33, opened Roots, Soweto’s first health spa, with her savings and a $15,000 corporate grant. She now has six other branches and customers who come from hours away for skin, massage and reflexology treatments.

Even upper-class Sowetans who’ve moved to one of Johannesburg’s tonier suburbs say they prefer to spend money in the former township, which fills up during weekends for shopping trips and family gatherings.

“It’s the only place where I’m likely to bump against people I went to primary school with,” said Sibongile Mkhabela, a student leader during the 1976 protest who’s now the chief executive of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, a prominent charity.

“There’s a general sense of being settled. When we were growing up, there was a permanent sense of being visitors, of being uncomfortable in that space.

“Now, when my children say they’re going to Mom’s home, they mean Soweto.”

Copyright 2009, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.