On June 16, 1976, I was waiting to hear if I had gotten into the University of Pittsburgh nursing school. Sharing a house with a PhD aspirant, two medical students, and a dental student, I had recently broken up with the boyfriend who had brought me to the Iron City from California. We didn’t have a television, and while I occasionally munged through the Pittsburgh Post-Intelligencer, I knew little about what was happening in Soweto, a small city very far away that I knew nothing about.
That day in June, thousands of middle and high-schoolers marched the streets of Soweto, protesting a final straw. The National Party had decreed that all students must learn Afrikaans, the language of their oppressors. A peaceful rally would be taking place at a nearby football stadium. Students walking to the stadium were fired upon by the Soweto police.
2 students were killed.
Soweto is a sort of shrine to South Africans, as this city north of Johannesburg was the long-time residence of Nelson Mandela. I had arrived in Joburg in the early afternoon and as usual, I had no plans except to wander around and get to know the area of Rosebank, where our hotel was. But lucky for me, the reluctant traveler who enters knew worlds with no itinerary in mind, a colleague cornered me and asked me to join her on a tour to Soweto.
Our driver was an articulate gentleman who would take us on the four hour drive.
There were three of us—myself and my colleague, and an American businessman who also had some time to kill. I am always astonished at the intelligence of drivers of taxis or hired cars. There is an untapped source of wisdom there.
First he circled Johannesburg, touting how the city with a reputation for violent crime had become safer than ever. He pointed out everything, beauty marks and flaws—the new football stadium resembling a giant stone sausage built for the 2010 World Cup, the high rises of down town, and the ridges of mine tailings enveloping the city suburbs. Winds would give a toxic dusting to the surrounding townships, and the country struggled to minimize the poisoning with water sprinklers to keep the dust down.
On the way to Soweto we saw the iconic cooling tower murals, no longer functional except as a bungee-jumping spot. We passed the hospital where one of our HIV clinics was housed. Then we pulled into a quiet suburban neighborhood and stopped for a tour of the Mandela house.
Nelson and Winnie Mandela lived in this tiny house from 1946 to 1990. Eighteen of those years, Mandela was imprisoned at Robben Island near Cape Town. Now the property of the Soweto Heritage Trust, it has been designated a national monument.
Just as we were leaving a full-sized tour bus pulled up. People come from all over the world to see this house, in this small city that was the heart of the rebellion against apartheid. Next our driver brought us to The Hector Pieterson Museum, situated in the same spot where 13 year-old Hector died, one of the two children murdered by the Soweto police. My friend and I spent far longer than the hour our driver had granted us inside the building, absorbing photographs and memorabilia of the rebellion. Our driver smiled and shrugged. It happens all the time, he told us.
When I got back to our hotel, I felt pale with fatigue, and it was not all from jet lag. I cherish the memories of that place I had been led to, without a notion of this powerful place of pride for South Africans.
Next week: The Reluctant Traveler comes home to her dogs and husband until she travels again.