A day in the life of Soweto

Issue 

Born in Soweto
Directed by James Ricketson
SBS, Friday, July 28, 8.30pm (8 in Adelaide)
Previewed by Norm Dixon

This Australian-made documentary, made soon after Nelson Mandela became South Africa's first democratically elected president, presents Soweto — short for South Western Township of Johannesburg — through the eyes of its residents.

From a range of people from many walks of life, we get a glimpse of the hopes and ambitions South Africa's black population hold for their future under majority rule. We also witness the harsh reality of black urban life that makes those hopes appear unrealisable under the racially biased capitalist system that remains in place.

The irrepressible and controversial Jimmy Ntintili, famous around the world for his "face to face" minibus tours, takes us through the nooks and crannies of this sprawling "township" where live 4 million plus people speaking nine languages who daily create the lion's share of South Africa's immense wealth.

It's a journey from the Dickensian conditions of Mandelaville, to the more solid and established area of Orlando East — home of the mighty Orlando Pirates soccer team — to Soweto's own "millionaires row", where the growing black middle class lives behind high walls, razor wire and barking dogs.

Mandelaville is a maze of crude shacks without water, sewerage or electricity. Despite the huge cooling towers of a nearby power station, whose output flows to the white suburbs over the ridge to the north, residents cope with Johannesburg's chilly winters by burning coal. By 4pm each day, the area is clouded with lung-irritating coal haze.

In the midst of this we meet its residents. Dora struggles to remain at school despite the difficulties created by no light at night for study, little privacy and having to walk 500 metres every day to collect water. Getting an education is the only way for the black people to improve themselves, she says.

Revelation runs a little "spaza" shop, a converted ship container from which he sells a few groceries and the ubiquitous bottles of Coke and Fanta. He firmly believes that now apartheid has gone, small business is the answer to the legacy of apartheid. He is also a member of a "Stokvel" — a group of people who take turns to hold rent parties.

Octavia is 21. She left school at 14 to have a child. She has returned to school with the firm ambition to become Soweto's first woman carpenter or maybe a fashion designer.

Mama Mabala throws open her house and her heart to the street kids of Soweto. More than 70 kids bunk down in her little cottage. It is a daily struggle to feed and clothe them. The alternative is the Tsotsis, a gang of youths who survive by hijacking cars and selling them. Many use the proceeds to stay in school.

The need to return to school, to learn and teach, has become something of a mantra in the new South Africa. It is touted almost as the answer to the legacy of apartheid. But if the new government continues to do little to shift the wealth of the country from the white capitalist class to the vast black majority, calls for the youth to return to school will sound increasingly hollow and increasingly impractical, especially since it is poverty that forces them from the schools in the first place.

This more realistic view is espoused by Replace, who was forced by poverty to give up his law studies at university and turn to crime to survive: "I don't believe this is the time for reconciliation, as our leaders say. I believe poverty ruined our lives. Three quarters of the people in Soweto are unemployed. How are they going to generate incomes for their families? Only by criminal means! We have grown to be enemies of one another. Why? Because of poverty! Poverty must be eradicated."

Unless there is a genuine attempt to radically redistribute wealth and power, no amount of education or kind-hearted people can bring a better life to South Africa's majority.

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