A battleground during apartheid, Soweto now celebrates as World Cup opens next door

By David Crary, AP
Thursday, June 10, 2010

Once-embattled Soweto marvels at nearby World Cup

SOWETO, South Africa — Once a battlefront in the anti-apartheid struggle, the vast township of Soweto — from its iron shacks to its expanding stock of luxury homes — is now brimming with exhilaration as the World Cup opens next door.

“You can feel the vibe,” said the Rev. Benedict Mahlangu, the cheerful priest at Regina Mundi, Soweto’s main Roman Catholic church.

During apartheid, the red-brick church was a bastion of political resistance. Now it’s decorated with the flags of World Cup nations and has been hosting crowded prayer services for South Africa’s underdog team, Bafana Bafana, who open the tournament Friday in the nearby Soccer City stadium.

For Sowetans, who number well over 1 million, it’s a time not only to root for the home team, but also to welcome visitors, celebrate progress and reflect on unmet promises.

Their township abounds with eye-catching contradictions 16 years after this nation’s first fully democratic elections. A new, five-star hotel overlooks a tract of the squalid, plumbing-deprived homes. Restaurants and inns cater to foreign tourists, but local schools are so bereft that some students cram into vans before 5 a.m. to get a better education in distant communities.

Amid the soccer hoopla, it also will be time to remember the fateful Soweto student uprising of June 16, 1976 — a date now observed as a national holiday.

“The young men on our national team, they never could have hosted the World Cup without that day,” said Cathay Yenana, who is helping organize next Wednesday’s June 16 commemorations in Soweto.

“They owe each and every goal they score to that class of ‘76,” she said.

The uprising was sparked by a student protest against an edict requiring blacks to be taught in Afrikaans, the language of the white-minority rulers. Hundreds of blacks were killed in ensuing clashes nationwide — a foretaste of the conflict that escalated in the 1980s and finally led to apartheid’s demise in the early 1990s.

Today’s Soweto students have been taught the history of the liberation struggle, but soccer is their all-consuming passion this week.

“Bafana Bafana will win,” said 19-year-old Katabo Matabane as he watched friends playing soccer in the bright winter sunshine at a newly refurbished park near Regina Mundi.

Also watching on the sidelines, and pointing out the most skilled players, was Nthato Korolosi, a 33-year-old Soweto tour operator and dance instructor.

He described the recent “diski dance” craze — featuring improvised dance steps inspired by soccer moves. And he predicted off-the-charts excitement Friday afternoon when the opening Bafana match with Mexico is shown on a giant video screen at a “fan park” in Soweto.

Unlike the players on the nearby field, Korolosi is old enough to remember apartheid, and to marvel at the changes since then.

“Apartheid was intended to make black people feel they couldn’t even think,” he said. “We’re a very fortunate kind of people, here in Soweto. We have moved on. We learned to reconcile and be united.”

Back in the apartheid era, armored police and army vehicles often patrolled Soweto’s streets, and — in the winter months — a thick shroud of smoke from coal stoves hung over the sprawling expanse of unelectrified homes. Now, the winter skies over the township are crystal clear, thanks to a massive government electrification program.

Police still patrol the streets, but the priority now is to curtail violent street crime.

Danny Dube, the 58-year-old caretaker at Regina Mundi, said that’s the biggest change for him in recent years.

“You are now free to go where you want to at any time of day or night,” he said.

The township has been trying hard to woo tourists. There’s a June 16 museum named after Hector Pieterson, honored as the first student to die the uprising, and the Vilakazi Street neighborhood, featuring restaurants, bed-and-breakfasts, and the homes of anti-apartheid heroes and Nobel Peace laureates Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.

Some Sowetans complain that the economic benefits of the World Cup will largely bypass their township. Pumzile Ngwenya lives with her five children in a shack near the new luxury hotel in Freedom Square.

“It’s nice for some, not for others,” she said angrily outside the meat market where she works as a cleaner.

At a nearby sidewalk stall, however, vendor Livingston Mahimele was beaming — crediting World Cup fever for doubling his daily income thanks to surging sales of South African flags and soccer apparel. The stand was a riot of colors — mostly the yellow and green of Bafana T-shirts and scarves.

Among those with mixed emotions about the World Cup is Sibongile Mkhabela, who as a high school student was a leader of the 1976 protest march and spent three years in jail. She is now chief executive officer of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund.

“There’s a lot of excitement now,” she said. “But at the same time, we’ve let down in one or two things that we aspired to back then.

“We look at Soweto today — it’s a great place to live,” she said. “But we’re busing our children away to other towns. You’d be hoping our schools would enable the young person of today to get a good education without having to pack into a taxi at 4 a.m.”

Mkhabela hopes the World Cup might help Soweto, and South Africa, take more vigoroous strides toward long-term progress.

“We could use this energy to turn things around, to make the schools work, to help the child who wants to be the next sports star by bringing sports back into our schools,” she said. “We want these young people to live our dreams.”

EDITOR’S NOTE — David Crary was the AP’s news editor in South Africa in 1987-90 and reported often from Soweto during those final years of anti-apartheid unrest.

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