The changing face of an apartheid dormitory for black labour

Sikhuphula Ikasi, reads the billboard at a carwash in Pimville, Soweto.

Sikhuphula Ikasi, reads the billboard at a carwash in Pimville, Soweto.

The message by a young black-owned media company is simple: "We are ugrading our township."

More than 100 years ago, the white minority government gathered many of the black people scattered around the gold mines, eking out a living as labourers in the nascent industrial sector, and dumped them in what is now called Kliptown.

As author and veteran journalist Sophie Tema explains: "Kliptown was just a shantytown that the white government saw as a dormitory for black labour."

The government regarded black people as "temporary sojourners who were there to provide labour and see to themselves when it [came] to their family life".

Through struggles led by community leaders such as Sofasonke Mpanza, townships such as Orlando, Moroka and Naledi sprang up as residential areas where families could live together.

Over time, they fused into Soweto, which by law and policy the apartheid authorities deliberately deprived of facilities, the better to control black workers.

Today, Soweto is a vibrant city of contrasts where multi-million rand mansions sit cheek by jowl with the typical township matchboxes bequeathed by apartheid authorities.

Dusty gravel roads are being tarred and traffic lights now try to regulate the chaotic traffic along most of the main streets.

Gone are the days of dark lanes where robbers lurked to relieve Sowetans of their hard-earned possessions.

Today, Soweto's previously candle-lit skyline has been transmuted into a milky way of streetlights.

Since 2003, the city of Johannesburg has spent at least R100million upgrading infrastructure in this vibrant metropolis. Roads, streets and lights have been upgraded and the multi-million rand Baragwanath taxi rank is the hub of a bustling industry. It serves not only as the nerve centre of public transport criss-crossing Gauteng and the rest of South Africa, but also as a mecca for informal and small businesses.

The new Soweto boasts once- undreamt-of public facilities such as Thokoza Park and Moroka Dam. Once derelict eyesores, these facilities are now popular venues for picnics and wedding parties. Children play on the merry-go-rounds and couples hold hands in the shade around trees.

"Coming out here allows us the privacy to talk to each other without interference from the children," said Thami Malatji, relaxing with his wife Dimakatso in the park.

The Sikhuphula Ikasi billboard in Pimville symbolises another side of Soweto's changing face. The metropolis now boasts a vibrant economy that was grown from the efforts of small businesses, including tourism, entertainment and services such as carwashes, repair shops and furniture makers.

Mushrooming shopping malls cater for the needs of a sophisticated urban population at the doorstep of the 1,4 million Sowetans. The newly-opened multi-million rand Maponya Mall along Potchefstroom Road and Jabulani Mall in Jabulani flog the same fashions that tempt the citizens of Paris and Los Angeles in an area where residents' parents would have struggled to buy a handkerchief or a pair of socks.

Sowetans now demand all the benefits of urban life and have the cash to command attention.

"Soweto has definitely changed. With all these street lights, it is now safe to walk around at night. I walk from here to home in Dobsonville after work," says Brian Ngwenya.

He works as a researcher at the newly-launched Soweto TV, which broadcasts from Orlando West.

Ngwenya says today's Soweto makes for exciting times.

"Soweto has the vibe and lifestyle that makes one feel that it is great to be a Sowetan."

He says changes such as its own TV station, "staffed by youngsters from this community", empower today's youth.

The TV station deals with topics that reflect the community's interests. One of the programmes is Wathintha Imbokodo (You struck a rock), which pays tribute to the mothers of Soweto, too many of whom have raised families single-handedly. It highlights their successes against the vicious apartheid system that turned them into lodgers in their own homes because they were regarded as legal minors.

Ngwenya's optimism about Soweto is shared by his friends, Alfred Khoza and Chris Moletsane.

These two black diamonds grew up in Soweto, but now live in the suburbs. Like most of their ilk, they spend much of their weekends in the township.

"We enjoy the vibe in the township. It makes sense to come to Soweto to have fun, while having the option to get a pizza at Maponya Mall," says Khoza.

"We like coming here because it is better to have fun with people you grew up with in a community that understands you," says Moletsane.

Both say they are also comfortable bringing colleagues of other races to Soweto for a jol, without having to worry about their security.

They believe Soweto is safer than the suburbs, because of "the community spirit in the township".

Their friend Lucyel Morgan from neighbouring Eldorado Park thinks Soweto rocks. "I like coming here because here I can chill, have fun with friends and just be young."