Ubuntu: The Spirit of Soweto

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The luxury sedan seemed out of place amid the tiny tin houses that make up Motswaledi, Soweto’s most impoverished area. However, the driver, Joe Motsogi, assured our tour group we wouldn’t offend the residents. He would know. A resident of Soweto for over 60 years and the owner of JMT Tours, Joe is a Soweto expert. I know what you’re thinking. Can’t a successful business owner like Joe now get out of Soweto, the famously poverty-stricken settlement in Johannesburg, South Africa? Yes, he can. But he hasn’t, just like many of the neighborhood’s loyal residents.

Driving through Soweto, we asked Joe what it was like growing up here. He answered bluntly. There is no way to spin Soweto’s history. According to Joe, Soweto, which has a population of 1 million, exists because black South Africans were removed from their land during Apartheid and forced here with nothing.

“During Apartheid, there was a lot of civil unrest in the community—raids, riots, protests, violence and destruction,” Joe recalled. Not to be forgotten in this hatred and instability, Soweto was also the site where Hector Pieterson, one of the first victims of the 1976 Student Uprising, was viciously killed by policemen during the protest.

But, 20 years after Apartheid, the negative emotions have dissipated.

How is it possible to not hold grudges? How can anyone choose to live in a place steeped in such horrid memories and where friends and family members were killed fighting for their freedom? One word: “Ubuntu,” Joe told us, and then translated, “It means humanity or oneness.” The word is part of the Zulu phrase “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu,” which literally means, “a person is a person through other people.” The African Ubuntu philosophy is based on the idea that community is necessary to build society and we have to work together.

Joe explained this before stopping in front of a hut hidden behind clotheslines on a dirt road. He assured us we’d be safe and that residents welcome visitors. Although they were tortured and segregated by people that looked like me only 20 years ago, they were above resentment. Ubuntu.

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We walked along the rows of one-room huts, which often house many family members at a time. Joe told us this was how many black people of Johannesburg had to live for years. However, living here now is not seen as punishment. On cue, we were greeted by smiles and waves and invited into one of the very modest homes. Inside, one small window, a quilt-covered bed and backpacks hung from the ceiling. Our host, Sweetness, had a ponytail of braids and blue nail polish on her toes. She told us she works in Joburg, as Johannesburg is often called, but chooses to live here to save money for a car and her children’s education.

As we drove away, it felt as if Joe had left Soweto. Big stone mansions, seemingly plucked from gated communities towered above the shantytown. We asked Joe where we had arrived. He looked at us and smiled: “We are still in Soweto.”

Soweto isn’t only for the underprivileged anymore, we learned. Parts of the Soweto are home to wealthy working families, like Joe’s. And it isn’t only Soweto natives who live here. People move to upscale areas of Soweto, regardless of the history, because of the beautiful homes, vibrant community and proximity to downtown Joburg.

Even with the beautiful homes in front of me, I still couldn’t justify why a black South African would want to live on land they were forced to live on not so long ago. Now that they can leave, don’t they want to?

I thought that maybe the rest of the tour would give me answers. We went to the Hector Pieterson Museum, which showed Soweto during some of its darkest times through emotional videos, photographs and written accounts capturing what happened on the day of the student protests. We then headed to Nelson Mandela’s former home in the Orlando section of Soweto, which is now a museum run by one of his children. The museum features photographs of Mandela and his family, and one of Morgan Freeman, which seemed hung for Americans like me.

Toward the end of the tour, as Joe was walking us down Vilakazi Street, where Hector Pieterson was brutally shot, he casually mentioned he was one of the political activists participating in the protests June 16, 1976. He said it like it was just an afterthought. He told us that he was arrested for incitement because poor Africans in Soweto accepted bribes to give the police names of activists, including his.

One of the people on our tour asked what his torture consisted of, and without missing a beat and without contempt: “They put plastic bags over our heads, pulled nails out with pliers, electrocuted our genitals.” “They’d leave you for a few days and then come back,” he continued. He was detained without a trial for nine months, and they eventually released him because his captors had no evidence against him.

After hearing this, I had to ask how he could continue to live here after all of that, not to mention give tours based on the torture he had experienced. “Talking about these things is a healing process, people who don’t talk live with hate and contempt,” he explained. “We all had to move on for the sake of the younger generations. We cannot hold a grudge; we have to educate. We forgive, but we don’t forget. We will not compromise our humanity just because other people did years ago.”

Maggie is Paste Magazine’s assistant travel editor and an NYC-based journalist specializing in travel and entertainment.

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