VISIT TO SOWETO_A tormented past, uncertain future Poverty, violence crowd out hopes

By MICHAEL O. ALLEN, Daily News Staff Writer | Sunday, April 10, 1994

SOWETO—Seeing this famous black township brings to mind ruins of war, of battle just done.

On nighttime approach—home to the Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, and Tswana tribes—the flames of random trash fires send millions of sparks into an eerie sky heavy with the stench of rotting animals.

This is Soweto—land of misery, despair, and heartbreak, of senseless deaths, crushing poverty, frightening crime and urban squalor.

Funeral parlor owners have the most lucrative business, the most beautiful homes and affluence that rival that of Johannesburg’s wealth white suburbs.

It was here, on the chilly winter morning of June 16, 1976, that black youths rebelled against the use of Afrikaans—“the language of the oppressor”—for their instruction in black schools.

Though that uprising started South Africa on the road to dismantling apartheid, the smoke from today’s fires hide all but glimpses of a promised land.

Behind the doors and windows in this cradle of revolution, there is some success, yes, but mostly heartbreak and a legacy of senseless death, crushing poverty, frightening crime and urban squalor.

Thamsanga and Nhlanhla Yende live in a two-story, four-bedroom brick and mortar home with manicured lawn, peach and apricot trees and a vegetable garden. About the length of two football fields away is Mandelaville—a squatter camp where thousands scratch out miserable existence.

The Yende’s home has all the amenities that most Soweto dwellings like the ones in Mandelaville still lack, including electricity.

Nhlanhla Yende is the manager at a Johannesburg insurance company. Her husband lost his drafting job three years ago when the company where he worked for 28 years closed up shop.

The couple has two sons: Linda(cq), a 21-year-old third-year law student; and Modika, 11. Yende has another son, a 26-year-old born before he met Nhlanhla, who is trying his father’s patience by refusing to “get a job and stand on his own two feet.

Last week after dinner, the family escorted three guests to an impromptu gathering across the street at Mama Rosie’s.

Rosie Papula, 68, wearing a black beret, a pink blouse and plaid skirt, recalled vividly the start of the 1976 uprising.

“I saw kids running around in the street and getting shot and killed by police,” Papula said. “The police would come, pah! pah! pah! shoot the kids, then take them away.”

Part of South Africa’s tragedy, however, is that most of the youths who led that heroic struggle, with their signature chant “Liberation before Education,” are today largely illiterate and unemployable.

Their lives are devoted to crime now, not liberation.

Yende wonders if justice in Soweto—the word means Southwest Township—will really change with the elections scheduled later this month and the official end of apartheid.

Last week, Yende attended his neighbor Henley Mohlasedi’s funeral.

A former cop, Mohlasedi had been shot eight times at a perilous intersection in the Meadowlands section of the township.

Mohlasedi had used his lifesavings to buy a schoolbus and just finished dropping off the last child when he was attacked. His family will now try to track down and kill every last one of Mohlasedi’s killers.

“See, in Soweto, going to the police is a waste of time,” Yende said. “They won’t do anything. If somebody does you wrong, you can give someone 50 Rands to fix that person for you. And they will.”

In Soweto, much of the hope for the future is the hope for a better place to live. Thinking about this, Yende worries instead about false hopes.

Yende and his parents were picked up by the government and dumped in the Diepkloof section in 1959. Other blacks were uprooted from Sophiatown and dumped in the Meadowlands.

Yende said, “They figured that by shuffling us around, we won’t have time to worry about them taking 87% of our land from us.”

Today, Soweto’s predominant housing stock remains government-built, depressingly uniform two-, three- and four-room houses that are occupied by 17 to 20 people. And squatter camps abound on open fields, with shacks made of sacks, wood, corrugated iron, cardboard, and asbestos sheets.

Yende says the Mandelaville squatters point to his home and say they will own it after the elections.

“They are saying about my house the same thing that you hear domestic workers say about homes in the northern suburbs,” he said. “Now, I know that you just don’t own a house, that you work for it. What happened is that the ANC promised people heaven and earth. And they can only deliver earth.”