The bearded man pulled down his shirt to show me the bullet’s entry wound.
“See, right there, that’s where they shot me,” he said as he pointed to a lump below his left collarbone. “But they didn’t shoot me again because I was covered in blood and they thought I was dead.”
The bearded man’s name was Khulu and he was recounting the day in 1991 when he was shot on Soweto’s sun bleached streets by white police officers. His offense? Trying to incinerate a milk delivery truck, a loathed symbol of South Africa’s then-racist state.
Soweto is indisputably South Africa’s most famous township, beginning life, like most townships, as a settlement for blacks relocated from urban areas under apartheid’s segregation laws. Located next to Johannesburg, the country’s economic heart, Soweto was at the center of “The Struggle,” as the anti-apartheid resistance is now known. Its streets, once battlegrounds marked by bullet-riddled houses, torched school buses and armored police vehicles, are now quiet. The people, however, are not, and Khulu was happy to regale me with his tales from “The Struggle.” But the brief glimpse into township life Soweto afforded melted into a fleeting memory once I returned to my school.
The university I attend lies in an upper-class neighborhood, a little bubble of affluence sitting on a hill above the city of Pietermaritzburg. It would be easy to stay here all the time and pretend that the poverty that exists in South Africa is imaginary. The fact that I could do this in a country that is a leader in global crime, poverty and HIV rates is a reminder of how effective the apartheid system was in segregating the nation, and how much of this separation remains in place.
After getting a taste of Soweto, all I wanted was to go to another township to see the stories and history of South Africa that these typically impoverished settlements tell. I got my chance a few weeks later when I began volunteering at a home for abused children in Edendale, a township not far from my school.
In the 15-minute drive it takes to get there, everything changes. The cozy houses around the campus are replaced by mud-walled huts with tin roofs, connected not by blacktop avenues but by dirt alleys lined with trash-choked gutters.
The children that greet me when I arrive in the township are not the lines of well-fed school kids that I see traipsing by the university every afternoon, wearing their matching blazers, hats and shorts. Rather, they are small and skinny and clad in a continually deteriorating wardrobe of donated and mismatched clothes that are washed in a big bathtub in the back of the center.
Most of them also bear something heavier than their clothes. All the kids are at this center because they are orphans or have been sexually abused. Some are HIV-positive.
But if I hadn’t been told these facts about them, I would have honestly never known. They’re all as energetic and resilient as any children I’d met, and the older ones profess dreams as lofty as any university student.
They seem almost as representations of the townships themselves. Yes, there is pervasive poverty, little utilities and poor sanitation in these rural areas, but the people seem neighborly and more caring than in Pietermaritzburg’s walled suburbs. There’s a sense of connectedness here, communities that managed to hang on through the clashes that typified apartheid’s last years and emerge not with bitterness, but with a defiant sort of confidence.
“The Struggle” may be over for Khulu and his comrades, but now South Africa embarks on another struggle, one to preserve the well-being of a new generation, to make sure that HIV/AIDS, poverty and unemployment do not destroy lives in ways worse than the apartheid system. This won’t involve street battles or bullet holes. What it will entail is community, caring and resilience; three things that no amount of impoverishment or abuse can totally destroy.