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Pole to Pole

Day 125: Johannesburg

Michael Palin - Pole to Pole'Summer's here! Make it a good one with the Trimrite Trimmer. Only 179 rand! . . . This is High Veld Stereo on 94.95 Eff-Em . . . twenty-two to twenty-three degrees out there . . . real swimming-pool weather!'

A November Monday morning in Johannesburg. The silent skyscrapers are coming to life after the weekend and the traffic jams are growing on the freeways, like in any big city in the world. We are heading south-west, out of town, to visit somewhere quite unlike any other city in the world.

Soweto, 12 miles south-west of Johannesburg, comprises 33 townships with a population of 3.5 million people. The first buildings went up in 1933 and a competition was held to decide on a name. Verwoerdville was one of the unlikely contenders, but Soweto - South Western Township - was chosen. It's a cold and functional name for a cold and functional purpose: to house a cheap, disenfranchised workforce with which to exploit the mineral wealth of the area. That wealth, needless to say, went back into Johannesburg and not Soweto, which is why, nearly sixty years on, the contrast between the two is such a shock. The skyline of Soweto is unbroken by cover of any kind. Row upon row of basic single-storey houses sprawl across bare, unlandscaped hillsides. The streets are full of uncollected rubbish, some of which has just been set on fire where it lies. The rest blows and swirls in the wind. The stations from which hundreds of thousands of workers leave for the city each morning are currently patrolled by guards with Armalite rifles, following a spate of violent attacks on passengers. As many people as can afford it have taken to using the ubiquitous minibuses, privately owned, which cover the city. The stories of Inkatha violence are sickening. They have added to the fear in the city. As someone told me, 'When Mandela was released everyone was wearing ANC T-shirts, now you don't see any'.
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  • Series: Pole to Pole
  • Day: 125
  • Country/sea: South Africa
  • Place: Soweto
  • Book page no: 277

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