/ 8 June 2009

Soweto, symbol of freedom and football

Soweto is synonymous with South Africa, a symbol of the fight for freedom. However, it is also the place where millions of black South Africans lead their daily lives, and where they play their favourite sport, football. Soweto is Soccer City.

You will seldom see an oval rugby ball on the streets of Soweto — it is largely the territory of football, a game that children play with great passion in almost any available place. The first proper South African stadium devoted only to football was built in Soweto in 1987. The Soccer City Stadium was the place where Nelson Mandela first addressed a crowd a few days after being released from prison in 1990.

Its stands have witnesses great derbies between Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates, and in 1996 they saw South Africa win the Africa Cup of Nations. In 2010, fully revamped to hold up to 94 000 spectators, it is set to host the final of the first World Cup ever played on African soil. Many of Soweto’s three to four million people — about 40% of the population of Johannesburg — dream of seeing the Bafana Bafana lift the trophy.

These are very different dreams from those that residents of Soweto had more than 30 years ago, when a student revolt triggered an uprising that was to be the beginning of the end of apartheid. In 1976, South Africa’s white government decided that Afrikaans, instead of English, should be used in schools. Black South Africans refused to adopt a language that they considered a symbol of oppression, and they went out onto the streets.

About 300 demonstrators died in Soweto on that June 16, hit by police bullets. Among them was Hector Pieterson, whose photo — bleeding to death in the arms of a comrade — went round the world and became a symbol of the fight for freedom. ”This is only the beginning,” said Winnie Mandela, then the wife of Nelson Mandela. Fourteen years later, Nelson Mandela left prison to head a political transition that was to make him South Africa’s first black president after the 1994 democratic election.

Soweto — an acronym of South Western Township — remains a huge expanse of humble, low-rise houses. Almost no white people live in this suburb, which has an unemployment rate far above the country average. However, living standards are a lot better now than they were in the revolutionary year 1976, when about 80% of the houses did not have electricity and 90% lacked running water.

Nowadays people of different levels of income live together in Soweto. Investment in infrastructure has changed the area, and young people hold ambitious dreams, like emulating Lucas Radebe — one of the neighbourhood’s celebrities — and heading to Europe to play football for a great club. For now, they will have to settle for watching the great stars of Brazil, Italy or Spain play in the Confederations Cup in Soweto. — dpa