Kliptown, Soweto, was where the freedom charter was signed. It was where the struggle against racism and minority rule began. Mandela, Govan Mbeki—father of Thabo—and even Robert Mugabe, who was a student in South Africa, all hid out in the “safe houses” and “shebeens” (illegal bars and brew houses) of Kliptown.
Today the nation goes to the polls. Here there are long queues to vote, but most of the old people are not interested. When Mandela used to stand to speak, the Kliptowners would form a semicircle around him, and offering a pliable but strong line of defence from the police. I met old women who had thrown themselves forward as his human shields. They are not voting today—they have lived in squalour all their lives and are disillusioned. It is the younger people who wait in the very long queues, the young who have hope.
The housing conditions of Kliptown—away from gentrified Soweto proper—can be just as bad as anywhere in Africa. It’s a slum. Parts of the film Tsotsi were shot here. Nothing had to be dressed down for the film. It really is like that. There are a total of 100 new housing units for a community that needs, by my estimate, 40 times that number. But the community—the original dumping ground for all those who didn’t fit—is now close-knit and wants to stay together. It’s an impossible circle to square. There is no land for the houses needed. But better provision of electricity and water would help. Houses use street standpipes. A fair bit of hot wiring seems in evidence. Instead of proper plumbing there is a huge number of randomly-spaced public chemical toilets, resulting in rock festival standards of sanitiation.
When the young Mandela campaigned, Kliptown was multiethnic. Chinese merchants provided the rice and vegetables for the delegates to the freedom charter convention, while a Jewish butcher provided the meat. They’ve all gone now. I wander the streets and some of the middle-aged men mistake me for Stephen Tang, who had been their boyhood streetmate years ago and went away to be prosperous. I am greeted with open arms and express great embarrassment that I am not their old friend.