Tag Archives: Soweto

Regina Mundi Church

img_2895When one museum is closed God opens the doors to another. I know that’s not exactly how the adage goes but it seems fitting for how we ended up at Regina Mundi Church.   We were supposed to go to the Hector Pieterson museum but it was closed. The sign said for an emergency…I’m half suspicious that it was just closed for the last of the holiday. Either way, when the guide saw that the museum was closed he thought of the church and I’m so glad he did.

We were able to rush to the church and get a tour before it closed at 5.


Our guide for the church has been giving these tours for a long time and he was perfect for our small group. He was soft-spoken but funny (grandpa joke funny). While Robben Island is called the “university” of the struggle Regina Mundi church is the “parliament” of the struggle.

Life pre-democracy did not simply mean segregation and all that goes along with that, but because life was basically outlawed for any non-white in South Africa it was a police state, even before the official “state of emergency” was declared in the 1980s.  Since the ANC (along with other political parties) was a banned organization then people found creative spaces to meet (i.e. churches).  However, the police caught on (tipped off) and became aggressive towards parishioners.  After the uprising by the high school students on June 16, 1976 the people of Soweto gathered to mourn those who were killed by police and rally for the cause that they would not die in vein.

As people were inside the police gathered outside.  People began coming out of the church confronting the police (with words and their fists raised) and the police responded with violence.  They began arresting students (people who seemed about the age of the high school students that had organized the original protest) present. Don’t misunderstand. These were not orderly arrests. Rather police were violently grabbing people by whatever part of their body they could get a hold of. Police were also using dogs, wood billy clubs, and rubber billy clubs on the protesters. The rubber ones were especially viscous because of how long the instrument was and how it would conform to the body it was being used on. The video of this is incredibly difficult to watch. One of the parents told the news crew that was there, as Soweto’s children were being driven away in the back of a police truck, “How will they ever know justice when they are being treated like this?” As I watched the video I wondered how many of those children never came home again because dying in police custody was common practice.

As we toured the church we saw bullet holes still visible in the ceiling from where the police fired into the church. We were shown two window by our tour guide which showed where bullets were fired from both inside and outside of the church.  His argument was that police were inside of the church firing on the people.  But nothing prepared me for standing in the front of the church and seeing the marble cracked and broken from the panicked people trying to escape the bullets. Imagine the crush of people it took to break marble? Standing in that space I could feel waves of emotions rushing towards us and running through us as we stood there.

On the way back to the hotel I mentioned that not fixing the church seemed like an act of defiance. Our guide quipped that they didn’t fix the church so they could make money from tours. I responded that they weren’t making money from tour groups in 1980 or 1986. Rather it reminded me of Jackie Kennedy’s famous quote after her husband, President Kennedy, was assassinated. In the plane she was still wearing the suit she’d been wearing in the motorcade as it was attacked. The pink suit had the President’s blood spattered all over it. Someone asked her if she wanted to change her clothes and she responded, “Let them see what they’ve done.” As we stood in the church with bullet holes in the ceiling and marble that had been crushed by people trying to escape the police, I imagine people from the “parliament” discussing if the church should be repaired or not and people saying “Let people see what they have done!”

We were here and we bore witness.


Meet South Africa

Meet South Africa and discover yourself.

After yesterday, I think my students feel like they are finally meeting South Africa.  Yesterday, we spent the day in Soweto and really saw the city. This was the first time I felt like I had an appreciation for the true span and scope of Soweto.  I’ve had the typical experience in the past of first the Apartheid Museum, then driving to Mandela’s house, taking a tour, and seeing the street performers who make a living from the tourist coming through. Then next it was Hector Pieterson Square.  But this time we took time to spend the day there.   The difference is like an appetizer sampler at a restaurant or sitting for a full meal.

First, I wanted to make sure we had plenty of time at the Apartheid Museum and so we blocked off 3 hours.  Our guide said that we could block off three hours and at the end of the three hours we would still want to come back another day.  I think some students definitely came away with that feeling. There’s an interview with Winnie Mandela that always amazes me. She’s asked by the interviewer if South Africa will ever have one man one vote and without a single hesitation she replied, “Yes.” Interviewer, “Who will be the first black president of South Africa?” Winnie Mandela, “Nelson Mandela.” Period. I believer this interview took place in the 1970s, when Nelson Mandela was still imprisoned on Robben Island. There were no signs then of the Apartheid government falling or letting Mandela out of prison. Her resolute response floors me.

Second, we went to lunch in Soweto at a lady’s house who does this as a business. On the itinerary it was simply labeled “lunch with locals”.  However, it was timed perfectly because I think we all needed this lunch after an intense and emotional morning at the museum.  When you’re in a museum space sometimes you only come away with the heaviness of the past. The oppressor can still reach through the exhibit and grab a hold of you and drag you back.  However, the South Africans that we meet lived through those experiences and are here, now, and looking forward.  The food was expertly prepared. The mamas were so warm and welcoming. After we finished eating we sat in the circle where we asked each other questions (the visitors and the hosts). It was an interesting dialogue. Like everyone else I’ve encountered they wanted to know about Trump…we all felt a little closer with both country’s political situation feeling disconnected from the people in the cities. By the time we left I didn’t realize we’d been there for several hours, but  I think we would have been happy to stay for several more!

The mamas talked openly to use about their experience with the xenophobic riots.  One of them had a migrant worker renting from her in 2014 when violence broke out. She said that she protected the man by telling the guys that they just were not going to harm him, period. This echos what I’d heard from Mama Aziba, when I stayed in the township in Cape Town. It was also interesting to hear how the women are all practicing Christians (some in church some not) but they all also honor/talk to their ancestors.  One lady said, “Why would I forget them? Without my ancestors I would not be here.” True for all of us. I’d asked them if they were Christian and still practiced their cultural traditions.  All of them said some degree of both. If they’d asked me I would not be able to answer the same way because my people assimilated too well.

Once the conversation reached a natural lull the mamas said that they were going to give us Zulu names.  I felt and still feel deeply uncomfortable with this. I talked to our guide about it, but communication was not clear between all the groups and it happened.  I haven’t completely sorted through the many reasons why I find this deeply problematic, but I know I will marinate on this, talk through my thoughts aloud with some friends, and write more about it later.

No matter what, when you leave South Africa you’ll be a different person than when you arrived. 

29January2014-Joburg and SOWETO

Today was our day to see a bit of Joburg-FNB staduim, the Apartheid Museum, and Nelson Mandela’s house in SOWETO.

FNB Stadium-It was a point of interest because this is where the main memorial service for Nelson Mandela was held. The one where President Obama spoke, the fake interpreter of sign-language, where it was a full-on downpour. It was also one of the stadiums used when South Africa hosted the FIFA World Cup. We were not allowed to go inside the stadium, only take pictures on the outside. We were told that we could not go in because Bruce is playing tomorrow night. One member of our group asked if this was a South African performer and the security guard said, “No, Bruce Springstein.” I thanked him for the clarification and told him that I wish I was on a first-name basis with The Boss, like he is. We took several group pictures outside, which we are getting good at assuming the position.

Next was the Apartheid Museum. *deep breath* Where to start? They did have a temporary exhibit about the life of Nelson Mandela, which was very good. Some other exhibits were under construction and so we could not see them. But the main museum was really moving (doesn’t seem like a strong enough word). When you purchase your ticket, it is issued with either a “white” or “non-white” status; my ticket designated me as non-white. It is with this status that you enter the museum and each entry is different with information applying to that group of people. I thought the designation might carry through the whole museum, like in the Holocaust museum in D.C. The museum did a good job taking visitors the history of South Africa. There was a movie made that reminded me of Birth of a Nation. They were made about the same time ad both of them served as propaganda for the white ruling class keeping power over other racial groups. The museum had scenes from this movie playing on a loop, the imagery was disturbing. The next scene that I had a visceral reaction to was a room full of nooses. These were hanging from the ceiling and there were lots of them. They symbolized the actual nooses used to hang political prisoners. This portion of the exhibit also talked about the prisoners who died in police custody. The official line was that a lost of these prisoners committed suicide while in jail, but evidence points to the police killing them. In a movie talking about the student uprising, one of the activist talked about his time in police custody. He was tortured and the police often told him, “We can kill you at any time and just say that you hung yourseld.” The bravery of student activist is amazing to me. Oh, and when I say “student activist”, I am not talking about college students. No, these students were ages 8-18. Many of them were arrested, tourtured, killed, disappeared, or fled the country.

Speaking of student activists, before we went to Mandela’s house we visited Hector Peterson Square. Hector Peterson was a student killed by police and became famous because of a picture taken of another student carrying his body with a female student walking next to him. The boy carrying his body disappeared after this incident and was never heard from again. It is suspected that he was picked up by the police and killed. The female in the picture is still alive and is an executive of the museum there in the square that commemorates the event. Unfortunately, we did not have time to go through the museum. The reason for the student uprising in 1976 was the government’s announcement that school would be taught in Afrikaans. The students widely protested this move by the government because it would be detrimental to their education. Afrikaans was not a language that many of the students knew and there was a shortage of teachers who could teach in Afrikaans, thus the students protested. The police were tipped off about the students protesting this day and were waiting for them as they walked toward Orlando Stadium. The police had their dogs with them (think Alabama and Bull Connor). As the dogs attacked the students they fought back with stones against the dogs, since the dogs are police officers (many of them out-ranking the black police officers), the police opened live fire on the students.

Where we were in SOWETO was a crossroads for the freedom fight in South Africa. Just on the other side of Hector Peterson square was the church where Desmond Tutu starting preaching, and then close by was Nelson Mandela’s house.

Nelson Mandela’s house reminded me of Lincoln’s small log cabin boyhood home in Kentucky. It is located in the SOWETO township and is a small township home. When we drove up to the home I was impressed with the businesses surrounding it. There were a couple of resteraunts, some shops, and lots of street vendors (street performers too). Everything was small, small bedrooms, small bathroom, and small cooking area. The house itself is not set-up like a lot of historical sites, where it is full of actual or replica furniture because if it was visitors could not easily walk through the house. The house is full of memorabilia though. There are plaques and declarations of support for Nelson and Winnie Mandela. It was interesting to take note of the places on display such as: Morehouse College, the State of Michagan, the City of Newark just to name a few. I’m really glad that SCSU made us read A Long Walk to Freedom before coming to South Africa. When there is so much to take in when you are visiting a country for the first time, the trip is more meaningful when you’re not getting all of this historic information for the first time.

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