Soweto has come a long way, though not yet all the way

There was a public holiday in South Africa on Thursday. 

As Joe Schmidt named his Ireland side to face the wounded Springboks at Ellis Park this afternoon, the suburban Johannesburg shopping mall to which the tourists’ team hotel is attached, was abuzz with citizens making the most of their down time.

Judging by conversations this correspondent has had with locals as well as fellow journalists who were here in the same suburb of Sandton seven years previously when the British & Irish Lions pitched their tents, this is a different hubbub to post-apartheid times past, even as recently as 2009.

This is purely anecdotal but where once it was a predominantly white clientele perusing the wares of the world’s great retailing giants, there is now the significant presence of black South African consumer spending power, although the glitzy boutiques of the likes of Bulgari, Gucci, Zegna, and Burberry seemed to be there for aspirational purposes only, their floorspace seemingly void of all but staff and security officers.

Independent clothes stores with names like Billionaire and bars called L’Opulence further enhance that vibe, but the sight of 20-somethings drinking champagne in the Sandton hotel bars before they go clubbing or dining out in the restaurants around the massive mall which encloses Nelson Mandela Square suggests some black people have come a very long way since the 46-year-old apparatus of apartheid was dismantled in 1994.

Thursday’s public holiday was to celebrate Youth Day and was more than pertinent to Johannesburg and its townships.

It was inaugurated to commemorate the Soweto Uprising of 1976, making this year the 40th anniversary of the events that marked the beginning of the end for white minority rule and segregation in South Africa.

It was on June 16 that students in Soweto, an acronym for South-West Township, began marching to a rally in the township’s Orlando Stadium to protest the imposition of Afrikaan language classes alongside English in their schools.

Before they reached their destination, they were met by armed police who fired tear gas and later live ammunition into the crowds, numbered in their thousands.

Soweto has come a long way, though not yet all the way

The official death toll was 176, though some estimates reach 700, and included 13-year-old Hector Pieterson, who became the symbol of the uprising and has a memorial to the uprising dedicated in his name there.

The incidents of that day not only sparked demonstrations across the rest of South Africa but brought international revulsion to the apartheid government’s door and revitalised resistance movements.

The country has come a long way indeed since those dark days and Soweto, with a population estimated at more than 3.5m people, boasts houses which can sell for R2m (€120,000). Yet side by side, there remains widespread poverty and with it social unrest.

The Ireland team’s down day on Wednesday, the eve of Youth Day, was due to take in a guided tour of Soweto but was cancelled. The reason became clear when reports filtered through of rioting and vandalism in the township.

It was back to business inside the bubble of Camp Ireland, though, as they prepared for today’s second Test at the fabled Ellis Park.

It promises to be very different from Cape Town, not least because the game will be played some 1,700m above sea level. That is considered moderate altitude in physiological terms for sporting performance.

There are no discernible effects from just walking around at this elevation, as there would be say, in the much higher Pyrenees where you can become short of breath just climbing stairs.

But for athletes trying to excel in the most physically demanding of contact sports it is sure to make a difference. Balls travel further in this thinner air and lungs crave the more scarce oxygen.

Not much of a problem compared to those in Soweto, perhaps, but a sporting challenge like no other for this Ireland side today.


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