Once a byword for deprivation, Soweto is changing, finds. Rapidly. Roads have been tarred, electricity introduced, water pipes laid, public transport upgraded. Writer Joonji Mdyogolo meets the decision-makers who are shaping contemporary Soweto

Words by Joonji Mdyogolo | 21 Sep, 2013

Soweto will never be free of its political history. It is written in stone, at venues like the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum in Orlando West, which commemorates the student revolt of 1976, and in Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication in Kliptown, the oldest township in Soweto, where the Freedom Charter, the founding document of South Africa’s constitution, was drawn up in 1955. An estimated 1.1 million tourists will visit these and other famous Soweto sites, including Vilakazi Street, where South Africa’s first post-apartheid president, Nelson Mandela, once lived with his former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. The increase in visitors—numbers have doubled since 2005—has changed the way Soweto is understood, by residents and visitors alike. It is also changing the economic profile of the residential neighbourhood where the Mandela’s lived in a four-roomed bungalow. Private homes along Vilakazi Street have been refurbished; there are also numerous restaurants and bed-and-breakfasts.

Vilakazi Street forms parts of a new—not uncontested—narrative about Soweto, one that speaks of a booming edge city characterised by a growing middle class who drive flashy cars and spend their surplus cash at Soweto’s Maponya Mall. A joint venture between Soweto entrepreneur Richard Maponya and Zenprop, a white-owned property development company based in Sandton, the 65,000m² Maponya Mall doubled the available retail space in Soweto overnight when it opened in 2007. Not long ago, access to basic goods and services was limited to small, poorly stocked family-operated stores and spaza shops, the alternative to which was a 45-minute commute to central Johannesburg, typically in a cramped 16-seater taxi. This is rapidly changing. Soweto has seen several new malls open in recent years, including Jabulani Mall, Protea Gardens, Bara Mall and Diepkloof Plaza. Collectively, they have increased retail floor space in Soweto from 60,000m² in 2005 to more than 220,000m² by 2011.

Further signs of a fledgling formality reshaping Soweto include the new Holiday Inn in Kliptown, as well as Maponya Motor City, a R120-million car dealership launched in 2010. Based in Orlando East, the car dealership forms part of a phased R600-million development, which, when complete, will include petrol stations and fitment centres. Change has irrevocably come to Soweto. Spearheaded by government, with big business selectively cherry picking opportunities in its wake, the effects are however limited to a certain tier of resident. I spent two weeks in Johannesburg, meeting the people whose decisions are directly influencing how Soweto is taking shape. Some of those days were spent in Soweto itself, where I grew up and lived until 2001, around the time when most of the physical change began in the township.

A product of apartheid spatial planning, Soweto occupies a tenth of the total land taken up by the City of Johannesburg, a sprawling metropolitan area covering 1,645 km². The 2011 national census revealed that 1.3-million people—or 43% of Johannesburg’s population—live in Soweto. Despite its congestion, migrants from South Africa and elsewhere, drawn to Johannesburg by the lure of jobs, continue to settle in Soweto. Patrick Lephunya, Soweto’s regional director in the city government, estimates that unregistered migrants from other parts of the continent account for about 3% of new residents, while migrants from the country’s under-developed rural areas range between 6 and 10%.

Despite improvements in infrastructure and the gloss of middle-class living suggested by the increasing spread of retail businesses, Soweto’s economic stratification remains unchanged. Up to two-thirds of Sowetans live in abject poverty: in cramped family homes, as backyard tenants, or in shack settlements. The ultra wealth is only visible in Diepkloof Extension; it is here that Soweto’s millionaire entrepreneurs, many of them taxi operators, live. Soweto’s small middle-class is scattered, but tends to congregate in areas like Protea. This living pattern was established nearly a half century ago.

“In the 1970s, lots of people lost jobs when companies started closing,” said Lephunya. “I don’t think we have recovered. In the 1960s South Africa boomed, and then it plummeted right after that—obviously Soweto could not be divorced from that.” According to Lephunya, Soweto’s middle class emerged in the 1970s and is composed of the nurses, teachers and banking staff. With their regular incomes, they were able to secure home loans and purchase homes in places like Selection Park. These homes are typically larger and better than the once for-rental government-issued “matchbox” houses that typify Soweto. This small professional class however only grew for a short period, and then flat-lined. Relaxation of apartheid-era pass laws, which restricted migration to cities, saw more rural migrants move to Johannesburg in the two final decades of white minority rule. By the 1980s shack settlements started becoming a common sight (15% of the 180 informal settlements across Johannesburg are located in Soweto).

Nearly two decades after the African National Congress (ANC) came to power in the country’s first democratic elections, in 1994, informal settlements are still a common feature in Soweto, as in many other parts of the country. Much of the ANC’s leadership was politicised in townships similar to Soweto; many know from firsthand experience the human and infrastructural neglect that typifies life in South Africa’s townships. Still, it took seven years before any development was instituted in Soweto after the ANC’s landslide victory in 1994. Until 2000, Soweto was a separate administrative region. The incorporation of Soweto into the City of Johannesburg in 2000 formed part of the ANC’s vision to integrate the area into the city, rather than letting it develop as a “city within a city”, a strategy the ANC believed would further entrench apartheid’s separatist logic.

In 2001, Amos Masondo, a member of the ANC’s former military wing and a Robben Island political prisoner (1975-81), was elected executive mayor of Johannesburg. I met Masondo, who held office until 2011, at his current offices in Luthuli House, the ANC national headquarters on Sauer Street in central Johannesburg. The years prior to his tenure as mayor were marked by intensive planning, said Masondo, name-checking many in the 15-member committee tasked with reviewing the state of the city after the 1994 elections. The committee faced an arduous task: to reconnect and fix the greater Johannesburg. State entities were in a bad financial state. “Financially it was a big problem, just throwing money into a bottomless pit,” said Masondo, offering as an example the Johannesburg Zoo. “It was clear to me that we had to do a lot of work.”

Under Masondo’s leadership, the city earmarked its first developmental project in Soweto. This decision involved debate and discussion around government’s reimagining of the townships. A key question emerged: “What is it that needed to be done to restore the dignity of each and every inhabitant?”

In 2003 the city started with a project tarring and resurfacing roads. Upgrading roads, an infrastructure that touches the life of almost every citizen of the township, helped contribute to re-instilling dignity amongst residents, said Masondo. He drew a map of Soweto on a piece of paper to illustrate his point. He painstakingly marked the three sections—east, middle and west—of the 27-neighbourhood township. The project, he explained, saw the deployment of R485-million in capital expenditure and creation of 314km of tarred road. Aside from the installation of kerbing and edging and the development of a storm-water drainage system to prevent flooding during heavy rains, the project also included the construction of cycle lanes, a first for any township in South Africa. “Nobody believed us when we started,” said Masondo. The project was completed within deadline and budget.

Masondo tells the story of a woman who thanked him for not having to worry about dust on her washing, and for not having to walk through the mud to cross the street. It might seem like an insignificant anecdote, but for Masondo, who was born in Soweto in 1953, it remains a source of pride. The project addressed the real-life needs of everyday Sowetans. Other key projects completed during Masondo’s tenure include repairs to Moroka Dam in the lead-up to the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002. A place of particular childhood significance for the former mayor, the dam’s redevelopment prefaced the Greening Soweto programme, which saw the restoration of Thokoza Park and rivers like the Klipspruit River Valley, as well as the planting of 200,000 trees on the township’s mostly barren landscape.

In a 2011 city report compiled by the Central Strategy Unit, an key operational resource based in the office of the mayor, Soweto’s redevelopment—and Masondo’s part in it—is assessed as follows: “The ten years of transformation in Soweto did not emerge from a ‘dedicated, extensive or area based’ planning process, a carefully planned sequence of steps, or ‘in accordance with a grand master plan or overarching framework’. Nor was it conceived or orchestrated by a team of officials or consultants. While the interventions and their envisaged outcomes and impacts were meticulously considered, and many technical experts involved in these processes and their implementation, these experts were not the initiators, nor the architects of the ground-breaking initiatives. This was primarily the work of Mayor Masondo and his Mayoral Committee, strongly supported by the many political structures in the region down to ward level.”

Mfaniseni Sihlongonyane, an associate professor and director of the Planning Programme in the School of Architecture at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, offers a less varnished account of Soweto’s recent history. Though lots of literature emerged about how to integrate townships into the broader city, generally speaking, offered Sihlongonyane, townships did not feature as a priority for the ANC government’s planning decisions for Johannesburg. Instead, money and effort was poured into rejuvenating the inner city. Numerous branded precincts and cultural quarters were developed in the city centre. Money was also allocated to security in a bid to lure big businesses back into the city.

According to Sihlongonyane, the only townships that received direct intervention in the years immediately after the ANC came to power were those in the Kathorus area—Kathlehong, Thokoza, Vosloorus, townships in the east of the city—in an effort to restore infrastructure and address the trauma suffered during a protracted period of violence that marked the area in the build-up to the first democratic elections. “That was Nelson Mandela’s RDP Presidential Project,” said Sihlongonyane, referring to the ANC’s socio-economic policy framework known as the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP). “Soweto as an area got no intervention.”

The meagre spending that was directed to townships was spent on housing, in keeping with the ANC’s major election promises of the time. In Soweto, tenants who had been paying rent to the municipality under a 99-year lease were told they could finally own their own homes, while in slum settlements like Mandelaville, in Diepkloof, residents were promised RDP houses.

It was only in the 2000s that townships started to receive sustained attention, although intervention was still ad hoc. According to Sihlongonyane, the private sector, driven by business opportunity not demographic needs, is playing a significant, if uneven role in transforming former townships like Soweto. He singled out Dobsonville Shopping Centre, the first mall in Soweto, as an example of investors acting on opportunity. In the few years after the 2000s there has been more considered development, conceded Sihlongonyane. Notwithstanding their symbolic significance, projects like the Soweto Theatre, for instance, which opened in May 2012, still fail to address broad-based needs.

For his part, the former mayor rates the Rea Vaya bus rapid transit (BRT) system among his most significant achievements. A major capital investment, the R10-billion project has the potential to free Sowetans from economic and spatial exclusion. The rollout of the red, blue and white Rea Vaya buses started in 2009, and gained further momentum in the lead-up to the 2010 Soccer World Cup. The clean and well-maintained BRT stations are a far cry from the congested mini-bus taxis termini familiar to most Sowetans. The Rea Vaya buses operate from 4.50am to 8pm at 20-minute intervals. Routes are however currently limited to the main roads, major tourist sites and economic hubs. Minibus taxis, a notoriously unsafe mode of transport, still play a significant role in moving across Soweto.

Taxi operators own roughly a 66% stake in the BRT service. Eric Motshwane was a taxi operator for 25 years before he became general manager of operations at Rea Vaya and a shareholder. Born in Naledi, he now lives in affluent Diepkloof Extension in a home paid for with his own money—in the past, South Africa’s white-owned banks helped buttress a racist system by prohibiting black people from accessing loans. He says when the ANC government proposed the BRT system to taxi operators in 2006 he immediately saw the benefits for the unregulated taxi industry. Many of his peers did not. Violence broke out during negotiations with government. As a key proponent for joining the BRT, Motshwane’s found himself on the wrong side of the historically fractious relationship between state and taxi industry.

In 2009 the BRT service came online. Motshwane said there have been spinoffs for everyone who accepted the change, including jobs. “Drivers are now driving buses and have better working conditions,” he said. “Taxi washers are now washing buses and have benefits, and people have moved from being mere taxi operators to shareholders.” The lives of ordinary Sowetans have also been transformed. “I can tell you of school kids—a significant number of our commuters—who have relocated to schools closer to the BRT line,” said Motshwane. Properties along the BRT route have also gained in value. It has even infiltrated popular culture. “You look at this soapie, Muvhango, and from time to time, they feature Rea Vaya in the background. The city has excelled!”

While a recognisable part of Soweto’s changing face, the impact of the BRT system on the lives of most Sowetans is minimal. Buses are only full in the morning and evening, and mostly run empty during the day. The service also has a limited reach: 5% penetration across Gauteng. Only a handful of Soweto’s taxi operators have lost customers to the service. “There are 100 taxi associations in Soweto and phase one of the BRT has only affected the routes of 10 associations,” said Motshwane. “Of the 8,000 taxis in the Soweto associations, only 600 taxis needed to be removed to accommodate the BRT.”

The BRT system will never solve the transport issues facing Soweto, argues Nkululeko Buthelezi, CEO of the South African National Taxi Council. Unlike the BRT service, the taxi industry continues to move a larger number of Sowetans to where they need to be, said Buthelezi. He criticises the BRT service as “unsustainable” and of draining the city’s financial resources.

“BRT is a mass-based transport and currently costs government more money to amass customers,” said Buthelezi. “People will continue to use taxis not because they like them, but because they are flexible and dynamic, they go whether full or not. And because, unlike the BRT, they don’t have to walk kilometres before they get to one.” He advocates for greater integration between the two transport services, offering as a model a subsidized taxi industry delivering network support to the BRT. “Government instead is focusing on a new system without using the system that exists.” Ordinary Sowetans end up being penalized. “If you need to go to the local police station or doctor, you cannot use them as the buses only run on the main roads. They are beautiful high-budget projects, but do they really address people’s needs?”

During Masondo’s tenure as mayor service delivery improved greatly in Soweto. Street lighting was introduced. Clinics were improved. Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, Africa’s biggest hospital, was also upgraded. The remodelling extended to the area surrounding the hospital, which includes a mall and taxi terminus. The area around the hospital is Soweto’s biggest node of economic activity and transport. In a bid to plug a hole that was losing the city 7-billion litres of water every month, an R880-million project to upgrade Soweto’s decaying water and sanitation infrastructure was launched in 2003. One of the most significant vestiges of apartheid, the single-sex hostel units built to accommodate migrant labourers, were also transformed: 5,300 units were turned into family units, while some were upgraded (in Diepkloof, Dube, Meadowlands, Orlando West) and those that were dilapidated beyond repair were demolished. More developments and conversions are underway at Mapetla and Nancefield hostels.

Sihlongonyane warns against confusing politicians for planners. “They get advice from elsewhere and anything that looks like development looks good,” he said. “Townships do not need to look like Melrose Arch,” he added, referring to a successful multi-use retail and business park in Johannesburg’s affluent northern suburbs. He views Vilakazi Street as a successful model of urban redevelopment that offers users “great space to engage”. Similarly, he praises reconstructed corridors like the Baragwanath transport interchange and trader market, which are safer and more vibrant.

But even the success stories, like tourism, are happenstance outcomes; it was never part of a bigger government developmental plan. In the plans that they have managed to implement, Sihlongonyane believes that government is inadvertently fulfilling the dreams of apartheid planners by completing work on this segregated city. It is unintentional, he added, but also unavoidable in the way planners were implementing models that are neither responsive to nor optimising local needs.

Thomas Thaga, the regional organiser of the South African National Civic Organisation (SANCO), offers a different view to Sihlongonyane. He praises the government’s efforts to uplift Soweto. I met Thaga in Protea Zone 4, on the southern outskirts of Soweto, at a community hall. SANCO was launching a branch of the organisation in Ward 14. “Lots has been done,” he said, gesturing to the new building we were in. The community has, however, been too grateful and disciplined, he conceded, offering that there were still grey areas regarding service delivery and housing. “It’s not balanced and this has to be highlighted,” he said. Freedom Park, for example, has homes with solar geysers, but there are also informal settlements with no electricity. Thaga spoke of plans for a march in Johannesburg: it would simultaneously celebrate the achievements of government while reminding them of their unfulfilled promises.

Housing remains a big issue in Soweto. Kliptown, where black residents of a mixed-race slum in the central city were re-housed in 1904, still houses one of the worst shack settlements. Illegal evictions are still commonplace. In 1996 backyard dwellers (renters living in one-roomed spaces behind formal homesteads) signed their names to a list that promised them RDP houses; they have been overlooked by a city government, which has focused its efforts on illegal land occupations.

“I think the elimination of informal settlements and development of housing in these specific areas could have been done better,” conceded Masondo. “One of the things that we should have done is upgrade where we could have.”

At present part of the city’s strategy is to formalise shack dwellers in-situ by providing them with services and amenities where their shacks stand, with a view to later moving them to new, purpose-built RDP homes. It is unavoidably a slow process, one mired in bureaucracy and open to corruption.

Billboards advertising popular consumer brands line Chris Hani Road, which wends its way past major developments like the Baragwanath transport interchange, newly refurbished Soweto campus of the University of Johannesburg, Maponya Mall and Thokoza Park, a popular hangout for locals. During apartheid, entrepreneurial activity was discouraged in Soweto (see David Goldblatt, p.40). While political change has allowed the Soweto’s legion of informal traders a chance to dream of bigger things, they are at a competitive disadvantage. Increasingly the business infrastructure that lines this route and other commercial hubs in Soweto is owned by existing monopolies. Lephunya estimates that large corporate entities now own about 70% of the businesses in Soweto.

Key stakeholders include the white-owned supermarket conglomerates Pick n Pay and Checkers. Multi-national entities like KFC are also entrenched. Billionaire businessman and ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa’s Shanduka Group has also entered the market. Shanduka, in partnership with McCormick Property Development, opened the Diepkloof Square at the end of 2012—its anchor tenant is Pick n Pay. The entry of big business into Soweto has significantly eroded the market share of the small and medium-sized enterprises that historically prospered in Soweto. Typically run by Sowetans, these small enterprises, many offering daily necessities at inflated prices, are shutting because they can no longer compete.

Despite these changes in retail dynamics, it remains a fact that nearly two-thirds of residents still leave Soweto to go to work. Despite its city-scale demographic Soweto is still largely a dormitory suburb. Productivity is something that largely happens elsewhere. Behind the veneer of the refurbished main roads, Soweto remains frozen in time, still poor and working class. Unemployment is rife amongst the youth. Andrew Dlamini, 23, is from Rockville. He earns a living washing cars at Thokoza Park. He matriculated in 2010 but had no money to further his studies. He started hawking fruit and vegetables before graduating to his current job. At least he is not smoking nyaope, he said, referring to the cheap psychoactive drug ravaging his peers. “I’m alright, I am moving forwards. I have lots of plans.”

It is unlikely Dlamini will ever achieve them without the intervention of government, says Churchill Mrasi, chairperson of the Greater Soweto Business Forum (GSBF). An initiative of the City of Johannesburg, the GSBF is steering a five-year economic development plan aimed at empowering local Soweto entrepreneurs in the small, micro and medium enterprises (SMME) sector. Launched in 2008, >span class="s2"> to build a productive and competitive regional economy, has however achieved few significant milestones. Mrasi blames government for not keeping to its black economic empowerment (BEE) protocols, which require big business to partner with a local black company.

“White business does not really care,” said Mrasi. He accused them on not employing Sowetans. “When they open they bring their own staff.” Soweto’s lucrative tourism industry is run by “cabals”, he added. Visitors are sold into package deals that benefit tour operators, not individual bed and breakfast owners.

Government has not been idle, responded Lephunya. “We have skills development centres all over Soweto where we are trying to up-skill people—not even up-skill, just give them basic skills. We have a project called Job Pathways, started three years ago, where we place people into a database and prioritise them when there are projects.”

He has seen some people go on to open construction companies, albeit small; generally the payoffs have been minor. It is time for Sowetans to realize that they need to innovate, insisted Lephunya. Selling vegetables on the side of the road, he said, should not be the default business plan.

Parks Tau, 41, was born and raised in the Soweto suburb of Orlando West. I met with Tau, Johannesburg’s current mayor, after he presented his budget speech in May. Tau, who holds a post-graduate diploma in public management, served in Masondo’s administration. Soweto—and indeed Johannesburg as a whole—is entering the “second phase” of its transformation, said Tau. This next step will focus on supporting economic growth. The BRT is a major driver—it will be extended to “re-stitch” a city that has been indelibly “shaped by its apartheid past”. As a consequence, Johannesburg is going to look like a construction site in the next few years.

Tau is implementing a R110-billion investment in economic nodes around the city. They include the Jabulani Precinct, a culture-led urban regeneration project in Soweto that is already well underway. Occupying over 35 hectares of land, it is composed of various housing units, office and retail spaces around the Jabulani Mall, a newly built clinic, and the Soweto Theatre. The Lufhereng-project in Dobsonville, where new tenants have already taken ownership of housing units, is a ten-year R4-billion project that, upon completion, will have 15 primary and three secondary schools, as well as more than 60 community facilities. There is also the ambitious Orlando eKhaya project, which includes upgrades to the University of Johannesburg’s Soweto Campus, a social housing project and bridge connected to Maponya Mall. These developmental nodes have been dubbed “corridors of freedom”. Each will be connected by convenient and reliable transport systems.

The BRT’s routes will also be extended to other parts of the city. “Studies show that people in lower income categories—people that earn less than R10,000—spend their money primarily on food and transport. We want to create disposable income for people,” said Tau. “We want to improve transport cost and efficiencies so people find it easier to get to work. It has to start where the highest concentration of people is, which is in Soweto.”

Tau wants Soweto to be a place where people prefer to stay, not because they can’t afford to live anywhere, but because of choice. His ambitious vision even extends to racial integration—at present Soweto has almost no white residents. This rosy future, of an integrated suburban edge city, is hard to picture. For most Sowetans, jobs and income are still elsewhere. Outsiders coming to the former township tend to cluster in familiar places: in Vilakazi Street, or at Chaf Pozi, at the iconic cooling towers in Orlando. Tau believes that the government has done well to build a solid foundation.

In 1973, Elias Vilakazi, a Soweto resident, wrote a letter to a sympathetic councillor. “Our streets are so dark,” he complained. “Do first things first,” added EN Koopedi. “Electricify Soweto streets, houses and tar the dusty streets first. Remove the cause of perpetual murders in Soweto attributed by the dark streets, for electric stoves and new smokeless stoves have murdered no one.” A lot has changed since then. There is electricity. There is water, albeit not for all. There are roads. “The government is really trying,” said Zola Musi, a 32-year-old single mother from Pimville I met. She uses the BRT to commute to work. She counts it as a significant achievement in Soweto’s transformation. “Basic services are delivered in my area—trash gets picked up all the time.” Much however remains to be done. The key challenge is this: to transform Soweto into a modern and connected living space that isn’t the culmination of the plans of its original apartheid founders

Joonji Mdyogolo is an independent editor and writer based in Cape Town. She participated in the Hubert H. Humphrey programme (2011-12) as a Fulbright Fellow.