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Soweto Shows Uneven Development After 18 Years of Democracy


The township of Soweto, a symbol of the struggles against racial discrimination in South Africa, has changed. Eighteen years after Nelson Mandela became president, some promises have not been not kept, although optimism is still present. The former ghetto has turned into a place of hope, a cultural hub where a new middle class has emerged. The road out of poverty is long, however, and challenges remain.

Tourists cycling fearlessly in Soweto are finishing up a historical tour in one of the world's most famous townships, where they are taught about life during white-minority rule, known as apartheid.

On the historic Vilakasi street, where Nobel Prize winners Mandela and Desmond Tutu used to live, we now find fancy cafés, street lights, and a wide display of luxurious cars. When he was released from prison 18 years ago, Mandela promised the Sowetans a better life. The policies of empowerment have led to a new generation determined to prove that "successful" and "Sowetans" could be compatible.

Musa Maphongwane and his business partner Amos Mtsolonga belong to the new generation of Soweto entrepreneurs. They launched a concept of a cheap gaming zone in 2006. Today, they have 11 containers with video games inside, spread out over Soweto. Local kids can come play the latest video games at cheap prices inside the containers.

"Around the township, you find that entertainment for them, is playing soccer. So we thought, maybe if we do this kind of a setup, this will bring another way of kids being able to entertain themselves," said Maphongwane.

A brief goodbye to the last group of tourists for the day, and Nkululeko Shelembe the tour guide goes back to a different Soweto, less shiny.

Just a strip of swamp separates the neat area of Pimville from the shacks of Kliptown. It is here that the freedom charter, a draft of the current South African constitution, was signed in 1955 at the height of the anti-apartheid struggle. Despite its historical importance, however, Kliptown has not benefited from the same development as other parts of Soweto.

"Kliptown is still a lower-class area. You still find people that are sharing things that are supposed to be private, like toilets, and communal water systems. You still find taps on the street," said Shelembe. "And for a fact that people are still living in tin houses or that are made of corrugated iron, that really makes it lower class for me."

Soweto, short for South West Township, is made up of 25 districts spread out over 150 square meters, and is home to 1.2 million people. Because it was diversely developed during apartheid, the post-apartheid development didn't happen at the same pace, says Wits University History Professor Noor Nieftagodien.

"There is development, but it is an uneven development. Because next to that major development, you still have extreme poverty," Nieftagodien said.

Slowly, though, change is coming to Kliptown, too. Just next to the golf course, which separates it from a more affluent area, a string of new houses recently was built to accommodate local families.

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