Photo by Gary Rothstein © - Africa 2000 travelers are sobered by the lessons provided in Soweto
(contributed by Charlie Nobles)
JOHANNESBURG, S. Africa - As the bus pulled into Soweto, a historic section of this city with upwards of 4 million people crammed into 65 square miles, expensive homes lined the road. Yet within minutes, hundreds of ramshackle dwellings came into view, stuffed side by side. Little boys and girls smiled and waved as the bus went by, seemingly oblivious to the abject poverty around them.
Brooks' Bunch - a group of 39, including 20 teenagers, sponsored by Tampa Bay Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks - absorbed another healthy dose of history on Wednesday, with plenty of reality and inspiration mixed in.
Soweto is where eventual South African president Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie lived, before Mandela was sent to prison for fighting apartheid. A baby is born every 25 minutes here. The level of sanitation is woeful in big parts of the township, which has "6 or 7" millionaires left, down from a high of 23, according to a tour guide named Oupa. Electricity is still a dream for some.
Yet there are plenty of signs of hope, too. Soweto contains 87 elementary schools, 42 high schools, a university and five technical schools. The Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital is among the biggest in the world, with 3,000 beds. Capitalism thrives. One super market proudly displays a sign that says, "The symbol of black achievement."
Historically, Soweto is where the seeds of freedom were planted for blacks in South Africa. Government officials fretted that the heavy concentration of blacks in Soweto would lead to an insurrection, and they were right.
"Soweto was the engine that would drive the cause of freedom in South Africa," said Ngugi, a tour guide that led the group through Winnie Mandela's home.
He told of Winnie Mandela facing numerous government attacks after her husband was imprisoned -- once single-handedly fighting off five policemen and later surviving two bombings, two fire-bombings and much gunfire. Four of her protection dogs were killed, but not the last one, a cross between a Rottweiler and a Doberman. That dog killed the intruder making the final attempt on Mrs. Mandela's life.
"The safest place in the house was the kitchen," Ngugi said. "And she and her children slept on the floor there for years."
Brooks' Bunch especially seemed to enjoy the visit to the Mandelas' home, filled with their awards and memorabilia.
"I did my essay (to qualify for the trip) on Nelson Mandela," said De'Nedra Nieves, 16, of Tampa Blake High. "He was able to go through so much without giving up. That makes my problems look really small. Not even worth comparing, really.
"He motivates me, without him even knowing it," Nieves added. "I'm sure he's a motivator for a lot of people."
Nick Johnson, a 14-year-old at Tampa King High, said he felt a "sense of dignity and pride" going through the Mandelas' home. "To be in a house where such a great man of our time lived was special," he said. "And to be able to take pictures made it even better."
A sign on the wall in the home said, "No photos allowed," but an exception was made for Brooks' Bunch. Tour guide Gnugi, who said he has lived in America, knew of the Bucs and seemed impressed that the team's coach (Tony Dungy) and one of its best players were in the group.
The Mandelas lived - the place is now a museum -- in what the other tour guide described as the "Beverly Hills of Soweto."
But the reality of such poverty in other parts of Soweto was a sobering experience for Brooks' Bunch.
"It made me feel more thankful for things," said LaBrawn Saffold, 13, of Tampa Burns Middle School.
Added Irene Monroe, a 16-year-old at Orlando Evans High, "It made me sad to see how they live. Now I can never complain about my situation. Seeing how things are made me want to go out and help them. I want to do for them. If I had the money, I'd like to come back and build them homes and give them clothes."
Otis Cooper, 14, of Tampa's Harvard Christian Academy, had a similar feeling: "Seeing the kids made me want to stay over and help them."
Cooper also said the visit left him feeling more mature.
"I think we should take more responsibility, even as teenagers," he said. "I want to help out more around the house now. I want to clean my room and wash my clothes."
Told that his mother likely will hold him to that comment, once she sees it in print, he said, "I'm ready for it."
Tiffany Watts, 13, of Tampa Middleton Middle School, and Johnson noted that they were happy to finally see the real South Africa.
"This really is what I expected South Africa to be like," Johnson said. "Cape Town was nothing like this. It was all beautiful and scenic. Soweto is the real heart of South Africa."
Said Watts: "Cape Town and then Johannesburg looked like a lot of big cities. In Soweto, there was no doubt we were in South Africa."
Before tour guide Oupa, who speaks 17 languages, said goodbye to the group, he summed up Mandela's compelling role in bringing this country out of the Stone Age. "If not for Nelson Mandela, this country right now would probably be full of bloodshed and turmoil," he said.
After such a close-up look, Brooks' Bunch seemed to fully grasp his point.