Walter Sisulu Square. On the right, the four-star Soweto Hotel. Photo by Thabo Mbehele.
On one side of the railroad tracks in Kliptown township, in Soweto, are crowded rows of shacks, most made with corrugated iron. On the other side is Walter Sisulu Square, where apartheid opponents signed the landmark Freedom Charter back in 1955 and which now features retail stores, banks, tour operators, office space, and a four-star hotel.
When local authorities decided to redevelop this historic square nearly eight years ago, township residents, the majority of whom live in shacks, had high hopes. They were told this would revitalize their township and create plenty of new jobs for them. However, it has turned out to be a major disappointment to many of them, benefiting chiefly people from outside the township. Meanwhile, according to our Observers, the majority of the township’s residents are unemployed; quite a few survive by finding and selling scraps of metal for recycling.
“Most people who found jobs in and around the square are not from Kliptown”
Thabo Mbhele, 21, is a youth activist who lives in Kliptown. He is heading to university to study journalism next year.
We were promised that the square would serve our community, and that it would bring us badly-needed jobs. But that is not at all what happened. Redevelopment has left the local community by the wayside. Most people – I would say at least 90 percent of the people - who found jobs in and around the square are not from Kliptown. I think this is mainly due to the fact that being from Kliptown, which is one of the poorest townships in Soweto, carries quite a stigma with it. People assume we’re all criminals. Even though we actually have quite a number of high school graduates and even young men and women with university degrees, nobody wants to hire us.When the square first opened, many locals were allowed to set up stands in the square to sell their wares. However, about two years in, the authorities decided to do some more renovation on the square, and kicked the majority of them out. Though this construction work halted early last year, they’re still not allowed back. [FRANCE 24 was unable to reach the company that manages vendor permits on Monday]. There are only a handful left to sell souvenirs to tourists.Tourists shop for souvenirs at one of the few remaining vendors' stalls on the square.Photo by Thabo Mbehele.
“On the other side of the tracks, seven to ten families have to share one portable toilet”Many tourists go on historical tours of the square, and I’ve convinced some of the official tour guides to let me take their customers on a little extension tour across the railroad tracks. I do this for free, to show them what it’s like to live here. They can see that large families live in small shacks, with spotty electricity that they steal from the other side of town, and that seven to ten families have to share one portable toilet.Locals generally don’t feel at ease in the square. If they just hang out there – maybe stand in one place for a while – security will come and ask you to leave. When they’re on the other side of the train tracks, locals feel at ease; to go to the square, if they go at all, some people will take a bath first and try to dress like they’re not from Kliptown.We should feel at home in our township. And it would be nice if some part of the square was used to improve the community for locals in some way – by setting up a library, for example, or a career centre, or a clinic, or anything! There were attempts at staging a few protests over the past few years to get more services, but it’s nearly impossible to get permits to demonstrate, and so protests are quickly scattered by police. Many people here are angry about this situation, but most have given up, realizing that this is just another broken dream.
"The square doesn't benefit locals at all"
Peter (not his real name) manages a store on Walter Sisulu square.
I grew up nearby, so I know this township well, and regularly visit with people on the other side of the tracks. And it’s true, practically nobody who works in the businesses around the square is from Kliptown.The square may be beneficial for tourists, or for business owners. Definitely for management. But it doesn’t benefit locals at all - at least not since the time when vendors stopped being allowed to set up their stands in the square. It’s a real shame.