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Soweto stirs the soul

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Paul Fletcher | 21:00 UK time, Sunday, 20 June 2010

World Cup 2010: Pretoria

The Sunday morning service at the Holy Cross Anglican church in the township of Soweto was in full swing when I sheepishly appeared at the door.

I had been drawn in by the sound of singing, whooping and laughter (but no vuvuzelas) - and could not resist investigating.

I was immediately struck by the sight of a smiling, happy congregation who genuinely looked to be having a wonderful time. Moments later an old man dressed in his Sunday best appeared and invited me to join the procession working its way along the centre aisle towards the altar.

My attempts to politely refuse fell on deaf ears and I suddenly became a small part of a service that was vibrant and uplifting.

It was Father's Day and all the dads in the church headed to the front before Reverend Steve Moreo spoke to his congregation.

"All men can make babies, but not all men can make fathers," was one pearl of wisdom that met with huge approval.

My young son is 5,617 miles away in England and although I am not a religious man, to feel part of something so welcoming and inclusive on my first Father's Day almost brought a tear to my eye.

The Holy Cross church gave a warm welcomeThe church provided a warm welcome

The church was simple, even humble in its decoration, with a wooden cross above the altar - but the warmth of the atmosphere inside was priceless.

But even inside the church it was impossible to ignore the fact that the World Cup is here: running across the ceiling above the altar was a banner with the flags of all 32 competing nations.

Outside in the winter sunshine, tourists spilled out from coaches, eager to see an area soaked in history.

Across the road from the Holy Cross is the spot where 12-year-old Hector Pieterson was shot on 16 June 1976 as schoolchildren marched against a government legislation that decreed they must be taught in Afrikaans.

It was a moment that sparked riots in townships across South Africa and the Soweto uprising become an important chapter in the struggle against apartheid. It is now commemorated every year on Youth Day.

A short walk takes you to Vilakazi Street, where both Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu lived. Locals are proud to tell you that it is the only street in the world that can claim two Noble Peace Prize winners had houses within yards of each other.
The Soweto uprising in 1976 has given way to a more optimistic feeling in the townshipThe World Cup is a new chapter in the history of Soweto. Photos: AFP/Getty

Many of the tourists were clearly football supporters taking time out from following their team to learn about South Africa's troubled history - although I thought the huge inflatable kangaroo that I saw one Australian fan carrying around was a touch unnecessary.

It all had a slightly surreal feel to it and I found it difficult to process my emotions. On the one hand, it felt a little as though a place that had witnessed so much violence and struggle had become just another stop on the tourist trail.

But then again, the tourism must help the economy and it is great that people want to visit and further their understanding.

Pastor Eddie Nxumalo of the Fountain of Life Community Church in the Dobsonville area of Soweto certainly felt that the World Cup had been good for the area.

"Soweto after the World Cup is going on to the world map like never before," he said.

"Also, many of the people that have helped to build the infrastructure for the World Cup - the nearby Soccer City stadium and the improved roads - are ordinary people from Soweto and the skills they have gained will give them confidence."

Soweto is on the outskirts of Johannesburg and stands for South West Townships. The population is close to three million and is a place that has changed incredibly since the end of apartheid. It now boasts shopping malls, good restaurants and a burgeoning middle class. Many are black professionals who've succeeded in their chosen career and opted to remain in the township.

But areas of incredible poverty with huge social problems remain. Pastor Eddie told me about some of his community programmes, many of which involve people with Aids or children orphaned after their parents were killed by the disease.

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Anti-apartheid activist and long-time Soweto resident Walter Sisulu once claimed that the history of South Africa could not be understood without an understanding of Soweto.

It is a township that is changing and evolving - much like modern South Africa itself.

And Pastor Eddie, a gregarious man with a wonderful lilt, firmly believes that the entire nation will benefit from hosting the World Cup.

"There are people who say there are not any long-term benefits," he told me.

"But it is a step in the right direction because we not yet there as a nation. Racism is an ugly enemy that we need to destroy and the World Cup is a tool that helps us to do that.

"After the World Cup I am telling you that we will be a different nation altogether."

I suspect that many will disagree with him, but I thought it was wonderful to hear such optimism about the future of the Rainbow Nation.

You can follow me throughout the World Cup at


  • Comment number 1.

    Wow, Paul Fletcher. I'd written you off as a cynic before this one. A nice personal blog with an open minded approach. Good work.

  • Comment number 2.

    What a terrible couple of decisions in the Brazil game !
    Firstly the ref didn't see the hand-balls before the second goal, and then he sent Kaka off when he hadn't actually done anything
    BOTH times the reason was that he hadn't actually seen what happened,
    isn't it time for football to do as they already do in Rugby and make use of a fourth official
    If this was done the 'sending off' definitely would not have happened.
    What possible reason is there for not making use of a 4th Official ?
    (people surely want to get the decision right don't they ?)
    Also, I watched the film about the willful destruction of 'District 6' and the reactions of Gary Lineker and the others to the film. They expressed disbelief that 'the world allowed this sort of thing to happen' and did nothing to stop it.
    I have news for you Gary et al; it is happening today in Palestine.
    Why aren't you horrified about that ?
    It is always easy to look back and say how horrified you would have been, and how you would have said something.
    Well, now's your chance, what is stopping you saying something about the Israeli actions in Palestine ?
    Both Desmond Tutu and Ronnie Kasrils who fought against the South African apartheid system, say that what is going on in Palestine is apartheid, and 'much worse' than anything they ever had to deal with.
    I look forward to your comments Gary.

  • Comment number 3.

    Hey PimlicoProductions, mate.

    have they let you out in day release again? give us all a break and get back on your medication. there's a good lad.


  • Comment number 4.

    Re the ongoing BBC commentary regarding the SWC & showing the Western world the past of SA. Although necessary to inform foreigners the sad past that Blacks (and all non-white people) were subjected to in South Africa, I would like to see similar exposure regarding what non-Black people are subjected to post 1994(eg in 2010).

    By this I mean corruption, fraud, crime & then the reversal apartheid (AA/EE/BEE/BEEEEE). There are 100s of 1,000s who have been negatively impacted by this. This is unfair & blatant apartheid. Will the BBC show this side to the story? By right they have to, yet will they?

    When will the Western world wake up & realise that SA is a sham & equal (or worse) to the previous regime. All the Western Aid to Africa lands up in the wrong hands. The SWC profited a few (and those tenders are now being exposed for fraud), yet those few are now very rich. Investment in SA again profits a few (and again enriched a few). This rot has to be exposed & stop!

    I am writing this message for all kids in SA as they deserve a better life & future regardless of colour or sex (gender).

    I doubt this will be published, however wish it will for freedom of speech.

  • Comment number 5.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 6.

    How much of the poor people's income does the church take?

  • Comment number 7.

    Great blog Fletcher! the rest of Africa is proud of S.Africa's achievements.

  • Comment number 8.

    great article mate. south africas come a long way and theres still alot to be done but then again what countries doesnt have issues. the first time i visited SA i was amazed at the beauty of the country, absolutely sensational. the world cup organization has gone well thus far, hope it continues that way.
    @ normie, ur statements are fair but is exposing the country gonna do anything for people on the ground. i dnt thnk so, just mobilise to have the current govmnt voted out in the next election. its a democracy after all.

  • Comment number 9.

    Soweto is a wonderful place and I have visited it twice on my travels through South Africa. Considering all that it has been through and the love of football that obviously exists there it is such a pity that for the opening game, South Africa v Mexico, the power was turned off in the Township.

    Just another example of this World Cup not benefiting the those most in need and not helping the the poor of this beautiful country.

    ‘It was the best of times and it was the worst of times’

    In the film ‘24hour Party People’ the character Tony Wilson describes being in the Hacienda night club in Manchester at the start of the nineteen nineties as being akin being alive and young in Paris at the time of the French Revolution. Being in Soweto for South Africa’s World Cup kick off was about as special as any moment in history that I have witnessed.

    Here is a place where the people have suffered for years at the hands of a repressive regime and who have used football as an escape from those terrible trouble for years. Even the political prisoners on Robben Island used football to maintain their self respect and this provided Nelson Mandela, not a great sports fan himself, with the inspiration to back the white dominated rugby team when the oval ball World Cup was here in 1995.

    The day started with not a bang but of course a blow, on thousands of vuvuzela. At the turn of midnight the air erupted with noise and didn’t stop all day. My morning started by witnessing a typically Sowetan scene. Thirty or so grandmas came down the street singing and dancing in a way that 30 years ago was more associated with protest but today it was all about celebration.

    The next instalment of fun can via an under 13 tournament which was being played opposite the backpackers hosted by the team run from the hostel. A decent crowd of about 100 turned up to see the hostel funded team triumph in the three way competition who were then driven around the local area on top of a huge travellers bus holding aloft their trophy. A memorable day for those involved and wonderful to simply watch and to be part of. After that though it became a bit more pro active as I was challenged to arrange a rest of the world team to take on a Sowetan all-stars team - their words not mine.

    The game finished 4-4 with a forty five year old Kiwi, of all people, banging in a hat-trick that he will no doubt ever forget. Personally I took the position of centre back and was happy that none of the four goals conceded could be attributed to any of my blunders and more to the point I finished the game unscathed despite the pitch having more potholes than the Huddersfield roads following the harsh winter.

    As we walked off the pitch the atmosphere was building around the township just one hour to go to the kick-off that most if not all in Soweto had been waiting for for six years. All showered, beers in hand and BBQ on the go we were ready, the whole of Soweto was ready it was now down to the team to deliver.

    The first whistle was greeted by a chorus o vuvuzelas surely loud enough to be heard on Wembley way thousands of miles away. The game though started with the Mexicans on top and the Bafana Bafana looking more like Bristol Rovers away than the Brazilians that their bright yellow shirts mimicked. Twenty minutes in and the game became more balanced, the once nervy crowd became more boisterous and the Sowetans were getting right behind their team. “This is good must win for Madiba* (Nelson Mandela).

    Half time brought some well needed rest from all the nervous energy around the place but the conversation, criticism and arm chair coaching continued until seemingly in seconds the second half was ready to begin again. The game restarted and then within a couple of minutes it happened.

    Throughout my stay in South Africa the locals of all colours and tribes had expressed one great concern over their hosting of the World Cup; it had not been security or the stadiums being finished but power. The country suffers from a lack of electrical power and some people suffer from a lack of access to electricity, so much so that some people are even willing to risk their lives by connecting directly to overhead cables which, of course, run through the poorest areas. The problem is so great that you can see billboards in the street declaring “Stealing Power is a crime like any other!” Those people who had expressed concerns over power had told me that some areas would lose power during the games and at the start of the second half as the temperature dropped and heaters, TV’s and kettles were turned on around the country the power in Soweto failed or was cut off.

    The gasps and groans around the township did not last long though. Within minutes of the power failing word got about, from people listening on car radios that South Africa had scored, cue huge celebrations; dancing, singing and of course mass vuvuzela blowing. Even more so due to the fact that the goal scorer was one of their own; Soweto born Siphiwe Tshabalala. Perhaps the most interesting thing, at least to me, was the reaction of the people. The travellers that were around the TV’s with me were disgusted but the locals, no doubt used to this sort of thing, expressed it more simply; “this is South Africa for real, this is Soweto and this is how they treat us.”

    The party continued not diluted one drop and rumours spread from the cars that the score was now 2-0 although nobody really knew for sure and even when, after the final whistle, it became clear that the game had ended 1-1 the party continued unabated.

    Today June 16th 2010 sees South Africa play against Uruguay and is a national holiday marking the 34th anniversary of the uprisings in Soweto when school children and demonstrators were fired upon by the Apartheid regime police and Hector Pieterson a fourteen year old boy was killed. The image of his lifeless body being carried limply through streets became a symbol of the struggles.

    When the Bafana Bafana take the they will no doubt understand the significance of the day.

    I only hope that the same can be said of the power companies and that they do all that they can to make sure that the people of Soweto, robbed of so many opportunities in life, get the chance to watch their heroes for the full game on this momentous day.

    *Madiba means the source and was a name given to Mandela to recognise him as the source of hope for the black people of South Africa.

  • Comment number 10.

    In keeping with the 'spiritual' tone set by your blog about signs from above!..that photograph of the rainbow dropping into the Soccer City stadium is majestic. It could be a highly symbolic image of the Rainbow Nation's World Cup. The pot of gold at the end of it might not be the trophy itself but a sign that just maybe all the colours of the nation can come together through football. Let's hope Pastor Eddie is right.

    “Life is like a rainbow. You need both the sun and the rain to make its colors appear.”

  • Comment number 11.

    Great blog Paul, sounds like your visit to the church was a wonderful warm experience.

  • Comment number 12.

    PimlicoProductions wrote:
    Also, I watched the film about the willful destruction of 'District 6' and the reactions of Gary Lineker and the others to the film. They expressed disbelief that 'the world allowed this sort of thing to happen' and did nothing to stop it.

    I found their reaction quite genuine and moving, more than you'd expect from people who're not politicians or professional hand-wringers.

    I'm very impressed by the BBC's attempts to show a bit of the SA reality to the football public, well done.

    As to the world allowing apartheid, it was condoned by many Western governments, in secret and in public, including Britain and the US. That doesn't mean ordinary people in the West supported it, but for decades it was in the Western interest to prop up the anti-Communist white regime in SA, and so it stayed in power.

  • Comment number 13.

    normie61 wrote:
    When will the Western world wake up & realise that SA is a sham & equal (or worse) to the previous regime.


    Equal or worse to the previous regime? Really?

    You obviously have a very unsavoury agenda, fella.

  • Comment number 14.

    Now the - many thanks for the comments. Tremendous effort from Nomadic Terrier. You've obviously had to travel far and wide to get over the disappointment of losing in the play-offs!

    I think that it would be impossible to pull together the whole of the problems/moments of inspiration and hope/feelings of pessimism in one piece.

    This blog was aimed to be a snapshot of how I felt at one moment in time in one particular piece - and how it all ties in with the World Cup. I'm not really sure that it would be fair to say that there is any sort of agenda at all.

  • Comment number 15.

    Oops, pressed post comment rather than preview - obviously meant to write 'Now then' and not the rather meaningless 'Now the'.

  • Comment number 16.

    Hey its bloggers like you and the bbc that have milked this history subject for all its worth. Notice how the bbc only ever seem to interview black south african fans are their no white people their ? Im english but sometimes find it embarrassing the bbc biased coverage maybe their is some hangup about the boer war or the days of the british empire i dont know. But do you have to give us history lessons if i want that i would go to a library and rent some books.

    Stick to the football and save it for another day apartheid segregation countries poverty give it a rest. Coming from a so called 1st world country that allows people to beg on the streets and the colonial rule and enslavement by the british empire i find it a bit rich anyway rant over lol.

  • Comment number 17.

    spartansutd - you will doubtless be pleased to hear that later in the tournament the BBC bus that I am travelling around South Africa on will be stopping at Rorke's Drift, at which point I will reference in greater detail the history of that area.

  • Comment number 18.

    Some british commentators should learn to behave themselves at international events like the World Cup. One has consistently shown his ignorance and immaturity, Guy Mowbray. He always makes degrading comments on any country he does not support especially non-European countries. Could he please continue to comment on local games until his mind has developed enough to understand and cope with how diverse the world is, has been, and will increasingly become. Or better still, grow up!

  • Comment number 19.

    And not a machete-wielding gangster in sight? Must have gone to the earlier service....

  • Comment number 20.

    Since South Africa's team departed the World Cup, conventional wisdom had it that fans there are rooting for Ghana, the continent's only team remaining in the tournament.

    But actually, an enormous percentage of South Africans are rooting for the Netherlands.

    For obvious cultural reasons.

    The Netherlands is the default team to support not Ghana and certainly not England.

  • Comment number 21.

    Interesting stuff on South West Townships.

    Banner above the altar with the flags of all 32 competing nations. South Africans have made the World Cup a celebration of life. Hats off to those incredible people who keep on rewriting history.

    Nice blog Paul.

    Dr. Cajetan Coelho


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