Updated: Friday, 18 April 2014 04:46 | By Agence France-Presse

Soweto: From bullets to BMWs

Sunday afternoon is showtime in Soweto, a time when it seems everyone in South Africa's iconic township is out on the streets strutting their stuff.


Soweto: From bullets to BMWs

A car approaches an intersection in Soweto on April 15, 2014, visible in the background is a recently built urban development - by Marco Longari

An armada of sleek German sedans -- the must-have ride for South Africa's black nouveau riche -- slithers along the well-paved roads, lapping slow-moving buses packed with camera-wielding tourists. 

"Nothing beats the experience of being among the people here," said Sandile Mashiyane, an accountant who moved out of the township five years ago. "Weekends are the best."

Young and rich "Black Diamonds" sporting the latest designer gear swig top-shelf spirits on streetside terrazas that dish up refined versions of old-time staples like mogodu -- or tripe stew.

Like no other township, Soweto has come to signify the change that has swept South Africa since landmark elections on April 27, 1994, consigned white rule to the dustbin of history.

The "South Western Townships", or Soweto, was the crucible of the anti-apartheid movement -- home to struggle stalwarts Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Cyril Ramaphosa and Tokyo Sexwale.

It was also the scene of some of South Africa's most serious political violence.

On June 16, 1976, police fired on 10,000 students protesting against having to take classes in Afrikaans -- a language that was almost universally seen as the language of the oppressor.

During the uprising as many as 200 people died, sparking a wave of international condemnation and crippling sanctions against the government.

Soweto, like many other townships, came into existence in the early 1930s as a dumping ground for black labourers.

Until the mid-1980s, resid ents were forced to carry "passbooks", restricting their access to "white" areas.

Today the neighbourhood -- while still plagued by poverty, crime and unemployment in parts -- boasts more than its fair share of golf courses, four-star hotels, equestrian centres and upscale shopping malls.

With its link to two Nobel Prize laureates -- Mandela and Tutu -- Soweto is also a tourist hotspot. 

Mandela's small red-brick house on Vilakazi Street has been converted into a museum, drawing hundreds of local and international visitors a day.

- Mansions, shacks -

"We didn't dream it was going to be like this," said 76-year-old Zodwa Kubheka, who still has vivid images of dead bodies strewn across the streets at the height of the political violence.

"Our people, they were running at night. The whites, they are shooting them. One man has died in my yard. But today I think everything is right, because you can't see that. Here in Soweto now, you're a hundred percent better."

"It was amazing for us when Mandela came out of prison... everything changed," she said, adding that she was now a proud homeowner.

In total the government and private investors have poured over $45 billion into Soweto's makeover since 1994, according to the City of Johannesburg. 

As a result, unpaved roads and unplugged homes are slowly becoming a thing of the past.

The township's residents are estimated to have a combined annual buying power of $750 million (540 million euros).

However, like elsewhere in South Africa, pockets of poverty remain. 

Two-storey mansions tower above ramshackle shacks and small asbestos-tiled houses.

According to Trevor Ngwane, a member of the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee, the development enjoyed by Soweto has introduced a "new class system" to the community.

"I'm worried about this new culture of conspicuous consumption," he said adding that it is not a "good reflection of the township".

"The truth is, away from the bling and glamour, many people are still very poor."

Dube Hostel in the heart of the township is far from that bling and glamour.

Its residents live in dilapidated and overcrowded dormitories that were created as men-only lodgings for migrant workers, but now house whole families.

They complain of neglect by city authorities.

"Our lives have not changed. Many of us here have no running water in their houses. We use paraffin for cooking," said Milton Mvelase, who arrived in Johannesburg 20 years ago.

"We don't know freedom here," he said outside the one-bedroom home he shares with his family.

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