Development Watch

Soweto’s development – an apartheid-time dream deferred

Soweto – a dream finally to become reality?

Premier David Makhura of the Gauteng government has a dream to turn the province’s erstwhile apartheid townships into centres contributing a 30% share to the provincial economy.

Reading the news of plans to invest more than R1 billion to improve the infrastructure for township economies in the next five years brought about a déjà vu moment for me. Almost 40 years ago I reported on the dream of an apartheid government minister for Soweto.

The Minister of Plural Development at the time, Dr Connie Mulder, father of the present leader of the Freedom Front Plus (Dr Pieter Mulder), somewhere early in 1978 announced his dream to turn Soweto into “one of the most beautiful cities in Africa”.

In November of 1978 Dr Mulder left government and parliament in the fall-out after the so-called information scandal (also known as Muldergate), concerning a slush fund of the Department of Information of which he was the minister until 1977.

At the end of 1978 Dr Piet Koornhof, a known ‘verligte’ (liberal) and towards the end of his life a member of the ANC, took over the portfolio of Plural Development and the dream of Soweto as one of the “most beautiful cities” in Africa.

There was one huge problem in the execution of this dream, however. Dr Koornhof did not only inherit the portfolio from Dr Mulder, he also inherited his deputy minister and the person responsible for the relevant programmes of the department, Dr Andries Treurnicht, who later became leader of the right-wing Conservative Party.

The exact date eludes me now, but it must have been early 1979, when I was asked by the holding company of the then largest retail chain in the country to approach Dr Treurnict on their behalf. They were seeking permission to develop modern shopping malls in Soweto.

Dr Treurnicht listened to my presentation with lifted eyebrows, despite the arguments that such an arrangement would relieve the pressure on shopping centres in the ‘white’ southern suburbs of Johannesburg.

And then – I remember it like yesterday – the ex-minister of religion with a religious belief in the Verwoerdian dream of separate ‘nation states’ replied: “But Mr Coetzer, we cannot do that. The people living in Soweto are only there temporarily. The time will come when they will be returning to their own homelands.”

New, old problems

Almost 40 years later, of which 20 have been under ANC rule, the ‘Mulder dream’ seems to be finally becoming reality – and some progress, especially in Soweto, has already been made.

But where it comes to development, some of the problems of a diverse society like South Africa’s are still present, with self-interest the most prominent.

In the words of Audrey Masango in a recent article in the Daily Maverick: “There is a disturbing development currently underway in the conversation about the role foreign nationals, particularly African, are to play in the South African economy. I believe it’s time for an honest conversation about foreign traders in townships.”

He also wrote: “An honest, nuanced, introspective conversation must be had about the opportunities available in the township retail trade (and) the reasons for the relative success of foreign nationals in this sector. The reasons for the inability of locals to compete with both foreign traders and large corporate retailers in our townships must be clearly understood.

“In a word, there needs to be a serious attitudinal overhaul in order to respond effectively to the unique challenges of globalisation and take advantage of a changing and inevitable commercial reality of a free market-driven marketplace on the part of local entrepreneurs.”

Name change for Soweto?

A friend last week also remarked that she finds it extremely ironical that against the background of so many name changes to get rid of ‘apartheid symbols’, the name Soweto is still around.

Few, if any, names in the country can be more symbolic of the country’s apartheid past than Soweto. The area was developed as a “resettlement” area for blacks forcibly removed from the “white-zoned” suburbs of Johannesburg and the name is a syllabic abbreviation for South Western Townships.

The process of separation pre-dates the apartheid regime and was started in 1904 when the British-controlled Johannesburg city authority removed black and Indian residents of Brickfields (today’s Newtown) to an “evacuation camp” at the Klipspruit municipal sewage farm.

Has the time not come to rename Soweto something like Freedom City or Youthville, in acknowledgement of the contribution of the student uprising of 1976 in protest against the language policy enforced by the late Dr Treurnicht?

by Piet Coetzer

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