Sleepless in Soweto, my first night here in over a year, I feel blessed to be back in South Africa.
Three years ago I had never been to this glorious, multi-faceted country with its troubled history, although when I was 17 I was selected as a volunteer for a six-month programme here which ultimately did not take place because of the uprising that inspired me to take the trip almost forty years later.
South Africa has become my second home, in great part due to my dear friend and sister Lindiwe Tshabalala, who has shared her lovely township home in Soweto with me and my companions on six occasions now. This time my husband Alan and I will only be here for a week. Previous stays have been for a month; time to settle in and take our place as part of this extraordinary community.
My first visit to South Africa was almost accidental. I was invited to Botswana to train to be a facilitator of the marvellous Virtues Project, and couldn’t afford the flight to Gaborone. So I flew to Johannesburg and caught a bus the rest of the way. Not wanting my only experience of South Africa to be the journey from the airport to the bus station, I contacted the Charter for Compassion and was introduced by email to Wendy, a CCI associate in Johannesburg.
I told Wendy I was interested to know what had become of Soweto and its inhabitants. I was a member of the Anti-Apartheid Movement in the late 1970s/early 80s, and the courage of the young Black students who rose against their brutal White oppressors greatly moved and inspired me. Later, along with the rest of the world, I followed the trajectory of Nelson Mandela from proclaimed terrorist to President, but didn’t know what had happened in Soweto since then. Wendy introduced me to Lindi by email, and there was an instant spark of recognition. Despite our differences in background, race and culture, Lindi and I were sisters from the start. An eight-day visit was planned, and my life changed forever.
I didn’t know how I would be received in the Soweto townships; a White woman from Britain, with its shameful history in the development of apartheid. I expected to encounter some hostility. I certainly did not expect to feel more welcome than I had anywhere in my 55 years on this earth.
My first day, Lindi took me exploring. As we walked up her street, with variously-adapted apartheid houses behind locked metal gates lining either side, her neighbours came to meet us, keen to shake my hand and welcome me. Some hugged me and invited me to their homes. One very old woman, speaking Zulu, pulled me close and held me for a long time. In an empassioned tone she said something which Lindi interpreted after she had gone. “Thank Mandela that a Black woman and a White woman can walk the streets of Soweto as friends”.
So it was for the rest of that visit, and the subsequent ones. I brought my daughter Fenna with me twice, and her friend Charlotte the second time. Alan accompanied me on two visits before this one. Each time we have brought extra cases full of gifts from generous people in the UK who want to connect in some way with this community about which I speak so highly. We have volunteered our time to deliver training to organisations and work with youth, and their appreciation has been humbling. But what we have received from them is greater by far.
On that first visit I asked Lindi “why am I so welcome here?” She replied “it’s Ubuntu.”
Ubutu is a Zulu/Xhosa word which has no exact English translation. Its ethos is compassion and humanity; community before self. Ubuntu recognises the connectedness between all people and encompasses many virtues, including acceptance, tolerance, generosity, friendliness and forgiveness. These formed the cornerstone of Nelson Mandela’s presidency, his message about apartheid being “we must forgive, but not forget”. Mandela was very big on Ubuntu.
Here in Soweto, Ubuntu is tangible even as it becomes endangered. Western culture is pervasive now and the “everyone for themselves” philosophy is taking hold. Crime is high and the elders despair at the unfathomable ways of many younger citizens. Still, the cultural respect of young towards old is inspiring, as is the customary way of greeting a neighbour, or even stranger.
The Zulu greeting, “Sawubona” means “I see you”, and creates a bond between any who share it. Here, in this place so different from anywhere I have ever known, I feel seen. When, many times each day, I am asked “how are you?” I feel my answer matters. Here, people take time for each other. As a British visitor with limited time, trying to work collaboratively in the townships can be frustrating as extreme lateness, and no-shows, are so common as to be expected. But priorities are different here. Community is more important than professionalism (although that is something else I’m told is changing). If a relative or neighbour is in need, a business appointment will be forgotten. If someone dies, everyone in the community contributes to their funeral and pays their respects.
Here in Soweto, strangers call me Sister, Mama, Auntie, even occasionally Granny. I am everybody’s relative, and it’s a beautiful belonging. We need Ubuntu in our Western communities. Our children need to grow up knowing they belong, and have a responsibility to each other. Our elders need to know that they are valued and revered. We need to really see each other, and care. We need to skew our priorities so that humanity has more value than self-service.
Here in Soweto, the people have so much to teach us. I thank Mandela that I happened upon this unique community when I did, and that this White woman can walk its streets as a welcome friend.