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Soweto History, South Africa

The history of the south west region of Johannesburg became known as Soweto and was shaped by the displacement of Native Africans from other areas under Apartheid. Blacks came from all over Africa to South Africa to work in the rich mines that were discovered around 1886 and settled in the racially separate areas on the fringes of the city.

Other areas were set apart for Blacks to the west of the city in 1918. These areas became more heavily populated during World War II when the war industry was a magnet for unskilled laborers. 1944 saw the first attempt to organize the Black community to improve housing conditions; the Sofasonke movement resulted in Blacks occupying free land and the city of Johannesburg built emergency camps in outlying areas. A hospital was built in 1941 for British soldiers, but was set aside to be used by Blacks at the war’s end and has become Soweto’s sole hospital.

The National Party came to power in 1948 and apartheid became the law of the land in South Africa. The number of Black townships located well outside white areas got bigger. In 1963, the name Soweto, formed from a composite of the beginning letters of south western townships, came into use to describe the region the Blacks occupied, the majority in abject poverty.

The Soweto Riots that began on June 16, 1976 alerted the world to the dire circumstances in this township and to apartheid in general. Large protests ensued following the government's wish to impose education in Afrikaans, spoken only by Whites, instead of English, which many Blacks could speak. The police fired on ten thousand students, shocking most of the world, causing economic sanctions to be introduced upon the areas where apartheid was practiced.  These states responded to the sanctions by offering electricity to more people, but balked at providing more, desperately needed, housing.

Soweto became independent with its own elected black officials in 1983, empowered by the Black Local Authorities Act, however, funding was not given to  improve conditions. Blacks were excluded from the Parliament and opposition to apartheid increased led by groups such as Soweto's Committee of Ten. Nelson Mandela, who was later jailed, and other activists continued to protest apartheid. Public gatherings were forbidden by the government in an attempt to regain control of the situation.

Finally, in 1990, apartheid officially came to an end and eventually Nelson Mandela was released from prison.  Soweto became part the City of Johannesburg in 2002, and unrest continues to be part of its heritage.  Bombs went off all over Soweto in 2002, thought to be orchestrated by right wing extremists, that damaged buildings and transportation, with one fatality.

Presently, Sowetan salaries continue to be about one fourth that of whites and unemployment is soaring. The problems in Soweto are currently exacerbated by the immigration of refugees from the war zones in Africa, which contributes to the overwhelming poverty. Additional friction is caused by the continuance of hostilities between the refugees who represent the various sides of the wars and also between the older residents of Soweto.

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